Estuary English

David Crystal, Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, 1995, p. 327

The 'estuary' in question is that of the R. Thames. The term was coined in the l980s to identify the way features of London regional speech seemed to be rapidly spreading throughout the counties adjoining the river (especially Essex and Kent) and beyond.

It is something of a misnomer, for the influence of London speech has for sometime been evident well beyond the Thames estuary, notably in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle (p.50) and in the area to the south and east of London as far as the coast. Nonetheless, the phrase 'estuary English' caught the public imagination, and received considerable publicity, including a front page headline in The Sunday Times (14 March 1993):

Yer wot? 'Estuary English' Sweeps Britain

While 'sweeping' may be something of an exaggeration, the spread of the variety has certainly been noticeable in recent years. London-influenced speech can now be heard around three other estuaries -- the Humber in the north-east, the Dee in the north-west, and the Severn in the west -- at least partly because of the relatively easy rail and motorway commuting networks. With Hull, Chester, and Bristol now only just over two hours from London, the morning and evening transport routes to and from the capital carry many people who speak with an accent which shows the influence of their place of work.

The factors governing the spread of this variety are only partly explained by social mobility and new patterns of settlement. For example, there is the influence of radio and television, and of English media personalities who use a modified form of Cockney, such as Ben Elton and Jonathan Ross. But certainly, after World War 2, thousands of London speakers did move to outside the city, and to the new towns which were being built around the capital. Their move will have caused many to modify their accents, and their numerical presence (as well as their economic standing) may even have influenced the original residents to accommodate (p.298) in their direction.

Estuary English may therefore be the result of a confluence of two social trends: an up-market movement of originally Cockney speakers, and a down-market trend towards 'ordinary' (as opposed to 'posh') speech by the middle class. There is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence that many people these days wish to avoid the 'establishment' connotations of Received Pronunciation (p.363), and try to speak in a way which they perceive to be more down to earth. In the 1993 debate which accompanied the Sunday Times report, one leading businessman was explicit about this point. Referring to a 'public school accent' (RP) he commented: 'if you were unlucky enough to have such an accent, you would lower it. You would try to become more consumer friendly'.

A continuum

The phenomenon, as identified in the press, has been perceived as more to do with accent than with dialect, and has been described as a continuum of pronunciation possibilities, with Cockney at one end and Received Pronunciation at the other. But the variety is distinctive as a dialect not just as an accent as can be seen from the following selection of features which are becoming increasingly widespread.


  • The glottal stop In certain positions, especially replacing /t/ at the end of a word or before a consonant (Gatwick Airport). On the other hand, only those speakers closest to the Cockney end of the continuum would use the glottal stop before a vowel (as in water), which is still perceived to be a Cockney feature.
  • The replacement of final /-l/ by a short [u] vowel (p.241), so that hill is pronounced [hIU]. Although this feature is common, other features traditionally associated with Cockney speech are much less so, such as the replacement of th /T/ and /D/ by /f/ and /v/ respectively.


  • The 'confrontational' question tag (p.299), as in I said I was going, didn't I. Other Cockney tags (such as innit) are also sometimes found in jocular estuary speech (or writing, p.410), which may indicate a move towards their eventual standardization.
  • Certain negative forms, such as never referring to a single occasion (I never did, No l never). Less likely is the use of the double negative, which is still widely perceived as uneducated (p.194).
  • The omission of the -ly adverbial ending, as in You're turning it too slow, They talked very quiet for a while,
  • Certain prepositional uses, such as l got off of the bench, I looked out the window.
  • Generalization of the third person singular form (I gets out of the car), especially in narrative style; also the generalized past tense use of was, as in We was walking down the road.

Some of these developments are now increasingly to be heard in the public domain, such as on the more popular channels of the BBC, and some have even begun to penetrate the British establishment. Glottalization, for example, will be heard on both sides of the House of Commons, and has been observed in the younger members ofthe royal family.

The publicizing of the trend, however has provoked a strong purist reaction, and led to a further round of the debate about the safeguarding of standards. What seems to be happening, however, is the gradual replacement of one kind of standard by another -- a process which was characterized by several newspaper commentators in 1993 as the linguistic cornerstone of a future classless British society.

Placed on UCL P&L EE website 1999 02 22. Supplied by M. Tatham, U. of Essex

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