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The History Collection

Tuer, Andrew White, 1838-1900 / Old London street cries ; and, The cries of to-day : with heaps of quaint cuts including hand-coloured frontispiece (1885)

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COCKNEY PRONUNCIATION.

DEAR MR. TUER,—

The Cockney sound of long ā which is confused with received ī, is very different from it, and where it approaches that sound, the long ī is very broad, so that there is no possibility of confusing them in a Cockney's ear. But is the sound Cockney ? Granted it is very prevalent in E. and N. London, yet it is rarely found in W. and S.W. My belief is that it is especially an Essex variety. There is no doubt about its prevalence in Essex, so that [very roughly indeed] "I say" there becomes "oy sy." Then as regards the ō and ou. These are never pronounced alike. The ō certainly often imitates received ow, though it has more distinctly an ō commencement ; but when   [p. 127]   that is the case, ou has a totally different sound, which dialect-writers usually mark as aow, having a broad ā commencement, almost a in bad. Finer speakers— shopmen and clerks—will use a finer a. The sound of short u in nut, does not sound to me at all like e in net. There are great varieties of this "natural vowel," as some people call it, and our received nut is much finer than the general southern provincial and northern Scotch sounds, between which lie the mid and north England sounds rhyming to foot nearly, and various transitional forms. Certainly the sounds of nut, gnat are quite different, and are never confused by speakers ; yet you would write both as net.

The pronunciation of the Metropolitan area is extremely mixed ; no one form prevails. We may put aside educated or received English as entirely artificial. The N., N.E., and E. districts all partake of an East Anglian character ; but whether that is recent, or belongs to the Middle Anglian character of Middlesex, is difficult to say. I was born in the N. district, within the sound of Bow Bells (the Cockney limits), over seventy years ago, and I do not recall the ī pronunciation of ā in my boyish days, nor do I recollect having seen it used by the older humourists. Nor do I find it in "Errors of Pronunciation and Improper Expressions, Used Frequently and Chiefly by the   [p. 128]   Inhabitants of London," 1817, which likewise does not note any pronunciation of ō like ow. Hence I am inclined to believe that both are modernisms, due to the growing of London into the adjacent provinces. They do not seem to me yet prevalent in the W. districts, though the N.W. is transitional. South of the Thames, in the S.W. districts, I think they are practically unknown. In the S.E. districts, which dip into N. Kent, the finer form of aow for ou is prevalent. The uneducated of course form a mode of speech among themselves. But I am sorry to find even school teachers much infected with the ī, ow, aow, pronunciations of ā, ō, ou, in N. districts.

Of course your Cockney orthography goes upon very broad lines, and you are quite justified in raising a laugh by apparent confusions, where no confusions are made by the speakers themselves, as Hans Breitmann did with the German. The confusion is only in our ears. They speak a language we do not use. To write the varieties of sounds, especially of diphthongs, with anything like correctness, requires a phonetic alphabet which cannot even be read, much less written, without great study, such as you cannot look for in readers who want only to be amused. But another question arises, Should we lay down a pronunciation ? There never has been any authority capable of doing   [p. 129]   so. Orthoepists may protest, but the fashion of pronunciation will again change, as it has changed so often and so markedly during the last six hundred years ; see the proofs in my Early English Pronunciation. Why should we not pronounce ā as we do ī, pronouncing ī as we do oy ? Why should we not call ō as we now call ow, pronouncing that as aow ? Is not our ā a change from ī (the German ei, ai) in say, away, pain, etc. ? Is not our ou a change from our sound of oo in cow, etc. ? Again, our oo replaces an old oh sound. There is nothing but fashion which rules this. But when sounds are changed in one set of vowels, a compensating change takes places in another set, and so no confusion results. In one part of Cheshire I met with four sounds of y in my, never confused by natives, although a received speaker hears only one, and all arose from different sources. Why is one pronunciation horrid (or aw-ud), and another not ? Simply because they mark social grades. Of course I prefer my own pronunciation, it's been my companion for so many years. But others, just as much of course, prefer theirs. When I brought out the Phonetic News, in phonetic spelling, many years ago, a newsvendor asked me, "Why write neewz ? We always say nooze."

Very truly yours,
ALEXANDER J. ELLIS.

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