Nae bovver

Eastenders is fuelling the new linguistic imperialism. John Crace cocks an ear

The Guardian (Higher Education), Tuesday July 18, 2000

Fings ain't wot vey used to be, bruv. New research carried out by Dr Jane Stuart-Smith at Glasgow University suggests that the delicate sounds of the Gorbals are losing out to non-standard southern English, aka estuary. Whether this is much of a loss to the nation's eardrums is a matter of personal prejudice, but for the Scots there can be few things worse than to discover a new form of English cultural imperialism. Dr Stuart-Smith's research is a more detailed continuation of the work she published last year in Urban Voices, edited by Paul Foulkes and Gerard Docherty. In collaboration with her research assistant Claire Timmins, and statistician Dr Fiona Tweedie, Stuart-Smith found 32 willing Glaswegian guinea-pigs representing a cross-section of age, class and gender and put them through a series of tests, ranging from repeating a list of 100 words to everyday conversation.

What emerged was that traditional consonant sounds, such as the "ch" in loch, and the local pronounciation of milk as "mulk", were on the decline, and that "f" had begun to replace "th" in words like tooth. However, the changes were highly localised.

"This effect is found only in the inner city population sample - the predominantly working class. It is not true in the suburban sample - among mainly middle-class teenagers," says Stuart-Smith. The actual analysis of the findings, while relying heavily on Dat technology, also required some interpretation.

Timmins explains: "There was a marked difference between ad-libbed conversations of the working-class boys in the 13-15 age group and their reading of the list," she says. "When they read out the list, the variance from the Glasgow accent was much more noticeable. We took this to be a sign that they wanted to appear tougher when they read out loud. Similarly the middle-class Kelvinside accents tended to stress the "h" in words such as which and when. We felt that these people were perhaps trying extra hard to sound more Scottish than they really are."

Even allowing for these anomalies, the findings turn the received wisdom of linguistic research on its head. For decades now, it has always been assumed that it was face-to-face contact that brought about changes in language and dialect. If this were true, you would expect the more mobile middle-class groupings who were likely to have been exposed to a greater variety of language to be the first to lose their Scottishness. But the reverse is true, with the working-class kids, many of whom may have only rarely travelled outside Scotland, the most susceptible to outside influences.

Which puts the media - and EastEnders in particular - firmly in the spotlight, though the case remains far from scientifically proven. "The debate about whether the media affects pronunciation is contentious, rather like the debate about violence in the media, and it is a difficult area to research definitively," says Stuart-Smith. "But this is an area we intend to study. That will involve us finding out much more about the people and their TV habits and their degree of contact - if any - with people from southern England."

The idea that language could be influenced by the media may be a surprise to linguists but it certainly won't be to parents whose children have incorporated various bits of Home and Away and Neighbours Strine into their everyday speech without having gone within 10,000 miles of Down Under.

Indeed, in the early 1990s a New Zealand researcher noted the same process in reverse with the increased glottalisation of the dialect. "Pass the budder" had been transformed into "Pass the bu-er".

What may be more of interest is why some programmes are more likely to influence dialect than others. Coronation Street and Brookside are as popular as EastEnders but the Salford and Mersey accents stay put.

Similarly, throughout the 1950s and 1960s all BBC announcers adopted the clipped upper-class sounds of received pronounciation and yet the accent is now only found in isolated pockets of Knightsbridge and the shires. Today, the BBC's pronunciation department only advises on difficult foreign words and presenters are advised to talk in their local dialects. Which ought to preserve language rather than lose it.

Some accents, including Scots, are highly valued for their sense of trustworthiness and mellifluity, but no one has ever bothered to include estuary in either category. Yet estuary it is that marches ever onwards: researchers have noted similar changing dialect patterns to Glasgow in Newcastle, Hull and Derby.

But if Estuary is here to stay, it won't be the first time it has made its presence felt. "In the 14th century, a Londoner wouldn't have been able to understand someone who lived 40 miles outside the city," says John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor of modern english literature at University College London. "It was eventually Chaucer's English that became the standard." Chaucer, Phil 'n Grant. It's a noble lineage. And shortly to become more noble still. Mike Coles, an RE teacher in London, has just translated the Bible into Cockney rhyming slang. Would you Adam 'n' Eve it?

Placed on the Estuary English website by JCW 2000 07 19

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