Estuary English FAQs

Paul Coggle (

1. Would you argue that language loyalty is no longer a valid factor involved in the preservation of RP in the face of the growth of Estuary English ? Mandy Pulling (, Nov. 1998

If you mean by language loyalty that people tended to be "loyal" to the accent of their parents and of their class and that nowadays they are being less loyal, then, yes, I would agree that there is a _tendency_ towards EE amongst younger people of middle (and even upper) class backgrounds in the SE to move away from the RP of their parents. That this is so is clear from the number of middle class parents who complain bitterly about the "common" way in which their off-spring speak.

Actually, young people have always tended to fall in line with their peers (rather than with their parents) and it is now considered unacceptable by younger people (and sometimes even by middle-aged people) to sound too "posh" and privileged, whereas in the past people had fewer qualms about their wealth and privilege.

2. I realise that the Standard English of this country is determined by the ruling classes, those with a voice and authority (including the media) and that the ruling classes are predominantly made up of RP speaking people from the upper and middle classes. This is a fact that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, so would you argue that the social hierarchy in this country stands a good chance of hindering EE's progress in becoming the new Standard English ? Mandy Pulling (, Nov. 1998

I don't think I do. I think RP will go on changing as it has in the past. Just compare the conservative RP of the 1940s and 50s with modern RP. If you dont know what I mean, listen to Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (or indeed to Harry Enfield in some of his sketches!). EE will go on influencing younger RP speakers, but what they speak will probably still be called RP, even though it is not RP as we know it today. In other words, it is important to bear in mind my idea of a continuum : Conservative RP - Modern RP - Estuary English - Cockney.

3. Do you think that language prejudice in this country could also be a factor that may restrict the growth of EE? I have read an article by Rosewarne, in which he states that Estuary English is not rated very highly at all by international visitors to the country. I have also read of various matched guise tests in which Cockney doesn't come out at all well. And since Estuary English is closer to Cockney than the accepted RP, do you think that peoples language prejudices may put a stop to the spread of the use of Estuary English ? Mandy Pulling (, Nov. 1998

People often say that EE is stigmatised. If by this they mean that middle and upper class RP speakers dont like it, then yes, it _is_ stigmatised. When I speak to students at Colleges of FE I point out that it is in their best interests to move towards RP in an interview situation, since interviewers tend to be older, more conservative.

But in fact, it is - in my view - the shock factor of EE that appeals to many of its users - a bit like having a tattoo or wearing a stud in your tongue. You can be pretty sure older people will react negatively!

So I _dont_ think that prejudices will curb the spread of EE.

I _have _ encountered cases where young middle class EE speakers move closer to RP when they take a job in, say, publishing. But on the whole there is little movement from EE to RP. In fact, the trend seems to be to adopt even more features of Cockney. For instance, the "ba:f" for "bath" and "fa:ver" for "father" pronunciation is now fairly widespread amongst primary school children in the SE (from Canterbury to Milton Keynes). I first encountered these features amongst my students 4 years ago (one example only). This year I have heard several students using them.

4. 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? Marta Jansen, undergraduate at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, <>, January 1999

I think universities in the Netherlands _should_ continue to teach RP at least in the short term. I mean of course modern RP and _not_ the conservative RP spoken in the 40s and 50s (and still heard today amongst a few older speakers).

My main reason is that RP is not geographically specific to any particular area of England (Scotland, Ireland and Wales have their own standards of pro-nuncia-tion of course). Estuary English is, for the time being at least, specific to the South East of England.

I think that listening comprehension should be offered in a number of the major varieties of English (including EE), but RP should be taught for the production of English. Then the student has the possibility of moving to the EE (or Manchester or Liverpool etc) accent if s/he find him/herself in an area where this accent is spoken. Certainly, those Dutch, German, Swedish etc students at this university who approximate to EE fit in better with English students than those who speak more closely to RP.

All of this assumes that you should be learning a variety of British English and not American English. I suppose that, for European residents, British English is still the more useful of the two. But in business and on the Internet, it's US English that is predominating.

5. 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? Marta Jansen, undergraduate at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, <>, January 1999

No, not at the moment, is my answer to this question. You are quite right about the spread of EE across the class barriers, but - as I said in Answer 1 - it is still restricted to the SE of England at the moment.

There are also plenty of middle aged and middle class people who are prejudiced against users of EE. I quote a few examples in my book "Do you speak Estuary?". It will take 20 or so years for these people to move from their positions of power within society. It would make sense, in my view, for Dutch (and other) universities to wait until EE has become more firmly established as the new RP before deciding to teach it for _active_ use (although for _recognition_ purposes it should be one of the varieties that they teach _now_).

6. I am carrying on research work on Estuary English for my Master's degree in France. I have read your book Do you Speak Estuary? on this subject. Researching about EE, most people say it is just a matter of pronunciation; J.C. Wells speaks of it as "Standard English with a south-eastern accent" rather than a dialect with lexical and syntactic features of its own. What is your opinion on this? Do you think it can be considered as a casual version of RP, or a posh version of Cockney? Since you published your book in 1993, have you noticed any evolution in the form of EE spoken by your students, in the geographical and social extension of EE? CÚline Horgues, MA student in France, <>, February 1999

I tend to agree with Prof Wells that EE is "Standard English with a south-eastern accent". There are very few regional dialects left in England nowadays, but regional accents are still very much present and they play an important role in English society. EE is one of the more significant ones.

I would perhaps add that there are some lexical features (like "basically") which are present in the standard language but which tend to be more frequently used by EE speakers than by RP speakers. Also, as you get towards the Cockney end of the EE continuum there are some Cockney syntactic features which are found in EE (such as double negatives - "I don't have no money"). It is, however, pronunciation which is the most distinguishing aspect of EE.

The idea of the continuum is very important for EE, since there are some speakers who are really quite close to RP at one end and others who are quite close to Cockney at the other, with the main body of speakers somewhere in between the two.

While linguists do not make value judgements about accents, ordinary people would, in general, regard EE less "posh" than RP and more "posh" than Cockney. For many people who can distinguish what is "posh" and what is not, "posh" does not automatically mean "better" or "more desirable". On the contrary, many younger privileged people make an effort not to sound too "posh", as they know this makes them more acceptable in their peer group.

One on-going change that I did not mention in my book is the pronunciation of words like "book" and "good" where the vowel is closer to u: than to the traditional RP U.

Paul Coggle
School of European Culture and Languages
Cornwallis North West
University of Kent at Canterbury
Canterbury CT2 7NF   UK

Phone: +44 (0)1227-823620 Fax: +44 (0)1227-823641

Posted on UCL P&L website 1998 11 30. Last modified 1999 02 16
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