Questions and answers

about Estuary English

Answers from John Wells, UCL <>

1. What is Estuary English? Is it important? Why? James House, Japan, Sep. 1998

The term was invented by the EFL teacher David Rosewarne and has been taken up by journalists and the public. It is a name for a variety of English intermediate between RP-Standard English and Cockney (the London working-class dialect). The use of the term highlights the fact that many educated people in the southeast of England speak in this way, so it is no longer correct to equate "educated" with "RP-speaking" (but things were actually never that simple).

I have criticized the term on several grounds:

2. BBC English has declined in broadcasting circles --- why? James House, Japan, Sep. 1998

Again, it depends on definitions. I assume that by "BBC English" you mean "RP". But the BBC now rightly allows all sorts of accents in newsreaders and presenters, though still of course insisting on Standard English grammar-vocabulary-usage. This reflects the changes in society, particularly the fact that good secondary and higher education is now available to people of all social classes.

Given the change on BBC policy, I was surprised that Peter Roach, in his new edition of Jones's English Pronouncing Dictionary, has abandoned the traditional term "RP" in favour of "BBC English" - a term now rather inappropriate.

3. Is the Queen's English now dead? Why? And has or will the Royal Family's pronunciation change? James House, Japan, Sep. 1998

No. Reports of its death are silly journalistic exaggerations.

The royal family will continue, like everybody else, to reflect the slow change of English through the generations.

4. How is the speech of young people changing? James House, Japan, Sep. 1998

The main new trends of the last 30 years are increased t-glottalling and l-vocalization (see my Cardiff talk). There is also a new acceptance of speech patterns associated with the working class, and a disinclination to accept RP as the self-evident norm of pronunciation.

5. Which new words and expressions which have come from Estuary or popular London speech (Cockney) have now entered the "official" language? James House, Japan, Sep. 1998

I emphasize that this is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been going on for centuries. For example, the expressions "have a butcher's" (have a look) and "on your tod" (on your own, alone) are familiar colloquial expressions that originated as Cockney rhyming slang. I mentioned "cheers" above: no-one has yet adduced any evidence that it originated in London, and I keep an open mind on its origin.

6. Has Estuary replaced RP or will it? James House, Japan, Sep. 1998

It depends on your definition. I prefer to define RP sociolinguistically, as the pronunciation of people at the upper end of the social scale - whatever that is at any given time. From this perspective, RP gradually changes as it incorporates elements from lower down. In my Longman Pronunciation Dictionary I have tried to reflect this process of gradual change, as you can see by comparing my entries with those of Daniel Jones in his English Pronouncing Dictionary (editions up to the time of his death in 1963).

Many RP speakers still view EE as vulgar.

Finally, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that the differences we are talking about pale into insignificance when set alongside the gross pronunciation errors made by most Japanese learners of English. They should concentrate on overcoming such difficulties as syllable-final consonants, consonant clusters, the r/l and b/v distinctions, the vowel difference between "stir" and "star", and so on.

7. Because of the decline in the already limited number of people that speak RP and at the same time the gradual decline of its prestige, should universities in the Netherlands where English is taught as a foreign language go on with using RP as model accent during proficiency classes? Maarten Jansen, Groningen, Netherlands, Jan. 1999

I disagree that there is a decline in the number of people that speak RP - but it depends on how you define RP. OK, no one talks like Daniel Jones any more. In my view, this means that we must update our descriptive model of RP to correspond with current usage among upper/upper-middle-class people in England. Gimson showed the way. I've tried to continue his line in my Longman Pronunciation Dictionary.

My advice: continue to teach RP, but a modernized form of it. That means, for example, allowing/encouraging glottal stop for /t/ in preconsonantal environments and so on.

8. An increasing number of British people, especially young people not necessarily associated with lower class backgrounds, speak Estuary English. Besides Estuary is more and more accepted in formal as well as in informal situations. Should therefore not Estuary English replace RP and become the model accent at universities and schools in the Netherlands? Maarten Jansen, Groningen, Netherlands, Jan. 1999

The notion of EE is not well defined. The originator of the term (Rosewarne) included in EE such matters of usage as "Cheers" for "Thank you" that have nothing to do with accent, and which I (for instance) use in my own casual speech -- and no one has ever suggested that I speak EE. I have proposed instead the definition that EE is (grammatically) Standard English spoken with a southeastern accent. As such it is NOT associated with "lower class" backgrounds -- people from that background in London speak Cockney, which is grammatically non-standard ("you was", "them books"). EE is associated particularly with the lower-middle group that nowadays have access to higher education, although fifty years ago they didn't.

If Dutch students manage to sound like any kind of native English speaker, I would encourage that. Better sound Cockney or EE or poshest RP than a thick Dutch accent. For the majority, who continue to sound a bit Dutch, I would retain RP (modernized) as the model.

There is also the practical point that all BrE-oriented teaching materials currently available (dictionaries, textbooks) relate to RP.

9. Not many speak of EE as a dialect having syntactic and lexical features of its own (except P. Coggle, who mentions that it differs from Standard English in some points). Most linguists refer to it as just a matter of pronunciation. Do you think forms such as Hopefully, there you go, basically, cheers and the extensive use of tags are characteristic of EE? Céline Horgues, France, Feb 1999

No, not by my definition. I think I was the first to suggest that a coherent definition of EE would be "standard English with a southeastern accent", thereby disagreeing with Rosewarne's original formulation.

"Hopefully" is widely used in all parts of England and among all social classes, notwithstanding frequent condemnation. The most plausible explanation of its origin seems to be that it came in via American English, calqued on German "hoffentlich". No one has demonstrated that it is in any way specially characteristic of the southeast of England.

"There you go" is certainly an Americanism, and again to be heard quite widely. "Cheers" (thanks) is not American, but widespread in Britain, certainly not restricted to those who might be called speakers of EE.

Extensive use of tags is characteristic of most British English, isn't it, don't you think?

These usages are characteristic of particular SPEECH STYLES, not of particular regions of the country. It is a great fallacy to suppose that Standard English / RP has only one style, namely formal.

10. Do you think non-Standard forms such as double negatives, plural/singular forms (We was going) or adjectives used as adverbs are to be considered as Cockney rather than EE? Céline Horgues, France, Feb 1999

Yes. By my definition that is exactly what they are. This implies that we recognize that many speakers switch between Cockney and EE, and that these categories are not watertight but part of a continuum.

11. Does EE differ from Cockney in that it uses Standard English and rejects the most 'loaded' phonological features of Cockney? Céline Horgues, France, Feb 1999

That is essentially what I suggest. Remember, though, that there is no such real entity as EE -- it is a construct, a term, and we can define it to mean whatever we think appropriate.

12. Regarding the t glottalisation proper, could it be considered as a step in the evolution towards the final dropping of the "t" sound in these environments (as for the 't muet' in French mor(t) ), or is it a consonant in its own right? Céline Horgues, France, Feb 1999

I do not understand what you mean by "a consonant in its own right". The current position is that it is an allophone of /t/, though a pretty salient one. It is in clear and strong contrast with zero: "tight" [tAI?] is distinct from "tie" [tAI], "button" [bV?n] from "bun" [bVn]. No one can know what will happen in the future: if the glottal stop is indeed a stage on the route to disappearance, we shall be overwhelmed with new homophones. (One possibility is that English will compensate by becoming a tone language, as happened in the history of Vietnamese.)

13. Considering the extensive usage of the glottal stop by English people, do you think it might be integrated into pronunciation dictionaries/ it might become the norm some day? Céline Horgues, France, Feb 1999

I would say that it is ALREADY the norm in certain environments, eg for word-final /t/ before a consonant, in all except the most formal styles. It is by now unusual to hear anything but [?] in "quite nice". You will see that I have certainly "integrated" it into my Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (p. 307).

As long as it remains an allophone of /t/, the phonemic principle means that we do not need to transcribe it distinctly.

Please see my article on transcribing EE.

14. Could I suggest purely from experience that the expression 'cheers' to mean 'goodbye'/'thank you' is more associated with Leeds, Yorks than the south east? I work on a tech support desk, the majority of the callers being in the South. Twelve months ago, judging by their reactions, the expression was relatively unfamiliar to them, but is commonly used in Leeds.Charles Colbourn, Leeds, England, March 1999

Interesting -- and supports my view that Rosewarne was quite wrong about "cheers".

15. What will happen to RP since Estuary English is taking over? Where can we - South American, Teacher Training College students - listen to Estuary English accent? H. Duilio Mansilla, Student at Profesorado Joaquín V. González, Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 2000

Do not believe everything you read in the papers. Estuary English is not 'taking over'. Indeed, it is widely condemned by those who write to the newspapers or phone in to BBC Radio Four.

Continue to teach the kind of modernized RP I describe in LPD (calling it by some other name if you prefer). For example, be ready to accept a glottal stop for /t/ in many syllable-final environments, and [o] in place of dark /l/.

Back to the Estuary English site

Posted 1999 01 28, last modified 2000 04 11