Created | Updated Jan 16, 2012
Estuary English is a name given to the form of English widely spoken in and around London and, more generally, in the southeast of England and along the river Thames and its estuary. It is defined as a variant of Standard British English, using some non-standard grammatical forms and some divergences from Received Pronunciation.
David Rosewarne originated the term Estuary English (EE) in a ground-breaking article published in 1984 in the London edition of The Times Educational Supplement1.
Rosewarne's definition follows:
'Estuary English' is a variety of modified regional speech. It is a mixture of non-regional and local south-eastern English pronunciation and intonation. If one imagines a continuum with Received Pronunciation (RP) and London speech at either end, 'Estuary English' speakers are to be found grouped in the middle ground.
Received Pronunciation, henceforth abbreviated to RP, is an accepted standard accent of British English. RP has in the past been regarded as a high prestige accent, though less so in recent times. It is the accent which is most frequently used as a model for teaching English as a second or foreign language. Similarly, it is widely used as the standard in the classroom, particularly in the context of Higher Education. By contrast, some have estimated that as little as 2% of native speakers actually speak RP in private. RP is a subject in itself and is only described here in order to make clear the contrast between RP and Estuary English.
The heartland of Estuary English lies by the banks of the Thames and its estuary, but it also seems to be the most influential accent in the south-east of England. It is to be heard on the front and back benches of the House of Commons and is used by some members of the Lords, whether life or hereditary peers. It is well established in the City, business circles, the Civil Service, local government, the media, advertising as well as the medical and teaching professions in the south-east.
'Estuary English' is in a strong position to exert influence on the pronunciation of the future.
The following list is not comprehensive and does not intend to apply to all speakers of Estuary English. Some speakers may stray only slightly from RP, drifting into something like a mild Estuary English from time to time, depending on circumstances. Others who could not really be defined as cockneys nonetheless sit just to the EE side of the dividing line and might be frowned upon in, for instance, an academic context. Equally, many native speakers can vary their register so much that they can sway almost from one end of the scale to the other in a matter of minutes. The thing to bear in mind here is the image of a continuum between RP and London/Cockney English.
On the level of individual sounds, or phonemes2, 'Estuary English' is a mixture of 'London' and General RP forms.
There is a rise fall intonation which is characteristic of 'Estuary English' as is a greater use of question tags such is 'isn't it?' and 'don't I?' than in RP.
A Glo'al Wo'?
Most native speakers of English produce innumerable glottal stops every day without an effort or any need to know what it is called. What's more, many staunch defenders of spoken English regard the glottal stop as their most fearsome enemy. Is it a letter? No. Is it nothing at all? No, it's not that either actually. Well what is it then? It's the 'sound' that is produced when you block off the air in the back of your throat (with a clever little thing called your glottis) and let go again, producing a kind of almost audible pause, often replacing a final 't' or a post-vocalic 't' (righ' for right or wa'er for water).
Think of the difference between something a Cockney eats his dinner off - a pla'e - and the standard pronunciation of what you go to see at the theatre - a play. When you say 'Gatwick Airport', you may really be saying Ga'wick Airpor'. Many native speakers are becoming more comfortable with 'dropping' a certain number of 't's, although most would still pronounce a 't' that comes between two vowels - thus city, not ci'y. If you find yourself dropping a 't' in the middle of a short word like this, you have gone 'beyond EE'!
'Th-fronting' describes what happens in words like 'brother' or 'rather' which are pronounced bruvver and rah-ver respectively.
'Vowel fronting' means producing some vowels and diphthongs differently to RP, which can lead to homophones like: way- why , say- sigh, pulls-pools-Paul's (- pause).
Estuary English also embraces the vocalisation of dark /l/, which sound terribly technical but is essentially very simple. If you watch UK television, you only have to think of The Bill, pronounced The Biw! Another evocative one is the 'l' in 'milk', which in turn becomes 'miwk'. Or think of any of the baddies in the innumerable London gangster films saying Wew3, wew, wew. Wha' 'ave we 'ere, then?
The Coalesence of Yod
No, it's not the name of an HP Lovecraft novel, it's actually rather less obscure than it might sound, and most native English speakers will find it very familiar indeed. There is a phoneme in RP written phonetically as /j/ and used to indicate the 'y' sound that comes at the beginning of the word 'you' and in the middle of the word 'gradual'. Or does it?
The proverbial 'Cockney' would be unlikely to pronounce the phonetic /j/, the 'y' sound which is found in RP after the first consonant in such words as 'news' or 'tune'4. Well, the coalescence of yod basically describes this phenomenon. Native speakers tend to say something more like 'grad-joo-ull' than 'grad-you-ull'. The process of shedding /j/s is now established in RP. The same can be said, strictly speaking of 'usual'. Few modern native speakers would do it, but the old RP pronunciation really should be 'you-ziou-ull' rather than the modern 'you-zhoo-ull'5 Make sense? There are lots more. Many speakers of current General RP do not pronounce a /j/ after the l of 'absolute', 'lute', 'revolution', or 'salute'. They would say 'time off in loo' rather than 'time off in lieu'. For many speakers 'lieu' and 'loo' are now homophones. Similarly it is common not to pronounce the /j/ after the /s/ of 'assume', 'consume', 'presume', 'pursuit' or 'suit(able)'.
Vocab and Grammar Aspects
Tags are very frequent ('Know wha' I mean?' 'inni'?' 'Dun'cha?' 'don't I').
Stressing prepositions and auxiliary verbs (which can create misunderstandings: 'Totters have been in operation FOR years').
Who Speaks Estuary English?
It is very popular among the young probably because it is said to obscure social origins - very often it is adopted as a neutral accent. It increases street cred among the young from an RP background and young people with local accents adopt it because it sounds more 'sophisticated'. EE speakers are to be found 'grouped in the middle ground', but it can be heard in the House of Commons as well as being used by some of the members of the Lords. It can be heard on the BBC and it is well established among the businessmen in the City.