Off you pop: Is cockney on its way out?

A study of young people from across South East England suggests it might be...
03 November 2023

Interview with 

Amanda Cole, University of Essex


A London taxi


New research from the University of Essex suggests that the cockney way of talking is disappearing, and new accents are beginning to dominate. Our own James Tytko, speaking one of these - Standard Southern British English or SSBE, an updated version of the way the King speaks apparently, has put together this report…

James - Language is constantly and quickly evolving. Incorporating new influences and sidelining old ones. Once spoken by people of all ages in this corner of the world, accents like cockney and Queen's English were not represented in a recent survey of 193 young people between the ages of 18 and 33 from across Southeast England and London. It seems they will soon be consigned to history. Using a computer algorithm, researchers at the University of Essex split the participants of their study into just three distinct accents - 'Estuary English,' Standard Southern British English, And last but not least, multicultural London English. How do we objectively define and categorise someone's accent and why does it matter anyway? I spoke with Amanda Cole who led the study to give us the answers.

Amanda - So some of the defining features of estuary English are quite similar to Cockney. So for instance, we found that young people, when they said words like mouth or bout, they had their tongue a bit further forward in the mouth. So it might sound more like maths or bat or Soufend. So that sort of feature. This is a feature that we find a lot in cockney, but we would find it to a greater degree in cockney that vowel would be a bit more pronounced. For standard southern British English, essentially what we're finding is something that does quite closely resemble what we would call 'receive pronunciation,' so RP, but what many people might refer to as say Queen's English or BBC English. SSPE does have some similarities with that. But again, we could kind of consider it a slightly more muted version of that. Obviously that's not a linguistically accurate term in a way to call it more muted. But if we can kind of picture it as this less extreme version of Queen's English that's closer to more regional pronunciations. Multicultural London English is a variety that has emerged first in London. It was first documented in East London and it was thought to have gone back to around the early 1980s. And it has lots of new and interesting and exciting linguistic features that are different to what we would find in other accents around the southeast.

James - You mentioned that the estuary and standard Southern English accents might be described as being less pronounced perhaps than their cockney or Queen's English ancestors. Do you think we're seeing a sort of gradual erosion of regional accents?

Amanda - I think part of what we're seeing is dialect levelling across the sort of region or a geographic space. People begin to speak more similar to each other than they would've done in previous years.

James - Dialect levelling is thought to occur as a result of the greater distances our voices travel these days, both physically and virtually, which results in greater contact and therefore integration between speaking traditions. But this is something of a two-way street.

Amanda - We can talk about dialect levelling, but that doesn't mean that new and innovative ways won't emerge. So multicultural London English is an example of that where it kind of bucks this trend of levelling.

James - In Britain, especially, I think the way you speak has a bearing on how you are perceived by some people. And was that something you were interested in, in this study into accents in the Southeast?

Amanda - Yeah, definitely. The fact that we're saying that maybe cockney and Queen's English aren't as common as they were isn't a problem. It's okay for accents to change. This can kind of lead to these ideas that English is going to the dogs, that English is decaying, that people aren't speaking it correctly anymore. And these ideas are all false. There's no inherently correct way of speaking. There's no logical or scientific way that a person can configure their mouth and make sounds that are inherently any better than any other way of speaking. That's all a social construct. The way that we talk reflects who we are. It reflects our class, it reflects our ethnicity, it reflects where we're from. And we shouldn't expect anyone to have to kind of leave that at the door and speak in a certain way. We should be promoting and accepting linguistic diversity.


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