The term Cockney
has both geographical and linguistic associations. Geographically and culturally, it often refers to working class Londoners
, particularly those in the East End
. Linguistically, it refers to the form of English spoken by this group.
According to traditional definition, a "true" Cockney is someone born within earshot of the Bow Bells, i.e. the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside in the City of London (which is not itself in the East End). However, the bells were silent from the outbreak of World War II until 1961. Also, as the general din in London has increased, the area in which the bells can be heard has contracted. Formerly it included the City, Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Hoxton, Stepney, Bethnal Green, Limehouse, Mile End, Wapping, Whitechapel, Shadwell, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Surrey Quays and The Borough, although according to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could also be heard from as far away as Highgate. The association with Cockney and the East End in the public imagination may be due to many people assuming that Bow Bells are to be found in the district of Bow, rather than the lesser known St Mary-le-Bow church.
A traditional costume associated with Cockneys is that of the pearly King (or pearly Queen) worn by London costermongers who sewed thousands of pearl buttons onto their clothing in elaborate patterns.
The term was used to describe those born within earshot of the Bow Bells as early as 1600, when Samuel Rowlands
, in his satire The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head-Vaine
, referred to 'a Bowe-bell Cockney'. Traveller and writer Fynes Moryson
stated in his work An Itinerary
that "Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow Bells, are in reproach called Cockneys. John Minsheu
(or Minshew) was the first lexicographer to define the word in this sense, in his Ductor in Linguas
(1617), where he referred to 'A Cockney or Cockny, applied only to one born within the sound of Bow bell, that is in the City of London'. However, the etymologies
he gave (from 'cock' and 'neigh', or from Latin incoctus
, raw) were just guesses, and the OED
later authoritatively explained the term as originating from cock
(Middle English 'cokeney' < 'coken' + 'ey', lit. cocks' egg), meaning first a misshapen egg (1362), then a person ignorant of country ways (1521), then the senses mentioned above.
Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) derives the term from the following story:
- A citizen of London, being in the country, and hearing a horse neigh, exclaimed, Lord! how that horse laughs! A by-stander telling him that noise was called Neighing, the next morning, when the cock crowed, the citizen to shew he had not forgot what was told him, cried out, Do you hear how the Cock Neighs?
An alternative derivation of the word can be found in Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary: London was referred to by the Normans as the "Land of Sugar Cake" (Old French: pais de cocaigne), an imaginary land of idleness and luxury. A humorous appellation, the word "Cocaigne" referred to all of London and its suburbs, and over time had a number of spellings: Cocagne, Cockayne and, in Middle English, Cocknay and Cockney. The latter two spellings could be used to refer to both pampered children, and residents of London, and to pamper or spoil a child was 'to cocker' him. (See, for example, John Locke, "...that most children's constitutions are either spoiled or at least harmed, by cockering and tenderness." from Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693)
The region in which "Cockneys" reside has changed over time, and is no longer the whole of London. As mentioned in the introduction, the traditional definition is that in order to be a Cockney, one must have been born within earshot of the Bow Bells. However, the church of St. Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. After the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in The Blitz of World War II, and before they were replaced in 1961, there was a period when by this definition no 'Bow-bell' Cockneys could be born. The use of such a literal definition produces other problems, since the area around the church is no longer residential and the noise of the area makes it unlikely that many people would be born within earshot of the bells anymore.
A study was carried by the city in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard, and it was estimated that the 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.
Thus while all East Enders are Cockneys, not all Cockneys are East Enders. The traditional core neighbourhoods of the East End are Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Millwall, Hackney, Shoreditch, Bow and Mile End. The area gradually expanded to include East Ham, Stratford, West Ham and Plaistow as more land was built upon.
Migration of Cockneys has also led to migration of the dialect. Ever since the building of the Becontree housing estate, the Barking & Dagenham area has spoken Cockney. As Chatham Dockyard expanded during the 18th century, large numbers of workers were relocated from the dockland areas of London, bringing with them a "Cockney" accent and vocabulary. Within a short period this famously distinguished Chatham from the neighbouring areas, including the City of Rochester, which had the traditional Kentish accent.
In Essex, towns that mostly grew up from post-war migration out of London (e.g. Basildon, Harlow and West Horndon) often have a strong Cockney influence on local speech. However, the early dialect researcher Alexander John Ellis believed that Cockney developed due to the influence of Essex dialect on London speech In recent years, there has been a move away from Cockney in the inner-city areas of London towards Multicultural London English whereas the eastern outskirts of Greater London have more speakers of the traditional Cockney dialect.
Migration and evolution
Today, certain elements of Cockney English are declining in usage within the area it is most associated with, displaced by a Jamaican Creole-influenced variety gaining popularity amongst young Londoners (sometimes referred to as "Jafaican" or "Multicultural London English"), particularly, though far from exclusively, those of Afro-Caribbean descent. Nevertheless, the glottal stop, double negatives, and the vocalization of the dark L (and other features of traditional Cockney speech), along with some rhyming slang terms are still in common usage. As cockneys have moved out of London, they have often taken their dialect with them. There may actually be more speakers of the Cockney dialect in Dagenham than in Whitechapel, even though the former is not in the traditional Cockney area.
Cockney speakers have a distinctive accent and dialect, and frequently use Cockney rhyming slang. The Survey of English Dialects took a recording from a long-time resident of Hackney.
John Camden Hotten, in his Slang Dictionary of 1859 makes reference to "their use of a peculiar slang language" when describing the costermongers of London's East End. In terms of other slang, there are also several borrowings from Yiddish, including kosher (originally Hebrew, via Yiddish, meaning legitimate) and shtumm (/ʃtʊm/ originally German, via Yiddish, meaning quiet), as well as Romany, for example wonga (meaning money, from the Romany "wanga" meaning coal), and cushty (from the Romany kushtipen, meaning good). A fake Cockney accent is sometimes called 'Mockney'.
- Broad /ɑː/ is used when the letter a precedes /f/, /s/, /θ/ and sometimes /nd/ (in words such as bath, path, demand, etc), which originated in London but has now spread across the south-east and into Received Pronunciation. However, there are exceptions to this rule; for example, the word maths or masculine.
- T-glottalisation: Use of the glottal stop as an allophone of /t/ in various positions, including after a stressed syllable. /t/ may also be flapped intervocalically.
- Glottal stops also occur, albeit less frequently for /k/ and /p/, and occasionally for mid-word consonants. For example, Richard Whiteing spelt "Hyde Park" as Hy' Par' . Like and light can be homophones. "Clapham" can be said as Cla'am.
- Loss of dental fricatives:
- /θ/ becomes [f] in all environments. [mæfs] "maths". Sometimes, this occurs mid-word, as "Bethnal Green" can become Befnal Green.
- /ð/ becomes [v] in all environments except word-initially when it is [d]. [bɒvə] "bother," [dæɪ] "they."
- Diphthong alterations:
- /eɪ/ → [æɪ]: [bæɪʔ] "bait"
- /əʊ/ → [æʉ]: [kʰæʉʔ] "coat"
- /aɪ/ → [ɑɪ]: [bɑɪʔ] "bite"
- /aʊ/ may be [æə]: [tʰæən] "town"
- Other vowel differences include
- /æ/ → [ɛ̝] or [ɛi]: [tʰɛ̝n] "tan"
- /ʌ/ → [ɐ̟]
- /ɔː/ → /oː/ when in non-final position
- /iː/ → [əi]: [bəiʔ] "beet"
- /uː/ → [əʉ] or [ʉː]: [bʉːʔ] "boot"
- Vocalisation of dark L, hence [mɪowɔː] for Millwall. The actual realization of a vocalized /l/ is influenced by surrounding vowels and it may be realized as [u], [o], or [ɤ].
- Cockney has been occasionally described as replacing /r/ with /w/. For example, thwee instead of three, fwasty instead of frosty. Peter Wright, a Survey of English Dialects fieldworker, concluded that this was not a universal feature of Cockneys but that it was more common to hear this in the London area than anywhere else in Britain.
- As with many urban dialects, Cockney is non-rhotic. A final -er is often pronounced as [ə]. Words such as car, far, park, etc. can have an open [ɑː].
- An unstressed final -ow is pronounced [ə]. This is common to most traditional, Southern English dialects except for those in the West Country.
- Grammatical features:
- Use of me instead of my, for example, "At's me book you got 'ere ". Cannot be used when "my" is emphasised (i.e., "At's my book you got 'ere" (and not "his")).
- Use of ain't instead of isn't, am not, are not, has not, and have not
- Use of double negatives, for example "I didn't see nothing.
Most of the features mentioned above have, in recent years, partly spread into more general south-eastern speech, giving the accent called Estuary English; an Estuary speaker will use some but not all of the Cockney sounds.
Spread of Cockney English
Studies have indicated that working-class adolescents in areas such as Glasgow have begun to use certain aspects of Cockney and other Anglicisms in their speech , inflitrating the traditional Glasgow patter. For example, TH-fronting is commonly found, and typical Scottish features such as the postvocalic /r/ are reduced.. Researches suggest the use of English speech characteristics is likely the influence of London and South East England accents featuring heavily on television.
Cockney characters in drama, fiction and poetry
A television advertisement for Heineken beer in the 1980s showed a Sloane woman receiving elocution lessons in Cockney, parodying My Fair Lady. In the advert, she was being taught to say "The wa'er in Majorca don' taste like wot it ough' a", but could only manage a rendition in Received Pronunciation of "The water in Majorca doesn't taste quite how it should" (until, of course, she drank the beer).
More recently, the Geico automobile insurance company has used a gecko lizard in its television advertising campaign that speaks in a Cockney accent. The character is voiced by Jake Wood.
- Albert and Harold Steptoe in BBCs Steptoe and Son
- Terry Tibbs, the used-car salesman in The Fonejacker
- Sam Weller from Charles Dickens's serialized novel The Pickwick Papers
- The Artful Dodger from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist
- The children in the movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks
- Bert in the movie Mary Poppins (although it has to be said that Dick van Dyke's rendition of the Cockney accent is notoriously bad.)
- Colleen the London collie dog on the cartoon Road Rovers
- Miss Shirley Brahms (Wendy Richard) from the comedy series Are You Being Served?
- Rudyard Kipling's "The Widow at Windsor". Also, the character Ortheris, one of the "Soldiers Three": Ortheris, Mulvaney and Learoyd (Mulvaney is Irish and Learoyd is from Yorkshire).
- Jerry Cruncher in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities
- Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (see also My Fair Lady)
- The character Toad from Marvel Comics
- Gavroche Thenardier in English productions of the musical of Les Miserables (as an equivalent of Paris criminal Argot)
- Fevvers in Angela Carter's novel Nights at the Circus
- William Somerset Maugham's novel Liza of Lambeth
- The Lambeth Walk song and associated dance
- Me and My Girl (musical)
- EastEnders soap opera
- Wayne Winston Norris, the chirpy Cockney carpenter in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet
- Private Joe Walker, infamous Cockney spiv fron Dad's Army
- Guy Ritchie films, such as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
- Eliza Pinchley in Family Guy's spoof of My Fair Lady
- Mrs. Lovett, Tobias Ragg and the Beggar Woman in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (original Broadway version, in the 2007 film adaptation, virtually everybody speaks with one, excepting, of course, Pirelli, Beadle, and Turpin)
- Basher Tarr in the movie Ocean's Eleven
- Danny Blue in the BBC TV series Hustle
- Wilson in the movie The Limey
- In the children's television series TUGS, Ten Cents speaks with a Cockney accent.
- In the video game Fable, many of the townsfolk and characters speak with a Cockney accent.
- Most characters in the musical and movie-musical Oliver!
- The characters in the Thames Television show Minder made liberal use of Cockney slang, and the show brought terms such as porkies into common use
- The Hitcher and his accomplices in The Mighty Boosh
- Sid, the caretaker in the hit British comedy series Mind Your Language
- Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, in Doctor Who
- Allan-a-Dale, played by Joe Armstrong in Robin Hood
- Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer in T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats
- Most characters in the movie Green Street Hooligans
- Lucy in Jekyll and Hyde the Musical
- Most characters in the movie To Sir, with Love
- Most characters in Harold Pinter's early plays
- Most characters in the plays and fiction of Philip Ridley
- Stan Shunpike in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- Yangus in Dragon Quest VIII
- The Orks and Imperial Guard in the Warhammer 40,000 universe (and in the Dawn of War, RTS game series)
- The Landlady and her Boarders in Lucky Stiff, a musical comedy
- Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals in Irregular Webcomic!
- Corporal Peter Newkirk (played by Richard Dawson) in Hogan's Heroes
- Sadie in National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj
- Roman in Armed and Dangerous
- Pim Scutney and Rog Gobshire of Team Britain in the movie Beerfest
- Almost all characters in Nick Love's films The Football Factory and The Business
- Mordor Orcs in Peter Jackson's film trilogy The Lord of the Rings''
- Sam, Mary, and other minor characters in John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman
- Mingy, Oprah Winfrey's sentient vagina, in the South Park episode A Million Little Fibers.
- Lee-Hom Wang's new song, "Cockney Girl"
- Badger, from the television series Firefly
- Jacky Faber in the book series Bloody Jack.
- Spitfire, in the English dub of the anime Air Gear.
- Most characters in the BBC's Only Fools and Horses.
- Rodney Skinner in the movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
- Sergeant Dale Smith ('Smithy') from The Bill
- Mortamer in the Fantasticks
- Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1991 film)
- Baldrick from the BlackAdder series
- Tim-Tom Moppet from Venture Bros
- Cheapside in the Doctor Dolittle books
- The trolls in the second chapter 'Roast Mutton' of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
Famous Cockney people
- The Cockney Rejects
- Alfie Bass (actor, born in Bethnal Green)
- Steven Berkoff (actor, born in Stepney)
- Marc Bolan (singer, musician, born in Hackney)
- Bernard Bresslaw (actor, born in Stepney)
- Eric Bristow (darts player, born in Hackney)
- Max Bygraves (Singer, songwriter and comedian, born in Rotherhithe)
- Michael Caine (Hollywood Film Star, born in Rotherhithe)
- George Carey (archbishop, born in Bow)
- Charlie Chaplin (Hollywood Film Star, born in Walworth)
- Jack Cohen (founder of Tesco supermarket chain, born in Whitechapel)
- Phil Collen (guitarist, musician, born in Hackney)
- Dave Courtney (bodyguard/actor, born in Bermondsey)
- Roger Delgado, (actor, born in Whitechapel)
- Craig Fairbrass (actor, born in Stepney)
- Bud Flanagan, (actor, comedian, and singer, born in Whitechapel)
- Samantha Fox (model/singer, born in Mile End)
- Steve Harris, (founder, bass player Iron Maiden, born in Leytonstone)
- Gary Holton (actor, musician, born in Hackney)
- Kenney Jones (musician, born in Stepney)
- Kray twins, Ronald and Reginald (ga/ngsters, born in Hoxton)
- Ronnie Lane (musician, born in Bow)
- Angela Lansbury (Hollywood actress, born in Poplar)
- Vera Lynn (singer, born in East Ham)
- Lenny McLean (bare knuckle/unlicensed boxer/actor, born in Hoxton)
- Hoxton Tom McCourt (musician/face, born in Hoxton)
- Dizzee Rascal (musician/producer, born in Bow)
- Mike Reid (actor/comedian, born in Hackney)
- Philip Ridley (artist, writer, film maker, photographer born in Bethnal Green)
- Roy Shaw (bare knuckle/unlicensed boxer, born in Stepney)
- Danny Dyer (actor, born in Canning Town)
- Terence Stamp (actor, born in Stepney)
- Tommy Steele (singer, musician and actor, born in Bermondsey)
- Sir Alan Sugar (businessman, born in Hackney)
- Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols vocalist and bassist, born in Hackney)
- Barbara Windsor (actress, born in Shoreditch)
- Ray Winstone (actor, born in Hackney)
Famous Cockney performances
- Bill Bailey's classic skit about Cockney and classical composers
- Timothy Bateson as The Worm in the film Labyrinth
- Ronnie Barker as 'Fletch' in the TV comedy series Porridge
- James Beck's lovable Cockney spiv Private Joe Walker from war time comedy Dad's Army
- Kathy Burke as 'Linda LaHughes' in comedy series Gimme Gimme Gimme and the film Nil By Mouth
- Michael Caine in The Italian Job (original), The Ipcress File and the Jack the Ripper film. Examples of Cockney slang can be found in his performance with Mike Myers in Austin Powers in Goldmember, as well as his signature film, Alfie.
- Phil Daniels narrating on the title track of Blur's Parklife album
- Chas & Dave "Rockney music duo".
- Don Cheadle's performance in Ocean's Eleven (2001)
- Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell as Albert and Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son
- Arthur English as 'Beverley Harmon' and Wendy Richard as 'Shirley Brahms' in comedy series Are You Being Served?
- Gary Holton as 'Wayne Norris' in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet
- Bob Hoskins as 'Harold Shand' in The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa
- Eric Idle in the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (Life of Brian)
- David Jason as Del Boy (or Derek Trotter) in Only Fools and Horses, though he was a South Londoner, he used much Cockney rhyming slang. Nearly all of the other characters in Fools and Horses were Londoners as well.
- Juliet Landau as vampire Drusilla in TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
- Tress MacNeille as Colleen the London collie in the cartoon Road Rovers
- Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part
- Kate Nash as a singer songwriter with a Cockney accent despite being from Harrow, London.
- Dick Van Dyke's famous and much parodied attempt at a Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, which is often mocked as 'how not to do Cockney'
- Simon Nash as Ten Cents in the children's television series TUGS (1989)
- Catherine Tate as Joannie "Nan" Taylor in The Catherine Tate Show
- Jessie Wallace as 'Kat Slater' on the soap opera EastEnders
- Dennis Waterman and George Cole in the 1980s TV series Minder
- Ray Winstone in Scum, Sexy Beast and Henry VIII
- Jack Wild as Jimmie from HR Pufnstuf,The Artful Dodger in Oliver! and Ornshaw in Melody
- Rita Malone in "Flushed Away"
- Christian Bale as Alfred Borden in The Prestige (film)
- Summer Glau as River Tam in the Firefly episode Shindig, when she mocks Badger.
- Noel Fielding as The Hitcher in "The Mighty Boosh"
- Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady"
- The Mutton Brothers
- 2D and Murdoc Niccals in Gorillaz