Pinning down Estuary English

J.C. Wells, University College London

Abstract for a lecture given in Lund, Sweden, April 1998

Rosewarne, inventor of the term Estuary English, is to be congratulated on identifying and naming a concept that has a resonance among the general public. But his definition lacks explicitness: ‘a variety of modified regional speech [...] a mixture of non-regional and local south-eastern English pronunciation and intonation’. And he includes among his EE characteristics matters such as details of phraseology that many would consider irrelevant.

A new definition of Estuary English is proposed: standard English spoken with an accent that includes features localizable in the southeast of England.

EE is therefore different from Cockney in that its grammar is standard (eg you were, not you was), and in its generally avoiding such stigmatized phonetic characteristics as h-dropping and th-fronting. As an accent it differs from RP in typically reflecting such phonetic developments as t-glottalling, l-vocalization, and yod coalescence, and in incorporating particular forms of certain lexical items (eg twenty and wanted with nt-reduction; something with final /k/).

Far from being ‘a bastardized version of Cockney’, EE can be seen as its educated counterpart. Like other speech varieties, it should be recognized as covering a range of styles and levels of formality (eg in the phonetics of -ing). Hard evidence of its supposed geographical and social dissemination is eagerly awaited.

Posted 1998 Nov 09

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