Estuary English is an English accent associated with the area along the River Thames and its estuary, including London. Phonetician John C. Wells proposed a definition of Estuary English as "Standard English spoken with the accent of the southeast of England". Estuary English may be compared with Cockney, and there is some debate among linguists as to where Cockney speech ends and Estuary English begins.
The scholar Alan Cruttenden uses the term London Regional General British in preference to the popular term 'Estuary English'.
The names listed above may be abbreviated:
Estuary English → EE
London Regional General British → London General, London Regional GB, London RGB
Some authors use different names for EE closer to Cockney (Popular London) and EE closer to Received Pronunciation (London Regional Standard or South-Eastern Regional Standard).
Note that some other authors use the name Popular London to refer to Cockney itself.
Status as accent of English
The boundary between Estuary English and Cockney is far from clearcut. Several writers have argued that Estuary English is not a discrete accent distinct from the accents of the London area. The sociolinguist Peter Trudgill has written that the term "Estuary English" is inappropriate because "it suggests that we are talking about a new variety, which we are not; and because it suggests that it is a variety of English confined to the banks of the Thames estuary, which it is not. The label actually refers to the lower middle-class accents, as opposed to working-class accents, of the Home Counties Modern Dialect area".Peter Roach comments, "In reality there is no such accent and the term should be used with care. The idea originates from the sociolinguistic observation that some people in public life who would previously have been expected to speak with an RP accent now find it acceptable to speak with some characteristics of the London area... such as glottal stops, which would in earlier times have caused comment or disapproval".
Foulkes & Docherty (1999) state "All of its [EE's] features can be located on a sociolinguistic and geographical continuum between RP and Cockney, and are spreading not because Estuary English is a coherent and identifiable influence, but because the features represent neither the standard nor the extreme non-standard poles of the continuum". In order to tackle these problems put forward by expert linguists, Altendorf (2016) argues that Estuary English should be viewed as a folk category rather than an expert linguistic category. As such it takes the form of a perceptual prototype category that does not require discrete boundaries in order to function in the eyes (and ears) of lay observers of language variation and change.
Another split that has been reported is the THOUGHT split, which causes board/bɔːd/ to be pronounced differently from bored/bɔəd/./ɔː/ (phonetically [ɔʊ] or [oː]) appears before consonants, and /ɔə/ (phonetically [ɔə] or [ɔː]) appears at a morpheme boundary. However, Przedlacka (2001) states that both /ɔː/ and /ɔə/ may have the same monophthongal quality [ɔː].
Yod-coalescence, the use of the affricates [d͡ʒ] and [t͡ʃ] instead of the clusters [dj] and [tj] in words like dune and Tuesday. Thus, the words sound like June and choose day, respectively.
Realization of non-prevocalic /l/ different from that found in traditional RP; four variants are possible:
L-vocalisation, the use of [o], [ʊ], or [ɯ] in places that RP uses [ɫ] in the final positions or in a final consonant cluster: sold (pronounced [sɔʊd]). In London, that may even occur before a vowel: girl out[ɡɛo ˈæoʔ]. In all phonetic environments, male London speakers were at least twice as likely to vocalize the dark l as female London speakers.
According to Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), the vocalized dark l is sometimes an unoccluded lateral approximant, which differs from the RP [ɫ] only by the lack of the alveolar contact.
Coda /l/ pronounced as clear [l], as in most accents of Irish English. Przedlacka (2001) notes that in her study, "all four Essex speakers have a clear [l] in pull." In New Zealand English, word-final clear /l/, as opposed to usual in that variety vocalised [ɯ], has also been reported for some speakers. A reverse process, clear [l] realised as dark [ɫ], has not been reported in Estuary English.
Alternation between the vocalized [o ~ ʊ ~ ɯ], dark non-vocalized [ɫ] and clear non-vocalized [l], depending on the word.
A possible realization of Estuary /əʊ/ on a vowel chart, from Lodge (2009:175)
It has been suggested that th-fronting is "currently making its way" into Estuary English, for example those from the Isle of Thanet often refer to Thanet as "Plannit Fannit" (Planet Thanet). However, this feature was also present in the traditional dialect of Essex before the spread of Estuary English.
/iː/ (as in FLEECE) can be realised as [iː], [ɪi] or [əi], with the first two variants predominating. Before the dark l, it is sometimes a centering diphthong [iə].
/uː/ (as in GOOSE) can be realised in many different ways, such as monophthongs [ʏː], [ɪ̝ː], [ʉː], [ɨː], [ʉ̠ː], [u̟ː] and diphthongs [ɘɵ], [ɘʏ], [ʏɨ] and [ʊu]. Front pronunciations ([ʏː], [ɪ̝ː], [ɘʏ] and [ʏɨ]) are more often encountered in female speakers. Before the l, it is always back.
/ʊ/ can be central (rounded [ʊ̈] or unrounded [ɪ̈]) near-front [ʏ], or simply near-back [ʊ], as in RP. Only the last variant appears before the dark l.
/ɔː/ (as in THOUGHT), according to Przedlacka (2001), can be pronounced in two different ways: diphthongal [oʊ] in closed syllables and [ɔə] or [ɔ̝ə] in open syllables and monophthongal [ɔː]. According to Parsons (1998), it is either [ɔʊ] or [oː] before consonants, and either [ɔə] or [ɔː] at a morpheme boundary.
/ʌ/ (as in STRUT) can be realised as [ɒ], [ʌ], [ɐ], [ɐ̟] or [æ], with [ɐ] being predominant. The first two variants occur mostly before /ŋ/. The last two variants are more often used by females.
/æ/ (as in TRAP) can be realised as [a], [a̝], [æ], [ɛ̞] or [ɛ]. A somewhat retracted front [a̠] has been reported for some speakers in Reading.
/əʊ/ (as in GOAT) may be realised in a couple of different ways. According to Przedlacka (2001), it is any of the following: [əʊ], [ɐʊ], [əʏ] or [ɐʏ]. The last two are more often used by females. She also notes a fully rounded diphthong [oʊ] (found in some speakers from Essex), as well as two rare monophthongal realizations, namely [ɐː] and [o̞ː]. According to Lodge (2009), Estuary /əʊ/ may be pronounced [ɑːɪ̯̈] or [ɑːʏ̯̈], with the first element somewhat lengthened and much more open than in RP and the second element being near-close central, with or without lip rounding.
/eɪ/ (as in FACE), according to Przedlacka (2001), can be realised as [ɛ̝ɪ], [ɛɪ], [ɛ̞ɪ] or [æɪ], with [ɛɪ] and [ɛ̞ɪ] being predominant. According to Wells (1994), it can be realised as [eɪ], [ɛɪ], [æɪ], [ɐɪ] or [ʌɪ].
/aɪ/ (as in PRICE) can be realised as [aɪ], [a̠ɪ], [ɑ̟ɪ], [ɒ̟ɪ], [ɑɪ] or [ɒɪ].
/aʊ/ (as in MOUTH) can be realised as [aʊ], [aʏ], [æə], [æʊ] or [æʏ].[a] denotes a front onset [a], not a central one [a̠].
Monophthongal ([æː] or [aː]) realization of /aʊ/ (as in MOUTH).
Estuary English is widely encountered throughout southeast England, particularly among the young. It is considered to be a working-class accent, although often used by the lower middle classes too. In the debate that surrounded a 1993 article about Estuary English, a London businessman claimed that RP was perceived as unfriendly, so Estuary English was now preferred for commercial purposes.
Some adopt the accent as a means of "blending in" to appear to be more working class or in an attempt to appear to be "a common man". That affectation of the accent is sometimes derisively referred to as "Mockney". A move away from traditional RP accents is almost universal among middle-class young people.
Traditional Essex and Kent
This article is about older dialects of Modern English in Kent. For the dialect of Old English, see Kentish Old English.
Older rural dialects were once mainly confined to Kent and the north and the east of Essex, which showed a few early features of, as well as some features distinct from, the modern Estuary dialect that has since spread through the region. Certain features associated with rural East Anglian English were common: the rounding of the diphthong of [aɪ] (right as roight), yod-dropping in Essex, and non-rhoticity, although Mersea Island was rhotic until the mid-20th century. Modern Estuary dialect features were also reported in traditional varieties, including L-vocalization e.g. old as owd and th-fronting (a feature now widespread in England, was found throughout Essex in the 1950s Survey of English Dialect) in Essex and yod-coalescence in Kent. The pronunciation of /iː/ as [ɪ] in words like been or seen was also once a feature of both counties.
There are audio examples available on the British Library website and BBC sources for the older Kentish dialect, and an Essex Dialect Handbook has been published; the Essex County Records office has recorded a CD of the sounds of Essex dialect speakers in an effort to preserve the dialect. The Survey of English Dialects investigated 15 sites in Essex, most of which were in the rural north of the county and one of which was on Mersea Island—an unusually high number of sites, being second only to Yorkshire. Many of the first English books to be published were by Kentish writers, and this helped spread Kent dialectal words (e.g. 'abide', 'ruck') to the rest of the country. The pattern of speech in some of Charles Dickens' books pertain to Kentish dialect, as the author lived at Higham, was familiar with the mudflats near Rochester and created a comic character Sam Weller who spoke the local accent, principally Kentish but with strong London influences.
Altendorf, Ulrike; Watt, Dominic (2004), "The dialects in the South of England: phonology", in Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Kortmann, Bernd; Mesthrie, Rajend; Upton, Clive (eds.), A handbook of varieties of English, 1: Phonology, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 181–196, ISBN3-11-017532-0
Ashby, Patricia (2011), "The l-vocalization trend in young London English speech: growing or declining?", English phonetics, English Phonetic Society of Japan, 14–15: 36–45