REVIEW of REVIEWS

Fears Cockney Accent Spreading

Noted English Writer Claims all British Now Talk Like Londoners—Wonders What Broadcasting Will do to Speech.

ST. JOHN ERVINE October 1 1926
REVIEW of REVIEWS

Fears Cockney Accent Spreading

Noted English Writer Claims all British Now Talk Like Londoners—Wonders What Broadcasting Will do to Speech.

ST. JOHN ERVINE October 1 1926

Fears Cockney Accent Spreading

REVIEW of REVIEWS

Noted English Writer Claims all British Now Talk Like Londoners—Wonders What Broadcasting Will do to Speech.

ST. JOHN ERVINE.

THAT very entertaining writer and fine dramatist, St. John Ervine, has some very hard things to say about

what he terms “the cockney accent” in an article on standardized speech which recently he wrote for the Daily Mail. He asserts that this curious inflection of dialect is not noticeable for its coy toyings with aspirates, as most of us ignorantly have believed, but is chiefly remarkable for a flattening of the vowels, an elision of r’s and a habit of clenching the teeth when speaking. Previously Mr. Ervine had declared these bad habits the property of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Probably what Mr. Ervine would like to consider “standardized English speech” is the species of dialect employed in Ulster. He is a native of Ulster.

But this is what he has to say:

The number of people in Holland who listen to English programmes must be very considerable. The vast majority of the people who write to the British Broadcasting Council, or to persons like myself, on right pronunciation seem to be absorbingly interested in it. Many of them are shocked by the discovery that words which they habitually pronounce in one way are habitually pronounced in another way by people living only a hundred or more miles from them. The differences of pronunciation, apart from the differences of accent, are so great that inhabitants of this small island, no farther apart than Hull is from Winchester, have difficulty in understanding each other. When to this difficulty is added that caused by local accents, by the use of dialect, by fashionable affectations, by bad enunciation and by sheer ignorance it is not hard to realize why it is that when a Northumbrian meets a Southern Englishman they sometimes cannot understand each other.

I remember several years ago reading a sociological work by an American author in which he made Scotsmen drop their h’s or put them in front of words beginning with vowels. This gentleman had actually lived and worked with working men

in Scotland yet he was so bemused by the American tradition derived from Dickens that he could listen to them and believe that he heard them speaking in a way that no Scotsman ever speaks and that few Englishmen now speak.

That particular fault of speech is disappearing; it is unusual to hear “hupper” for “upper.” It will soon be rare to hear “ ’oney” for “honey.” But there are graver faults than the dropping or improper pronunciation of h’s. One could at least hear a Cockney dropping an h or unwarrantably pronouncing it. The man who said “hupper” left his auditors in no doubt about his meaning: he did not mumble. It is impossible to say “hupper” in a mumbling manner. The old-fashioned Cockney so far as his aspirates were concerned, was not inaudible. The newfashioned Cockney is.

Masses of our people now speak in what I have called a “refaned” way. They flatten their vowels, elide their r’s, and speak through their clenched teeth; and this vice is common in all grades of society. The cockney voice is as common now in Mayfair as it formerly was in Walham Green; it has spread all over the Home Counties and is beginning to spread through the Southern Counties. It began in Essex and in parts of Suffolk, but it is not staying there, and if we are not careful we shall soon have a Cockney tongue in every English head, for Cockney is an extraordinarily infectious speech. Thousands of men and women come every year from other parts of Great Britain and from Ireland to London, but none of them succeed in imposing their accents on the Metropolitan population. On the contrary, they lose their accents to some extent and their children talk like Cockneys.

Bermondsey is full of Irish families who have lost their brogues; and few things in the history of Ireland have astonished the Irish so much as the discovery that one of the Ministers of the Free State Government, bearing a most romantic Irish name spoke with a perfect Cockney accent.