Cities are often breeding grounds for accents and dialects. They’re the perfect kind of insular, dense communities that allow for people to develop their own ways of talking. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most famous British accents comes from a single neighborhood in London: the cockney accent.
Over the centuries, the cockney accent has become synonymous with working-class London. Specifically, it’s associated with the East End of London. The “traditional” way of defining who counts as being cockney was if they were “born within the sound of Bow Bells,” meaning a person was born close to the St. Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside, London. While this may have been accurate, you don’t have to go to London at all to hear a cockney accent. This accent, emerging from a small section of a city, has had an impact around the world.
The Origins Of The Cockney Accent
Naming an exact starting point for the cockney accent isn’t easy; it’s been slowly developing for hundreds of years now. The word “cockney” itself was used as far back as the 14th century, but it was first used to refer to an egg (the word “cock” referring to a chicken). Through some strange linguistic transformation, cockney in the 1520s was used to refer — derogatorily — to “town dwellers,” who were considered less hardy than their rural counterparts. In the decades following, the word became associated specifically with the East End Londoners we still call cockney today.
The accent itself developed through the usual means. It was influenced by various other accents in England, notably the Essex accent and others from around London. There are also cockney words that were adopted from other languages, including Yiddish and Romani.
There is one feature of the cockney dialect that is easier to find the origin of: cockney rhyming slang. We’ll get into rhyming slang further down, but suffice it to say it’s a system of slang that utilizes rhyming words and common phrases in a way that can be very confusing to outsiders.
Rhyming slang started in the mid-nineteenth century in East London, where it was first used by travelling salesmen who flogged their wares on the streets. There are several theories as to why they decided to speak in such a way. Perhaps, it was a game to catch the attention of passers-by and outsell the competition? A different theory, however, is that the salesmen developed it as a means to confuse their customers, leaving them unsure of what they were saying and more likely to part with their cash in a befuddled state. Rumour has it that this same trick also worked when they were confronted by the police for rather more illicit activities.
Nowadays, finding a Londoner speaking only in rhyming slang is rare indeed. Yet many Londoners will often unthinkingly use instances of cockney rhyming slang, even if their general speech is no longer shaped by the dialect.
How To Do A Cockney Accent
The first step to sounding authentically cockney is to master the sounds. Cockney has a few traits that stick out quite a bit, especially when compared to the Received Pronunciation of the British upper classes.
Some examples of the accent include replacing the “th” sound in words such as “think” with an F sound, which is a phenomenon called th-fronting. Likewise the H sound in words such as “hospital” or “holiday” will be dropped entirely, so that the words are instead pronounced as “‘ospital” or “‘oliday.”
The accent has grown into a badge of pride for its speakers, for whom it represents their hard-working and down-to-earth nature. This open and friendly attitude is best epitomised by the cockney greeting “Awite mate!” (How are you, friend?).
Of course, many have tried to sound cockney, and many have failed. So many, in fact, that there’s even a name for the fake cockney that people use to try to sound cool: mockney. Imitating an accent requires a very good ear and lots of practice. Fortunately, there’s more to cockney than just the accent.
Cockney Rhyming Slang
Let’s say you’re walking down the street in East London, and a random stranger approaches you asking the following question: “Fancy a Britney in the nuclear, me old china?” He continues chatting away quite happily about hail and rain, frogs and toads, apples and pears… You just smile and nod politely, with no idea what he’s talking about. The next thing you know, you’re standing by yourself, clutching a box of broken second-hand crockery, £20 lighter. What just happened? Cockney rhyming slang, that’s what.
The concept of rhyming slang is, as you might suspect, that everything rhymes with what it actually means. “Nuclear sub” means “pub”; for example. And, since the mid-twentieth century, pop culture icons have also become part of cockney rhyming slang, so “Britney” is a reference to “Britney Spears” (obviously), which rhymes with “beers” — so your new East London buddy wasn’t asking if you were up for some cheeky karaoke inside military transportation, he was rather enquiring if you fancied having a pint down the pub. And “old china”? It’s nothing to do with the crockery, instead referring to “china plate” which stands for “mate.”
Where To Hear An Authentic Cockney Accent
The next time you visit London, keep your ears peeled, and you’ll soon discover that cockney-accented speech and bonafide usage of cockney rhyming slang still abound in the capital.
If, however, you fancy brushing up on your cockney from home, then you can’t go wrong with modelling your cockney accent on perhaps the most famous cockney of them all: Michael Caine. If, on the other hand, you wanted an example of how the cockney dialect has influenced the modern London accent, then check out Jason Statham’s performance in the film Snatch.
How To Use Proper Cockney Rhyming Slang
Many people attempting the cockney dialect make the mistake of thinking that if they simply throw in an expression such as “apples and pears” into a sentence, then they will be able to seamlessly blend into an East End pub. But, this couldn’t be further from the truth! If you really want to cut the mustard with a real cockney speaker, then you need to learn the art of employing proper cockney rhyming slang.
The secret? When you use these rhymes within a sentence, you need only say the first word of the rhyme! Sound complicated? Check out these examples to see just how you can use cockney correctly.
“I want to rabbit with you in the nuclear.”
Translation: “I want to talk with you in the pub.”
Unlock the rhyme: Rabbit (and pork) = Talk. Nuclear (sub) = Pub.
“Fancy a butcher’s?”
Translation: “Want to take a look?”
Unlock the rhyme: Butcher’s (hook) = Look.
“Babbel rang me on the dog.”
Translation: “Babbel rang me on the phone.”
Unlock the rhyme: Dog (and bone) = Phone.
This article was originally published on November 22, 2016. It has been updated.