London’s Cockney accent will be gone in 30 years

Jul 2, 2010
Jonathan Harwood

The ancient East End way of talking is being replaced by a new hybrid known as Jafaican

London's famous Cockney accent, as spoken by the likes of Michael Caine, Ray Winstone and Barbara Windsor and made famous by musicals My Fair Lady and Oliver!, is dying out and may have disappeared from the city's pubs and markets within 30 years.

In its place is a new hybrid accent, known colloquially as 'Jafaican', which has grown up in the city's immigrant communities and is made up of a mixture of English, African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian speech patterns and slang.

Paul Kerswill, a professor of sociolinguistics at Lancaster University - a long way north of the Bow Bells - says: "In much of the East End the Cockney dialect will have disappeared within another generation. People in their 40s will be the last generation to speak it."

"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," he said.

To put it simply, Londoners are now talking like Ali G and Dizzee Rascal, who was born in Bow and is technically a Cockney.

However, it is not the end of the road for Cockney, which dates back to the time of Chaucer. Speakers of the formerly much-maligned 'Estuary English' living in counties like Kent and Essex on the outskirts of the capital are now being hailed as the saviours of the historic accent.

Throughout the 20th century traditional Cockney speakers migrated out of the city centre or were relocated to new towns through slum clearance programmes. And they took their accent with them. Some historians are now making recordings of older Cockneys in these areas to save their pronunciation for posterity.

Those who replaced them in London have developed the new so-called Jafaican accent - although it still contains several features of Cockney, for example the dropped 'T' and rhyming slang.

And although the term Cockney dates back to the time of Chaucer, it is unlikely that the accent so memorably imitated by Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins has many similarities with the dialect spoken by Londoners in the 1400s.

Indeed, the word Cockney itself began life as a derogatory term used by country folk to describe effeminate and mollycoddled city-dwellers. And some defining aspects of Cockney are relatively recent innovations. Rhyming slang, for example, is only 150 years old.

The concept of Cockney has also survived previous waves of immigration and demographic change, so rather than it dying out, it could be that Jafaican becomes known as the latest incarnation of the accent.

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