Author logo Estuary English - dialect and accent

Introduction
Estuary English and language study
The sociolinguistics of modern RP
The death of RP?
A competitor for RP?
New dialect and accent regions
Further comments on Estuary English
Further reading

Introduction

This web page is intended for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science.

The two learned articles on this page are by Peter Trudgill and Paul Coggle. They appeared in an online discussion, hosted by The English Language List. The discussion began with a request from a teacher for information about features of English as spoken in Peckham, South London. In responding to this, I raised the question whether “Estuary English” is a helpful name for linguists to use, suggesting that it might not identify a coherent language variety, and that it might be as ephemeral (short-lived) as the affectation of Liverpudlian English which marked the period of Beatlemania in the mid 1960s - where is it now?

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Peter Trudgill's response was to give a scholarly explanation of the phonology of “Estuary English”, drawn from his book, Sociolinguistic Variation and Change. This explanation appears as the first commentary below. In the second commentary, Paul Coggle adds some helpful caveats. I am very grateful to both of these experts in the subject for allowing me to reproduce their work here. I hope that teachers and students will take up Paul Coggle's challenge - to find out what is currently happening to demotic English in (and perhaps beyond) the UK.

These commentaries focus on the sounds of regional English - naturally, since Peter Trudgill describes “Estuary English” not as a variety (which would have its own lexical and semantic features) but as “the lower middle-class accents of the Home Counties”. Perhaps other contributors will add comment on lexis and semantics: do speakers in the regions have distinctive word hoards or distinctive meanings for lexemes in the wider lexicon? And are there distinctive constructions - do Eastenders really say “Leave it aht” or is this an invention of TV dramatists? Have you noticed evidence to support or controvert Professor Trudgill's general theory of lexical convergence and phonological divergence?

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Estuary English and language study

“Estuary English”, whatever it is or is not, is evidence of language change in the field of sociolinguistics (language and society, in some Advanced level courses). Journalists and cultural commentators like to give names to social trends or groups, which they often categorize by characteristic language uses. Think of the Yuppie, Sloane Ranger or Hooray Henry of the 1980s. Language change is an objective fact - some commentators bemoan or welcome it, or use it as source material for comedy. But the language scientist will try to record particular changes, and if possible understand them within broader theories of historical change and sociolinguistics, or models for describing language varieties. With such trends as “Estuary English” we may want to discover if they are relatively unstable and ephemeral or radical and permanent.

“Estuary English” is a name given to an alleged variety of spoken English. In studying spoken data in an investigation, you may note some features which are included in descriptions of “Estuary English”. This does not, in itself, make “Estuary English” a coherent and distinct variety of English. When you have studied Peter Trudgill's explanation and Paul Coggle's comments, you should be able to form an educated view. Pay attention to the very specific phonological evidence introduced by both writers (phonetic symbols should appear in red). If you intend to discuss “Estuary English” in an exam or piece of coursework, you may use this evidence, but make sure you understand it first. If you wish to add your comments to the debate, please send them to me.

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The sociolinguistics of modern RP

Peter Trudgill; Professor of English Linguistics; University of Fribourg

This is reproduced, with the author's permission, from Professor Trudgill's Sociolinguistic Variation and Change; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001; Chapter 16: The Sociolinguistics of modern RP (extract).

The death of RP?

It is necessary to be sceptical about reports of two different types that appear to be rather common anecdotally, especially on the part of journalists in need of something to write about. The first is that RP is disappearing. The second is that RP is being replaced by a new, potentially non-regional accent. I will now discuss these two scenarios, which are largely myths, in turn.

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There seem to be a number of reasons for the erroneous but understandable misperception that RP is disappearing.

  • First, non-RP accents are now found, as we have already noted, in situations from which they would have been excluded only a few decades ago. It is therefore easy to gain an impression that there are fewer RP speakers than formerly.
  • Secondly, the kind of people who in earlier generations would have been speakers of adoptive RP no longer are, as we have already observed. So there actually are fewer RP speakers, though not necessarily fewer native speakers.
  • Thirdly, RP itself, again as we have already seen, has changed. It has acquired - as it always has over the generations - forms that before were part of local, notably southeast of England accents.

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This is what leads journalists to report that Public School pupils now “speak Cockney”. It is true that RP now admits certain types of /t/-glottaling which were formerly associated with local accents only - but that most certainly does not mean that it is Cockney. This perception resembles the belief now current in my own home city, Norwich, where older people frequently complain that the youngsters “talk like Londoners”. When asked why they say this, they invariably reply: “Young people say fing instead of thing”. This is quite true (see Chapter 6) but otherwise they still sound as Norwich people have sounded for decades. One salient phonological feature can lead to utterly inaccurate stereotypical reports.

As far as RP is concerned, the ongoing work of Fabricius* (2000) shows that the younger generations of those sections of the community one would expect to be RP speakers still are RP speakers. Pupils at Eton, and undergraduates at Cambridge University who are former pupils at the big Public Schools, are still for the most part RP speakers. Their RP has some new features, but these features are all, including /t/-glottaling, non-regional features and therefore must still be considered as being RP. (Non-regionality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a feature to be considered RP. For instance, if all regions of England were to acquire /h/-dropping, something which will actually happen if, as seems possible, this phenomenon eventually reaches the northeast of England, that would not make it an RP feature!)

*Fabricius, Anne H. (2000) T-glottaling between stigma and prestige: a sociolinguistic study of modern RP. Unpublished, Copenhagen Business School PhD thesis.

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A competitor for RP?

As far as the second myth is concerned, this has to do with the development of so-called “Estuary English”. This is an inaccurate term which, however, has become widely accepted. It is inaccurate because it suggests that we are talking about a new variety, which we are not; and because it suggests that it is a variety of English confined to the banks of the Thames Estuary, which it is not. The label actually refers to the lower middle-class accents of the Home Counties which surround London: Essex and Kent, which do border on the Thames Estuary, but also parts or all of Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire, which do not. Early “descriptions” using this label were by non-linguists. However, as described by John Wells, and by Altendorf (1999), “Estuary English” has obvious southeast of England features such as diphthong-shift, /l/-vocalisation and merger of vowels before /l/, but it does not have features typical of working-class accents only, such as TH-fronting.

It is easy to obtain an impression from reading some of the commentators that “Estuary English” is advancing on all fronts. I would like to dispute this, in some measure. There are a number of explanatory factors for this perception.

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First, as we have already seen, many people who in earlier generations would have become speakers of adoptive RP no longer become so. People who are upwardly socially mobile or who come into the public eye may still in fact reduce the number of regional features in their accents - they will move themselves up the triangle, as it were - but they will no longer remove all such features. It is therefore undoubtedly true that many more people than was formerly the case can be heard in public situations, especially in the media, speaking with lower middle-class regional accents . And of course the most prominent of these are from the southeast of England,

  • (a) because this is the largest region of England in terms of population, and
  • (b) because there is a considerable metropolitan bias in the media, with most nationally available media being broadcast from or published in London.

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Secondly, there has been a certain amount of upward social mobility in the last twenty years which has found people from lower middle-class backgrounds in socially prominent positions in which it would have been unusual to find them previously.

Thirdly, at least some of the phonological features associated with “Estuary English” are currently spreading, as London-based features have done for centuries, outwards into surrounding areas. In East Anglia, for example, /l/-vocalisation has not yet reached Norwich, but, as discussed (with maps) in Trudgill* (1986), it reached Cambridge and Colchester some decades ago and is beginning to affect Ipswich. It is therefore undoubtedly the case that lower-middle-class southeastern accents cover a wider geographical area than was formerly the case, and will probably continue to spread for some time to come.

*Trudgill, P (1986). Dialects in Contact; Oxford: Blackwell.

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What I would strenuously dispute, however, is that this means that “Estuary English” is going to be the “new RP”. It is unlikely that it will ever become anything more than a regional accent, albeit the accent of a rather large region covering, together with its lower-class counterparts, the Home Counties plus, probably, Sussex, Hampshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and parts of Northamptonshire. The sociolinguistic conditions are not such that it could turn into the new RP. There is no parallel here to the nationwide network of residential Public Schools which gave rise to RP. What we know about the geographical diffusion of linguistic innovations, moreover, indicates that there is no way in which the influence of London is going to be able to counteract the influence of large centres such as Liverpool and Newcastle which are at some distance from London. And we also know that linguistic innovations are not spread by radio and television (see Trudgill, 1986).

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Reports that a few individual features such as TH-fronting are spreading across Britain northwards and westwards from London, though undoubtedly true, do not invalidate this point. This spreading of individual features is something which has always happened, and in any case TH-fronting is not to be considered an “Estuary English” feature. The fact that young people in Cardiff are now using /t/-glottaling does not mean that they are speaking London English, or RP. And the fact that young people in Sheffield are now using TH-fronting does not mean that they are speaking Cockney. As anyone who has been to Sheffield recently can attest, people there do not sound remotely like Cockneys - or even like “Estuary English” speakers.

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New dialect and accent regions

The geographical spread of “Estuary English” is part of a much bigger trend. What is happening in Britain, and probably not only in there, as far as regional linguistic variation is concerned, is rather complicated. On the one hand, much regional variation is being lost as the large number of Traditional Dialects covering small geographical areas gradually disappear from most, though by no means all, parts of the country. These, however, are being replaced by a much smaller number of new Modern Dialect areas covering much larger areas. The dialects and accents associated with these areas are much less different from one another, and much less different from RP and Standard English, than the Traditional Dialects were. However, and this is crucial, in terms of phonology they are for the most part currently diverging, not converging. Parallel to the development of a large dialect region centred on London, whose lower middle-class accents have been referred to as “Estuary English”, we are seeing the development of similar areas elsewhere, as yet not much studied by linguists, focussing on centres such as Belfast, Dublin, Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle, Nottingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.

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Lesley Milroy, for instance, has reported the development of a levelled but clearly regional variety currently diffusing outwards from Newcastle. (Mats Thelander reported similar developments 20 years ago now from northern Sweden.) And Dominic Watt reports the widespread development in a large area of the north of England focussed on Leeds of a newer GOAT-vowel [ø:] replacing older [o:] and [ò:].

London-based journalists have of course not noticed this kind of development, but this is no reason for linguists to ignore it. I would therefore argue that to focus pedagogically on one of the newer, larger regional accents of British English to the detriment of all the others, just because it happens to be spoken in London, would be, it seems to me, the worst kind of metropolitan bias, of which there is far too much in Britain already.

From Peter Trudgill: Sociolinguistic Variation and Change; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001; Chapter 16: “The sociolinguistics of modern RP” (extract)

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Further comments on “Estuary English”

Paul Coggle, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Kent at Canterbury, England

I read with interest the paper Peter Trudgill has just circulated on “Estuary English”. I should like to make just a couple of comments.

Firstly, “Estuary English” never was a good name, but we are stuck with it. As Professor Trudgill himself says “Received Pronunciation” is not that good a label, either.

Secondly, whilst “Estuary English” may be the accent of the lower middle classes in the Greater London and Home Counties areas, it is used by some younger people from upper class backgrounds. If, as is nowadays sometimes the case, upper class parents have sent their children to the local comprehensive, the difference in accent between the parents and the children (at least when the children are speaking to their peer group) is enormous. One might argue that the children have become lower middle class, but this is not necessarily the case.

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Thirdly, to argue that EE would replace RP has always been an extreme position. My own position is that EE would probably influence the speech of power-holders in the Greater London area, and indeed that some EE speakers would become power-holders. In this way the speech of power-holders in the capital (which in the case of England, and some would say the UK has been and still is the major seat of power). This is, I would argue, actually happening, though the research has not yet been done to prove it. But examples of EE power-holders do spring to mind (Greg Dyke, Jamie Shea). What we refer to as RP has of course changed greatly over the last 50 years, anyway. This process will continue.

Fourthly, TH-fronting does seem to be on the increase in the Greater London/ Home Counties area. When I first started teaching at the University of Kent in the 60s, I never encountered this phenomenon amongst my students. By the late 90s it was still relatively rare, but by no means unknown. Whether one therefore claims that more students are using Cockney features or whether one claims that EE is moving even closer to Cockney is a matter for debate. (One does have to be a bit careful on this, since admission to universities has greatly widened during the period mentioned.)

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Finally, I accept all the other points that Peter Trudgill makes, in particular the one about divergence. I also accept that very interesting phenomena are occurring in other areas than Greater London. I understand his resentment at the way in which journalists oversimplify linguistic issues. I have been equally frustrated on many occasions.

What I really hope for from this note is that more young scholars will become interested in this debate and will be inspired to undertake much-needed research not only in the Greater-London area, but in all areas of the UK.

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Further reading

  • Peter Trudgill (2001): Sociolinguistic Variation and Change; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Peter Trudgill (1999): The Dialects of England; Second edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Peter Trudgill (1986): Dialects in Contact; Oxford: Blackwell.
  • The Estuary English website:
    http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/home.htm

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© Peter Trudgill, Paul Coggle, Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me

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