Out you rogue, you hedge-bird, you pimp … Does’t so, snotty nose? Good lord, are you snivelling? You were engendered on a she-beggar in a barn.” These lines from Bartholomew Fair evoke something of the flavour of London speech, even if they do not catch its particular accent and intonation.
London speech has been variously described both as harsh and as soft, but the predominant characteristic is that of slackness. W. Matthews, author of Cockneys Past and Present, suggests that “Cockneys avoid movement of the lips and jaw as far as possible”; M. MacBride, author of London’s Dialect, makes the same point, after examining microsegments and terminal contour peaks, nuclei and junctures, by declaring that “the Cockneys avoid, as far as possible, any unnecessary movements of the articulating organs.” In other words, they are lazy speakers. One more obvious point might also be made. If the Cockney voice is indeed “harsh,” it is perhaps because Cockneys have always inhabited a harsh and noisy city where the need to be heard above the roar of “unresting London” is paramount.
There are many famous examples of what became known as Cockney— a “piper” rather than a “paper,” “Eye O pen” rather than “High Holborn,” “wot” not “what.” There are also very familiar constructions—“so I goes … and he goes” is now more common than “so I says … and he says,” but the immediacy is still there. “Innit?” or “Ennit?” are now more favoured than “Ain’t it?,” and memorable phrases such as “’E didn’t ’alf ’it ’er, ’e did” or “You ain’t seen nuffin” or “nuffink” can still be heard in certain regions of the East End. Other Cockneyisms, however, have not survived the middle decades of the twentieth century. “For why?” is uncommon, as is “summut.” Even “blimey” is fading out of discourse. Certain Cockneyisms—familiar perhaps from the novels of Dickens—are now of distant vintage. “Wery” instead of “very,” “wulgar” rather than “vulgar,” are quite out of use, although the device was always more popular in fiction than upon the streets; the same might be said of “Hexcuse” rather than “excuse.” In the early decades of the twentieth century you might hear a stall-keeper shouting out: “Plees to reck-leck [please recollect] that at this ’ere stall you gets …”; but no longer. It would once have been possible to hear the following sentence from a Cockney waiter—“There are a leg of mutton, and there is chops”—but that particular construction appears to have gone out of favour. Some words have simply shifted allegiance; in the mid-nineteenth century Cockneys would tend to employ “Ax” rather than “Ask,” but that ellipsis is now in use predominantly among black Londoners. One construction is still current— “paralysed, like” or “fresh, like”—even though it has been part of the London tongue for at least two centuries. A more substantial point can be made in this context, too, since there is clear evidence that Cockney English has not changed in its essentials for over five hundred years.
Its history is significant, therefore, if only to demonstrate once more the essential continuities of London life. Cockney has always represented an oral rather than a written culture, sustained by an unbroken succession of native speakers, but for many centuries there was no standard London speech. The legacy of the Old English tongue left a variety of identifiable dialects among the citizens of early medieval London; we can trace south-eastern speech, south-western speech and East Midland speech. West Saxon was the language of Westminster, because of the historical connection between the reigning sovereign’s household and Winchester, while the predominant language of the city itself was East Saxon; hence the connections throughout the centuries between the London dialect and the Essex dialect. “Strate” in London was “strete” at Westminster. There was no standard or uniform pronunciation, in other words; it would have differed even from parish to parish.
There were other forms of speech, too, which rendered the language of the city more heterogeneous and polyglot. One linguistic survey of the registers of London English, from the last decade of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fifteenth, reveals a vast range of sources and borrowings. In the previously unstudied archives of London Bridge, generally dealing with the employment of Thames fishermen, there are elements of Old English, Anglo-Norman and medieval Latin as well as Middle Dutch and Middle Low German; this might be considered merely the work of educated clerks transcribing the rough tongue into a more polished and formal style, but in fact all the evidence suggests that there was a truly “mixed” or “macaronic” style caused by “the interaction between different registers of London English.” The author of Sources of London English, Laura Wright, has also pointed out that Londoners “who used French and Latin habitually in their work would in all probability retain the terminology of these languages even when discussing or thinking about their work in English.” We do not need to imagine Thames fishermen, however, speaking classical Latin. Their Latin would have been some form of argot or patois which included terms inherited from the time of the Romans. The addition of French is predictable enough, after the Conquest, when all these tongues became part of the fabric of living speech.
There were, however, broad patterns of change. During the fourteenth century the dominant East Saxon voice of London was displaced by that from the Central and East Midlands; there is no single reason for this shift, although it is likely that over several generations the more wealthy or educated merchant families had emigrated from that region into the city. There was in the same period another essential linguistic change, when this different and apparently more “educated” language inaugurated a slow process of standardisation. By the end of the fourteenth century there had emerged a single dialect, known as “London English,” which in turn became what the editor of the Cambridge History of the English Language calls “modern literary Standard English.” Writing standards were progressively set by the scribes of Chancery, too, with their emphasis upon correctness, uniformity and propriety.
So the East and Central Midland dialect became the language spoken by educated Londoners and increasingly the language of the English generally. What happened, then, to the East Saxon dialect which had previously been the native tongue of the native Londoner? To a certain extent it was displaced but, more importantly, it was demoted. One of the central prejudices against its use lay in the fact that it had always been spoken and rarely, if ever, written down. Thus these “vocal cries” were filled with “Incongruities and Barbarism.” By the sixteenth century this difference between “standard” and what had become “Cockney” English was well enough understood to be the subject of critical attention, but the salient fact was its survival.
The vestry records of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries show that Cockney was not only well established but already exhibited certain permanent features. Thus “the abbot of Westmynster and the monks reprevyed … Mr. Phipp who was chosen constable in which complaint he made appear his imbecility … yt was erecktyde by most voysses … without the least predyges of the paryshe … he wold nott church a woman owt-sept she wold com at vi in the mornyng.” Then there were the double negatives: “he shuld neuer trobell the parish no more … not otherwysse to be ussyd at noo tyme”; in a seventeenth-century stage play this is parodied as “Were you never none of Mister Moncaster’s scholars?” Here again we can hear them talking: “Att this vestry it was ffurder menshoned whether the parishe would be pleased to Accept of Mr. Gardener for to bee a Lecterrer … greytt necklygence of our pyssheners.” In diaries of the sixteenth century, particularly that of Henry Machyn, there are phonetic spellings that catch the very accent and intonation of these early Cockneys: “anodur” for “another” and “alff” for “half.” Vestmynster, Smytfeld, Hondyche and Powlles Cross are mentioned together with Honsley heth and Bednoll Grene. One of Machyn’s entries concerns a sudden bolt of lightning, when “on of servand was so freyd that ys here stod up, and yt wyll never come down synes.” A diligent investigator has also found many devices, used by Cockneys of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which are still familiar; among them are “Stren” instead of “Strand,” “sattisfectory” instead of “satisfactory,” “texes” instead of “taxes,” “towled” instead of “told,” “owlde” instead of “old,” “chynes” not “chains,” “rile” instead of “rail,” “suthe” instead of “south,” “hoathe” instead of “oath,” “orfunt” instead of “orphan,” “cloues” instead of “clothes,” “sawgars” instead of “soldiers,” “notamy” instead of “anatomy,” “vill” instead of “will,” “usse” instead of “house,” “’im” instead of “him.” Certain key words and phrases have also survived the centuries, among them “sav’d ’is bacon,” bouze (drink), poppet (girl), elbow-grease (energy), paw (hand), swop (exchange) and tick (credit). The central point is clear: the Cockney speech of the twenty-first century is in many respects identical to that of the sixteenth century. As an oral tradition, it has never died.
Cockney of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was also reproduced on stage, as well as in written reports, but at this early date it was parodied rather than mocked. Mistress Quickly, the garrulous hostess of the Boar’s Head in East Cheap in the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, might stand as an emblem for the more strident Cockney females. “I was before Master Tisick, the debuty, t’other day; and, as he said to me, ‘twas no longer than Wednesday last, ‘I’ good faith, neighbour Quickly,’ says he; Master Dumbe, our minister, was by then; ‘neighbour Quickly,’ says he, ‘receive those that are civil; for’ said he, ‘you are in an ill name.’” It might be the voice of Mrs. Gamp, almost three centuries later. Shakespeare must have heard these elisions, repetitions and asides whenever he walked through the streets of the city.
Fielding was another wonderful observer of London life in the first decades of the eighteenth century; he heard the voices, too, and reproduced them with great precision. “It would be the hiest preasumption to imagine you eggnorant of my loave. No, madam, I sollemly purtest,” writes Jonathan Wild to an assumed admirer, “… I have not slept a wink since I had the hapness of seing you last; therefore hop you will, out of Kumpassion …”
It is the same accent identified by Smollett at a slightly later date. “Coind sur, Heaving the playsure of meating with you at the ospital of anvilheads [invalids], I take this lubbertea of latin you know …” There is more than humour here; there is also a sense of farce and singularity which in no way condemns the Cockney speakers for their mannerisms. In the same spirit the dramatic vitality and sympathy, to be found in Shakespeare, emerge in these other urban writers. Smollett practised for a while as a surgeon in Downing Street, and Fielding as a judge in Bow Street; they knew all the voices. Their connection with London speech also throws a suggestive light upon the observations of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, writing in his journal of 1826, that for “a man of letters who endeavours to cultivate, however modestly, the medium of Shakespeare and Milton … London must ever have a great illustrative and suggestive value, and indeed a kind of sanctity.”
Writers of a later generation were more concerned with polite taste and the maintenance of “good” English as the medium of enlightenment. In that context the Cockney accent becomes absurd, and deplorable. So, in dramas of the mid-eighteenth century, it is lampooned. “I have heard, good Sir, that every Body has a more betterer and more worserer Side of the Face than the other … It is the onliest way to rise in the world … all them kind of things.” Soon enough there were treatises and educational manuals which condemned the vulgarity and incorrectness of Cockney speech; their prejudice was strengthened with the proliferation of board schools and religious schools where, in the context of national education, the Cockney speaker was considered “uneducated” and illiterate. Since “London English” had become the standard of “proper” English, so in turn the native dialect of London was all the more strongly condemned. It became the mark of error and vulgarity.
The figure of the Cockney, however, never disappeared. The term itself has been considered one of derision. “Cockney” is generally supposed to derive from the medieval term “cokenay” or cock’s egg; in other words an unnatural object or freak of nature. There is another, equally derisory, explanation. A Londoner, on his first visit to the country, is supposed innocently to have asked, “Does a cock neigh too?” But there is also the possibility of more agreeable origins. One historian has suggested that it comes from the Latin term coquina, or “cookery,” and derives from the time when London was considered the great centre of cook-shops. It may also come from the Celtic myth of London as “Cockaigne,” a place of milk and honey, of whom the Cockneys are the true inhabitants. Yet even this origin has been held against them. By the fifteenth century the term was synonymous with “a milksop … an effeminate fellow” and in the sixteenth century was “a derisive appellation for a townsman as a type of effeminacy, in contrast to the hardier inhabitants of the country.” Sometimes he or she seems to be an image of pity, then, as in Dickens’s reproduction of the crossing-sweeper’s conversation—“a sov’ring as waw give me by a lady in a wale as sed she was a servant and as come to my crossin’ one night as asked to be showd this ’ere ouse.” But there are many Cockney characters in Dickens who retain their exuberance and vitality. There is Ikey in “A Passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle,” from Sketches by Boz, who has the very model of a Cockney manner: “He seed her several times, and then he up and said he’d keep company with her … the young lady’s father he behaved even worser and more unnatural … So then he turns round to me and says … and wasn’t he a trembling, neither.” Dickens was a master of the spoken word and throughout his fiction he evinces his command of the London dialect. It might even be said that the nineteenth century was the one in which Cockneys and Cockneyisms really flourished. They were no longer the city merchants or innkeepers of the seventeenth-century drama or the aspiring (if vulgar) neighbours of the eighteenth-century novel; they were considered to be members of a distinctive and extensive group.
The rise of rhyming slang, for example, can be dated to the first decades of the nineteenth century, when there emerged phrases such as “apples and pears” for “stairs” and “trouble and strife” for “wife.” Back-slang, or the reversal of words, also appeared at this time. Thus is “yob,” for example, slang for “boy.”
In the same century, too, the Cockney fully emerged as an identifiable if not always lovable character. Writers including Pierce Egan, Henry Mayhew and G.A.H. Sala—whose careers span the entire century—copied a recognisable idiom in such phrases as “She’s a bloody rum customer when she gets lushy” or “They doesn’t care nothink for nobody” or “She tipp’d him a volloper right across the snout.”
The literature of Cockney in the nineteenth century is for all practical purposes endless, but it found one specific focus in the language of the music hall. Performers such as Albert Chevalier, Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and Gus Elan gave Cockney idiom artistic form and direction; it allowed the genuine outflow of communal feeling with songs such as “My Shadow is My Only Friend” and “I Wonder What It Feels like to be Poor.” They are the true songs of London. The routines of the “halls” encouraged much elaboration and ingenuity, also, so that it can fairly be said that the standard of Cockney was set by the 1880s. Certainly this was the period that witnessed the emergence of what may still be called modern Cockney.
Its most fastidious exponent was, perhaps, Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle: “There’s menners f’yer. Te-oo banches o’ voylet trod into the mad … Ow eez yee-ooa san, is ’e?” The last sentence—“Oh he’s your son, is he?”— is indicative of Shaw’s skill at phonetic reproduction, but it is not always easy upon the ear or eye. Other examples of twentieth-century Cockney may be more amenable. “The other dye I ‘appened ter pick up a extry ’alf-thick-un throo puttin’ money on my opinyun of the Gran’ Neshnal. Well, nar, the fancy tikin’ me, I drops in on a plice as were a cut above whart I patterinizes as a yooshal thing.” This dates from 1901, and then twenty-one years later we have the following: “Vere was a bloke goin’ dahn Tah’r Bridge Road, an’ ve Decima Stree’ click se’ abaht ’im. Vey dropped ’im one …”
Pronunciations like “relytions” (relations), “toime” (time), “owm” (home), “flahs” (flowers), “inselt” (insult), “arst” (asked), “gorn” (gone), “I done it” (I did it), have become standard. Certain words and phrases have changed. “Smashin’,” for example, has become “blindin’” or “brilliant.” Other words have been retrieved. “Mate” or “mite” went quite out of fashion, but then returned through the intermediary of Australian television soap opera. But in general terms construction and intonation have remained the same. A speaker from the 1960s—“He did not say nothing … so he come in and just as he come in … Right in the corner it was … Of course they was cursing … So—any way—I give one look … I seen them … Them days”—does not differ radically from any Cockney speaker of the early twenty-first century.
One proviso ought to be entered, however. There are still speakers of modern or standard Cockney but among younger Londoners it has become milder or at least more subdued; this may be the result of better formal education, but is perhaps more closely related to the general diminution of local or native dialects as a result of mass “media” communications.
Yet it is still a remarkable record of continuity; native London speech has survived all the incursions of intellectual fashion, educational practice or social disapproval and has managed to retain its vitality after many centuries of growth. Its success reflects, and indeed may even be said to embody, the success of the city itself. Cockney grew, like London, by assimilation; it borrowed other forms of speech, and made them its own. It has taken words from Dutch and Spanish, Arabic and Italian, French and German; it has borrowed the cant of thieves and the argot of prison. Since the city itself has on many occasions been described as a prison, it is fitting that the language of the Cockney should in part be the language of the convict, from “nark” to “copper.” Given the general and persistent violence of London life, also, it is not altogether surprising that the London dialect has taken many words and phrases from the boxing ring including “kisser,” “conk,” “scrap” and “hammer.” Other terms have come from the army and navy, where Cockneys served, and in recent decades Americanisms have also been assimilated. Thus the language thrives.
Cockney has other characteristics which also serve to define the life of the city. It benefits from an extraordinary theatricality; it is filled with a magniloquence and intensity not unconnected to braggadocio. In Machyn’s diaries of the sixteenth century we encounter the same bravura which, with some modifications, can still be heard on the streets of London: “the goodlyest scollers as ever you saw … the greth pykkepus as ever was … ther was syche a cry and showtt as has not byne.” This is also related to the Cockney tendency to mix up, or misunderstand, apparently impressive words in an effort to convince the hearer. A bathroom wall may be “covered in condescension” or an elderly person may suffer from “Alka-seltzer disease.” Other observers have noted such phrases as “Yer a septic … collector of internal residue … jumbo sale … give ’im a momentum when he retires.” The list is endless.
There is a certain cheerfulness and perkiness, too, which is as much a characteristic of the city as of the language. Londoners are fond of proverbs and of catchphrases, and of very harsh oaths which are a combination of comedy, aggression and cynicism. Their tongue has therefore been described as generally “crude and materialistic” but with precisely those characteristics it resembles and reflects the city in which it was fashioned.
Slang and catch-phrases are as old as the language itself. The streets of London have always been filled with slogans and catcalls. We can date some as far back as the fifteenth century. “Who put a turd in the boy’s mouth?,” “As bare as a bird’s arse” and “God save you from the rain” are typical examples of street language. There were other expressions which had a specific urban origin. A famous performing horse, Morocco, for example, when asked by its owner to pick out the biggest fool in the audience, chose the comedian and jester Richard Tarleton, whose response, “God a mercy, horse,” ran through London at the end of the sixteenth century. It could be used as a token of any kind of annoyance, but it had a comic touch because of its associations. “Oh good, Sir Robert, knock!” became in the seventeenth century a general cry of reproach among Londoners at some naughty deed; its derivation was the knock of a hammer to stop flagellation in Bridewell.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, too, street slang appears and disappears for no particular reason. The word “quoz” was a great favourite, for example, and was capable of almost any meaning. According to Charles Mackay, in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, it was a mark of incredulity, or hilarity, or condescension. “When a mischievous urchin wished to annoy a passenger, and create mirth for his chums, he looked him in the face and cried out ‘Quoz!’ … Every alehouse resounded with Quoz; every street corner was noisy with it, and every wall for miles around was chalked with it.” It was followed by another favourite phrase of street life, “What a shocking bad hat!,” which was directed at almost anyone of distinctive appearance. This in turn was followed by the single word “Walker!,” which was designed to cause maximum offence and “was uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last.” It was used by young women to deter an admirer, by young boys mocking a drunk, or to anyone impeding the way. It lasted three or four months only, and was replaced by another piece of London slang which lasted an equally short period, “There he goes with his eye out.” This was rivalled in its unfathomability by another popular phrase, “Has your mother sold her mangle?,” which became a customary term of abuse among the Cockney population. Brevity and incomprehensibility are the two marks of popular favour. In the 1830s another phrase, “flare up,” became literally the talk of the town. “It answered all questions and settled all disputes,” Charles Mackay wrote, “… and suddenly became the most comprehensive phrase in the English language.” A man who had spoken out of turn, or who had drunk too much, or had been involved in a quarrel, had consequently “flared up.” Its popularity lasted, again, for a short time, to be followed by “Does your mother know you’re out?,” addressed to anyone who looked a little too pompous or self-satisfied—as in the retort by the cab driver to the peer who resisted the attempt to be charged double.
There are other examples of this continual invention of new words or phrases which seem mysteriously to resound in the streets of London immediately after they have been coined by—who knows whom? It is almost as if they were invented by the city itself, and sent echoing down the alleys and thoroughfares in the litany of London generations: “I can come it slap … Would you be surprised to hear? … Go it! … Immensikoff! … It’s naughty but it’s nice … Whatcher me old brown son … Chase me … Whoa, Emma! … Have a banana … Twiggey-voo! … Archibald, certainly not … There’s a lot of it about it … He’s a splendid performer, I don’t think … Can I do you now, sir … It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going … See you later alligator … Shut that door.” The most recent examples come respectively from music hall, radio and television—television, together with cinema and popular music, now being the most fruitful source of street slang.
The tradition continues, principally because it is an aspect of Cockney humour once known as “chaff.” We hear in the eighteenth century of Londoners being sent into “convulsions” of laughter by prints of a couple yawning after sexual intercourse. The humour could also be of a more personal kind. Steele, in the Spectator of 11 August 1712, tells the story of an eighteenth-century gentleman who was approached by a beggar and politely asked for sixpence so that he might visit a tavern. “He urged, with a melancholy Face, that all his Family had died of Thirst. All the Mob have Humour, and two or three began to take the Jest.” The “Humour” of “the Mob” here consists in the beggar implicitly mocking the gentleman, a form of burlesque which is the most common form of Cockney humour. Chimney-sweeps were dressed up as clergymen; shoe-blacks, “with their footstools on their heads,” were driven around the “ring” of Hyde Park at the precise moment when the fashionable were about to parade. They were levelling distinctions, and parodying wealth or rank. William Hazlitt divined in The Plain Speaker of 1826 that “Your true Cockney is your only true leveller.” He concluded that “Everything is vulgarised in his mind. Nothing dwells long enough on it to produce an interest; nothing is contemplated sufficiently at a distance to excite curiosity or wonder … He has no respect for himself, and still less (if possible) for you. He cares little about his own advantage, if he can only make a jest out of yours. Every feeling comes to him through a medium of levity and impertinence.” This may represent too jaundiced an attitude, however, since the levelling humour is also related to the spirit of “fair play” which was said to be prevalent among the London crowd; one of the great Cockney expressions was “Fair play’s a jewel.” In this spirit the street urchins of the nineteenth century might innocently ask a gentleman, “Is the missus quite well?” Swift remembered a child declaring, “Go and teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”
When street scavengers were confronted by the new “street-sweeping machines,” “a brisk interchange of street wit took place, the populace often enough encouraging both sides.” In similar fashion street fights, however spontaneous, took place according to rules well known to the London crowd. The same equalising spirit of London burlesque may also lie behind the permanent affection for cross-dressing among Cockneys. Theatrical transvestism has been prominent in London entertainments for centuries—from Mrs. Noah of the medieval pageants to the latest act in a London “drag” club. When in 1782 the actor Bannister played the character of Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera—itself a great emblem of London—one member of the audience “was thrown into hysterics which continued without intermission until Friday morning when she expired.”