Cockney Calling – A history of East London’s finest.


Posted 28/07/15
By The London Historian

Alwigh’ geezers. Blimey. I’m Hammer and Tack from me ‘olidays and been using me mince pies to take a butcher’s at those London folk knahn as Cockneys.

When you think of a Cockney the first thing you think of is the accent. Whether it’s the landlady in Eastenders, Michael Caine, or the traders down the local market, we are all familiar with the cheeky tones of East London. In fact the UK has such a massive range of accents we just about match the number of dialects in the whole of North America and Canada combined. Language experts have even claimed that cows and birds have regional accents and it’s perhaps no surprise that, given the loud and brash reputation of Cockneys, studies show that urban birds sing differently and at a higher frequency than woodland birds in an effort to penetrate the wall of constant noise produced by traffic, machines and human activity.

This successful battle to be heard above the crowd has seen Cockney ‘mugged off’ as the 4th least attractive UK accent in a 2014 YouGov poll. Considered more palatable to ear than Mancunian, Scouse and Brummie (in last place), Received Pronunciation was voted the most attractive. Evidence possibly that the elitist views towards the working class cities is still lurking within us. A reminder of the earliest origins of the word Cockney, when as far back as the 1300s the word was an insult banded about by ‘hardy country-folk’ to describe the effeminate, weak men of city upbringing. Particularly London. How very dare they.

In the Middle Ages the ‘Land of Cockaigne’ was a mystical land of plenty where there was no oppression, no division and the skies even rained cheese (imagine getting that out of your whistle and flute!). By the 1820s the utopian land of luxury was used sarcastically to describe London – the land of Cockneys, a term cemented by British composer Edward Elgar in his concert overture ‘Cockaigne (In London Town)’. But it was the travel writer Fynes Moryson who gave us the modern and far less offensive interpretation of the word Cockney when in 1617 he stated that “Londoners, and all [born] within the sound of Bow Bells, are in reproach called Cockneys”. This would have been a large area at the time and would have included far more residences that are within audible distance today. Far fewer home births and homes nearby mean that to take the old school definition of ‘Cockney’ you would need to be born in the Royal London Hospital, Guy’s Hospital and St Thomas’ Hospital – all considered within the area covered by the sound of the Bow Bells. A study conducted in 2000 estimated that Bow 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, squarely encompassing the traditional core Cockney areas of Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields,Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Clerkenwell, Aldgate, Shoreditch, Millwall, Cubitt Town, Hackney, Hoxton, Bow, Mile End, Bermondsey, East Ham, Stratford, West Ham and Plaistow. Residents of which would only be a hop, skip, or step from the eels of the Thames and the jellied eel shops that sprung up around the East End in the 18th Century, the oldest surviving of which is M. Manze at 87 Tower Bridge Road, open since 1902.

Whilst seemingly busy with physical exertion during a typical Cockney day, this energetic disposition wasn’t, or isn’t, always reflected in the way in which Cockneys deliver their words. As W. Matthews, author of Cockneys Past and Present, claims; they ‘avoid movement of the lips and jaw as far as possible’. M. MacBride (London’s Dialect) agrees that ‘the Cockneys avoid, as far as possible, any unnecessary movements of the articulating organs’. Some parts of the accent have faded out, and whilst pronouncing ‘Ask’ as ‘Ax’ and adding ‘like’ at the end of sentences may seem like a new urban way to talk, these nuances have been part of London diction for centuries.

Peter Ackroyd in his book London The Biography explains that ‘West Saxon was the language of Westminster, because of the historical link between the reigning sovereign’s household and Winchester‘. West Saxon was one of four distinct dialects of Old English. The three others were Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. West Saxon succeeded to become the first “standardised” written English (“Winchester standard”). This dialect was spoken mostly in the south and west of England, and around the important monastery atWinchester. The rediscovered ruins of Winchester Palace can be visited for free in Southwark, on the banks of the Thames. The palace was essentially the 12th century holiday home of the Bishop of Winchester and was ultimately well positioned when the Bishop needed to visit the monarch down the river at Westminster, or over at the Tower of London. Whilst West Saxon was the tongue of Westminster, a separate entity from the city in which the residents spoke largely East Saxon, similar to today’s link between the dialects of London and Essex. The nuances were slight, for example; Street was pronounced ‘strate’ in London and ‘strete’ in Westminster. This East Saxon forerunner of the Cockney language was mostly only spoken and rarely written down. It was gradually pushed aside during the fourteenth century by the more refined dialect of East and Central Midland brought along by wealthier residents from outside the city walls. You’ll be surprised at how similar the pronunciation was between sixteenth/seventeenth century London and today. Ackroyd reports that even 500 years ago ‘Taxes’ were ‘texes’, and you were ‘towled’ instead of ‘told’, ‘owlde’ instead of ‘old’, and ‘im’ and not ‘him’. The Cockneys would have told you how someone ‘sav’d ‘is bacon’, drank ‘bouze’ and ‘swop’d’ his clobber or bought it on ‘tick’ (credit).  The language can be best picked up in the works of Dickens, Shakespeare and diarists over the centuries but would most often be used to depict someone of dubious morality and standing in society.

In a snatch and grab that Oliver Twist’s Fagin would be proud, the Cockneys have stolen bits of their language from the Dutch, Spanish, Arabic, French, Italian, German and more recently African and Caribbean. It has been spoken in the markets, boxing clubs, military, drinking dens and sport arenas. Regarded as vile and common by many people over the years, you can’t deny that the cheerful demeanor that accompanies a Cockney makes you smile and etches in your memory. But do you need to be from the East End to be Cockney? Recent linguistic research suggests that the accent has migrated away from East London, out to adjoining London boroughs, the suburbs, and the Home Counties. A 2010 report by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, predicted that the Cockney accent might be dying and will disappear from London’s streets within 30 years. Kerswill believes that “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”.

You’ve had a rough ride, you Cockneys, keeping London moving at times of industrialisation, empire building and mass trade. You shouldered the brunt at the Blitz and helped London become what it is today. Although famously cheeky, and not shy of a deal to be bartered here and there, you are London through and through. This is a call to hold on to this centuries-old slice of London culture, so easily parodied or pushed aside by the self appointed ‘intellects’ over the ages. Cockney lads and lasses, London Historian salutes you.