Estuary English

A posting by Paul Kerswill to the LINGUIST list, 6 May 1994

Mirrored from

First, the main source is David Rosewarne 1994 'Estuary English: tomorrow's RP?', in English Today 37, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 3-9. My view is that Rosewarne misguided in very many respects. For a start, it's is not a new variety, it's just a standardised form of speech with Southeastern phonology. People have spoken like that for years and years. EE retains some regional low-level phonetic features. What MAY be new is the fact that the non-standard urban dialects are being levelled in the whole SE region, so that it is increasingly hard to tell even where nonstandard speakers come from. Rosewarne completely misleadingly tries to associate EE with certain discourse features, such as stressing prepositions and using tags. This is nonsense, and seems to be based on his dependence on local radio for his data. What we can say is that, although attitudes to it are still not positive, it is becoming more and more used in high-status occupations, including broadcasting. It lacks the snobbery associated with some forms of RP.

Second, I and a colleague, Ann Williams, have just finished a funded (ESRC) research project on something related, in a rather complex way, to Estuary English. This is the speech of children and adults in the New Town of Milton Keynes, founded from scratch in 1969 60 miles north of London and now with a population of 170,000. We used quantitative methods to study phonological features. To cut a long story short, we have found that it is very difficult to say that there is a distinctive variety growing up. This is because we have a levelled variety there with no strongly regional features (i.e. no strongly Cockney vowels, no rhoticity, but plenty of glottal replacement and l-vocalisation). Using a Principal Components analysis, we found that our oldest subject group, the 12 year olds, form a relatively homogeneous group linguistically, different from both the 8 and the 4 year olds. What they have converged on is precisely this hard-to-place accent, that is less distinctive than say that of similar children in our home town of Reading or indeed London itself.

This is where the relationship with EE comes in: people who speak this are often highly mobile, socially and geographically; they can converge on it from 'above' (RP) or 'below' (local dialect). Milton Keynes forms a microcosm of this mobility; dialect contact is intense there, as a morning spent in the shopping centre and the market will testify. The result is a range of varieties used by the children - the natives of the new town - that contains fewer geographically marked forms than elsewhere. This means that working class speakers there sound much less 'broad' than people elsewhere, and consequently sound like EE speakers, with non-standard grammatical features.

If people would like me to send them copies of our papers on MK, I will be willing to oblige.

Posted on this UCL P&L site 1998 11 27

The Estuary English site