The term Cockney has geographical, social and linguistic associations. Traditionally, it refers to people born within a certain area of London, that is covered by "the sound of Bow bells". It is often used to refer to working-class Londoners in the East End. Linguistically, it can refer to the accent and form of English spoken by this group.
A citizen of London, being in the country, and hearing a horse neigh, exclaimed, Lord! how that horse laughs! A by-stander telling him that noise was called Neighing, the next morning, when the cock crowed, the citizen to shew he had not forgot what was told him, cried out, Do you hear how the Cock Neighs?
Given the earlier meanings above, this story is probably apocryphal.
An alternative derivation is from the word Cockaigne, a term for a mythical luxurious country, first recorded in 1305. This was then used humorously to refer to London, and over time had a number of spellings: Cocagne, Cockayne, Cocknay and Cockney. The latter two spellings could be used to refer to both pampered children and residents of London, as to pamper or spoil a child was "to cocker" him.
The region in which "Cockneys" are thought to reside is not clearly defined. A common view is that in order to be a Cockney, one must have been born within earshot of the Bow Bells. However, the church of St Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Although the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in the Blitz, they had fallen silent on 13 June 1940 as part of the British anti-invasion preparations of World War II. Before they were replaced in 1961, there was a period when, by the "within earshot" definition, no "Bow-bell" Cockneys could be born. The use of such a literal definition produces other problems, since the area around the church is no longer residential and the noise of the area makes it unlikely that many people would be born within earshot of the bells any longer, although the Royal London Hospital, Guy's Hospital and St Thomas' Hospital are within the defined area covered by the sound of the Bow Bells. The closest maternity units were the City of London Maternity Hospital, Finsbury Square, which was bombed out during the World War II blitz, and St Bartholomew's Hospital (or Barts), whose maternity department closed in the late 1980s. The East London Maternity Hospital in Stepney, which was 2.5 miles from St Mary-le-Bow, was in use from 1884 to 1968. There is a maternity unit still in use at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. Home births were very common until the late 1960s.
A study was carried out by the city in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard, and it was estimated that the bells would have been heard six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south, and four miles to the west. According to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could once be heard from as far away as Highgate (5 miles). The association with Cockney and the East End in the public imagination may be due to many people assuming that Bow Bells are to be found in the district of Bow, rather than the lesser known St Mary-le-Bow church. Thus while all East Enders are Cockneys, not all Cockneys are East Enders.
Recent linguistic research suggests that today, certain elements of Cockney English are declining in usage within the East End of London and the accent has migrated to Outer London and the Home Counties: in London's East End, some traditional features of Cockney have been displaced by a Jamaican Creole-influenced variety popular among young Londoners (sometimes referred to as "Jafaican"), particularly, though far from exclusively, those of Afro-Caribbean descent. Nevertheless, the glottal stop, double negatives, and the vocalization of the dark L (and other features of Cockney speech), along with some rhyming slang terms are still in common usage.
An influential July 2010 report by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety, predicted that the Cockney accent will disappear from London's streets within 30 years. The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said the accent, which has been around for more than 500 years, is being replaced in London by a new hybrid language. "Cockney in the East End is now transforming itself into Multicultural London English, a new, melting-pot mixture of all those people living here who learnt English as a second language", Prof Kerswill said.
Cockney speakers have a distinctive accent and dialect, and occasionally use rhyming slang. The Survey of English Dialects took a recording from a long-time resident of Hackney, and the BBC made another recording in 1999 which showed how the accent had changed.
John Camden Hotten, in his Slang Dictionary of 1859, makes reference to "their use of a peculiar slang language" when describing the costermongers of London's East End. In terms of other slang, there are also several borrowings from Yiddish, including kosher (originally Hebrew, via Yiddish, meaning legitimate) and stumm (/ʃtʊm/ originally German, via Yiddish, meaning quiet), as well as Romany, for example wonga (meaning money, from the Romany "wanga" meaning coal), and cushty (from the Romany kushtipen, meaning good). A fake Cockney accent is sometimes called "Mockney".
As with many accents of England, Cockney is non-rhotic. A final -er is pronounced [ə] or lowered [ɐ] in broad Cockney. As with all or nearly all non-rhotic accents, the paired lexical sets commA and lettER, PALM/BATH and START, THOUGHT and NORTH/FORCE, are merged. Thus, the last syllable of words such as cheetah can be pronounced [ɐ] as well in broad Cockney.
T-glottalization: use of the glottal stop as an allophone of /t/ in various positions, including after a stressed syllable. Glottal stops also occur, albeit less frequently for /k/ and /p/, and occasionally for mid-word consonants. For example, Richard Whiteing spelt "Hyde Park" as Hy′ Par′. Like, "lie" and light can be homophones. "Clapham" as /klɛʔɛm/./t/ may also be flapped intervocalically, e.g. utter[ˈaɾɐ]. London /p, t, k/ are often aspirated in intervocalic and final environments, e.g., upper[ˈapʰɐ], utter[ˈatˢɐ], rocker[ˈɹɒkʰɐ], up[apʰ], out[ˈæə̯tˢ], rock[ɹɒkʰ], where RP is traditionally described as having the unaspirated variants. Also, in broad Cockney at least, the degree of aspiration is typically greater than in RP, and may often also involve some degree of affrication: affricatives may be encountered in initial, intervocalic, and final position.
/aɪ/ → [ɑɪ] or even [ɒɪ] in "vigorous, dialectal" Cockney. The second element may be reduced or absent (with compensatory lengthening of the first element), so that there are variants such as [ɑ̟ə~ɑ̟ː]. This means that pairs such as laugh-life, Barton-biting may become homophones: [lɑːf], [bɑːʔn̩]. But this neutralisation is an optional, recoverable one:[bɑɪʔ] "bite"
/uː/ → [əʉ] or a monophthongal [ʉː], perhaps with little lip rounding, [ɨː] or [ʊː]:[bʉːʔ] "boot"
/əʊ/ → this diphthong typically starts in the area of the London /ʌ/, [æ ̠~ɐ]. The endpoint may be [ʊ], but more commonly it is rather opener and/or lacking any lip rounding, thus being a kind of centralized [ɤ̈]. The broadest Cockney variant approaches [aʊ]:[kʰɐɤ̈ʔ] "coat"
/æ/ may be [ɛ] or [ɛɪ], with the latter occurring before voiced consonants, particularly before /d/:[bɛk] "back", [bɛːɪd] "bad"
/ɛ/ may be [eə], [eɪ], or [ɛɪ] before certain voiced consonants, particularly before /d/:[beɪd] "bed"
/ɒ/ may be a somewhat less open [ɔ]:[kʰɔʔ] "cot"
/ɑː/ has a fully back variant, qualitatively equivalent to cardinal 5, which Beaken (1971) claims characterizes "vigorous, informal" Cockney.
/ɜː/ is on occasion somewhat fronted and/or lightly rounded, giving Cockney variants such as [ɜ̟ː], [œ̈ː].
/ʌ/ → [ɐ̟] or a quality like that of cardinal 4, [a]:[dʒamʔˈtˢapʰ] "jumped up"
/ɔː/ → [oː] or a closing diphthong of the type [oʊ~ɔo] when in non-final position, with the latter variants being more common in broad Cockney:[soʊs] "sauce"-"source", [loʊd] "lord", [ˈwoʊʔə] "water"
/ɔː/ → [ɔː] or a centring diphthong of the type [ɔə~ɔwə] when in final position, with the latter variants being more common in broad Cockney; thus [sɔə] "saw"-"sore"-"soar", [lɔə] "law"-"lore", [wɔə] "war"-"wore". The diphthong is retained before inflectional endings, so that board and pause can contrast with bored[bɔəd] and paws[pʰɔəz]
/əʊ/ becomes something around [ɒʊ~ɔo] or even [aɤ] in broad Cockney before dark l. These variants are retained when the addition of a suffix turns the dark l clear. Thus a phonemic split has occurred in London English, exemplified by the minimal pair wholly[ˈhɒʊli] vs. holy[ˈhɐɤ̈li]. The development of L-vocalization (see next section) leads to further pairs such as sole-soul[sɒʊ] vs. so-sew[sɐɤ̈], bowl[bɒʊ] vs. Bow[bɐɤ̈], shoulder[ˈʃɒʊdə] vs. odour[ˈɐɤ̈də], while associated vowel neutralisations may make doll a homophone of dole, compare dough[dɐɤ̈]. All this reinforces the phonemic nature of the opposition and increases its functional load. It is now well-established in all kinds of London-flavoured accents, from broad Cockney to near-RP.
Vocalisation of dark L, hence [ˈmɪowɔː] for Millwall. The actual realization of a vocalized /l/ is influenced by surrounding vowels and it may be realized as [u], [ʊ], [o] or [ɤ]. It is also transcribed as a semivowel[w] by some linguists, e.g., Coggle and Rosewarne. Relatedly, there are many possible vowel neutralisations and absorptions in the context of a following "dark L" ([ɫ]) or its vocalised version; these include:
In broad Cockney, and to some extent in general popular London speech, a vocalised /l/ is entirely absorbed by a preceding /ɔː/: i.e., salt and sort become homophones (although the contemporary pronunciation of salt/sɒlt/ would prevent this from happening), and likewise fault-fought-fort, pause-Paul's, Morden-Malden, water-Walter. Sometimes such pairs are kept apart, in more deliberate speech at least, by a kind of length difference: [ˈmɔʊdn̩]Morden vs. [ˈmɔʊːdn̩]Malden.
A preceding /ə/ is also fully absorbed into vocalised /l/. The reflexes of earlier /əl/ and earlier /ɔː(l)/ are thus phonetically similar or identical; speakers are usually ready to treat them as the same phoneme. Thus awful can best be regarded as containing two occurrences of the same vowel, /ˈɔːfɔː/. The difference between musical and music-hall, in an H-dropping broad Cockney, is thus nothing more than a matter of stress and perhaps syllable boundaries.
With the remaining vowels a vocalised /l/ is not absorbed, but remains phonetically present as a back vocoid in such a way that /Vl/ and /V/ are kept distinct.
The clearest and best-established neutralisations are those of /ɪ~iː~ɪə/ and /ʊ~uː~ʊə/. Thus rill, reel and real fall together in Cockney as [ɹɪɤ]; while full and fool are [foʊ~fʊu] and may rhyme with cruel[ˈkʰɹʊu]. Before clear (i.e., prevocalic) /l/ the neutralisations do not usually apply, thus [ˈsɪli]silly but [ˈsɪilɪn]ceiling-sealing, [ˈfʊli]fully but [ˈfʊulɪn]fooling.
In some broader types of Cockney, the neutralisation of /ʊ~uː~ʊə/ before non-prevocalic /l/ may also involve /ɔː/, so that fall becomes homophonous with full and fool[fɔo].
The other pre-/l/ neutralisation which all investigators agree on is that of /æ~eɪ~aʊ/. Thus, Sal and sale can be merged as [sæɤ], fail and fowl as [fæɤ], and Val, vale-veil and vowel as [væɤ]. The typical pronunciation of railway is [ˈɹæʊwæɪ].
According to Siversten, /ɑː/ and /aɪ/ can also join in this neutralisation. They may on the one hand neutralise with respect to one another, so that snarl and smile rhyme, both ending [-ɑɤ], and Child's Hill is in danger of being mistaken for Charles Hill; or they may go further into a fivefold neutralisation with the one just mentioned, so that pal, pale, foul, snarl and pile all end in [-æɤ]. But these developments are evidently restricted to broad Cockney, not being found in London speech in general.
A neutralisation discussed by Beaken (1971) and Bowyer (1973), but ignored by Siversten (1960), is that of /ɒ~əʊ~ʌ/. It leads to the possibility of doll, dole and dull becoming homophonous as [dɒʊ] or [da̠ɤ]. Wells' impression is that the doll-dole neutralisation is rather widespread in London, but that involving dull less so.
One further possible neutralisation in the environment of a following non-prevocalic /l/ is that of /ɛ/ and /ɜː/, so that well and whirl become homophonous as [wɛʊ].
Cockney has been occasionally described as replacing /ɹ/ with /w/. For example, thwee (or fwee) instead of three, fwasty instead of frosty. Peter Wright, a Survey of English Dialects fieldworker, concluded that this was not a universal feature of Cockneys but that it was more common to hear this in the London area than anywhere else in Britain. This description may also be a result of mishearing the labiodental R as /w/, when it is still a distinct phoneme in Cockney.
An unstressed final -ow may be pronounced [ə]. In broad Cockney this can be lowered to [ɐ]. This is common to most traditional, Southern English dialects except for those in the West Country.
Most of the features mentioned above have, in recent years, partly spread into more general south-eastern speech, giving the accent called Estuary English; an Estuary speaker will use some but not all of the Cockney sounds.
Frequent use of the phrase to "get the hump" or "have the hump" (pronounced "'ave the 'ump", a primarily Cockney phrase that refers to being grumpy with someone else on account of feeling wronged by the other person.
Changing attitudes towards Cockney English
The Cockney accent has long been looked down upon and thought of as inferior by many. In 1909 these attitudes even received an official recognition thanks to the report of The Conference on the Teaching of English in London Elementary Schools issued by the London County Council, where it is stated that "[...] the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire". On the other hand, however, there started rising at the same time cries in defence of Cockney as, for example the following one: "The London dialect is really, especially on the South side of the Thames, a perfectly legitimate and responsible child of the old kentish tongue [...] the dialect of London North of the Thames has been shown to be one of the many varieties of the Midland or Mercian dialect, flavoured by the East Anglian variety of the same speech [...]". Since then, the Cockney accent has been more accepted as an alternative form of the English Language rather than an "inferior" one; in the 1950s the only accent to be heard on the BBC (except in entertainment programmes such as Sooty) was RP, whereas nowadays many different accents, including Cockney or ones heavily influenced by it, can be heard on the BBC. In a survey of 2000 people conducted by Coolbrands in autumn 2008, Cockney was voted equal fourth coolest accent in Britain with 7% of the votes, while The Queen's English was considered the coolest, with 20% of the votes.Brummie was voted least popular, receiving just 2%.
Spread of Cockney English
Studies have indicated that the heavy use of South East English accents on television and radio may be the cause of the spread of Cockney English since the 1960s. Cockney is more and more influential and some claim that in the future many features of the accent may become standard.
Studies have indicated that working-class adolescents in areas such as Glasgow have begun to use certain aspects of Cockney and other Anglicisms in their speech, infiltrating the traditional Glasgow patter. For example, TH-fronting is commonly found, and typical Scottish features such as the postvocalic /r/ are reduced. Research suggests the use of English speech characteristics is likely to be a result of the influence of London and South East England accents featuring heavily on television. However, such claims have been criticised.
Certain features of Cockney - Th-fronting, L-vocalization, T-glottalization, and the fronting of the GOAT and GOOSE vowels - have spread across the south-east of England and, to a lesser extent, to other areas of Britain. However, Clive Upton has noted that these features have occurred independently in some other dialects, such as TH-fronting in Yorkshire and L-vocalisation in parts of Scotland.
^This cokneys and tytyllynges..[delicati pueri] may abide no sorrow when they come to age..In this great cytees as London, York, Perusy and such..the children be so nycely and wantonly brought up..that commonly they can little good (Robert Whittington, Vulgaria (1520).)
^" ...I shall explain myself more particularly; only laying down this as a general and certain observation for the women to consider, viz. that most children's constitutions are spoiled, or at least harmed, by cockering and tenderness." Locke, John (1695). Some thoughts concerning education (Third ed.). p. 7.