Is the Glasgow Accent Being “Cockneyfied?”

The Scottish Borders

Photo: Stara Blazkova

I’ve often discussed Estuary English, the London-influenced accent spreading throughout England. One piece of evidence?  Young people in Glasgow seem to be adopting ‘Cockney’ pronunciations. If the Glasgow accent is indeed becoming more ‘Southeastern,’ this would be a powerful indicator of London’s linguistic dominance.  After all, if kids as far-flung as Scotland talk like Londoners, Estuary must be colonizing Britain!

The “Cockney in Glasgow” theory is summarized by this dubious Wikipedia entry:

Studies have indicated that working-class adolescents in areas such as Glasgow have begun to use certain aspects of Cockney and other Anglicisms in their speech … Researches [sic] suggest the use of English speech characteristics is likely the influence of London and South East England accents featuring heavily on television.

I have some qualms about the above paragraph (of the 9 links cited, only 1 is a “study”). But taking these claims at face value: Is the Glasgow accent really becoming more like Cockney? Or are these changes mere coincidence?

Let’s look at the three “Estuary” features found in Glasgow:

Non-rhoticity: That is, some younger Glaswegians drop the ‘r’ at the end of words like car, butter, and core.

L-vocalization: Like Cockneys, some younger Glaswegians turn the ‘l’ at the end of syllables into different types of ‘w’- or ‘oo’-like sounds. So battle might sound like “battow” or “battoo.”

TH-fronting: Like Cockney, the English /th/ may become ‘f’ or ‘v’–both becomes “bof,” bother becomes “bovver,” etc.

To give you an idea of what a contemporary, adolescent Glasgow accent sounds like, I refer you to this video, which I posted a few months back:*

I have several reservations about the “Glasgow Cockney” theory.  First off, as per the video, Glasgow ‘r-dropping’ is different from London ‘r-dropping.’ The young man interviewed exhibits a kind of ‘swallowed r’ (for you phoneticians, that would be ‘a pharyngealized r’).* That’s unlike London, where the ‘r’ entirely disappears after vowels.

I find the other features of Glasgow “Cockneyfication” even less convincing. In the US, /th/-fronting (i.e. ‘both’ = ‘bof’) and l-vocalization (‘trouble’ = ‘trubbow’) go hand in hand in several accents or dialects: African American Vernacular English, Mid-Atlantic (Philadelphia/Baltimore) English, and some varieties of Southern English. I don’t believe Cockney has influenced any of those accents.  Why Glasgow?

And what about geography? Why do these features skip past Northern England to land feet first in Scotland? Our overexcited Wikipedian’s answer is ‘the media,’ that vague linguistic bogeyman (bogeymen?) blamed for the English talking like Americans; everybody in the British Isles talking like Londoners; public school students talking like Cockneys; and x ethnicity talking like y ethnicity.  More evidence is needed.

Joking aside, I won’t completely reject the notion that hours of EastEnders has led Scottish teenagers to drop their r’s. I just need more convincing. After hearing countless permutations of the complaint, “the young people talk funny because of the TV,” I’m become wary of such assumptions.

Any plausible theories?

*Don’t mean to imply anything about Glasgow or the Glasgow accent by posting this. Alas, it’s a really good accent sample!

**Okay, not exactly. Here’s the Inner Pedant version: Much as l-vocalization begins with post-vocalic /l/ being velarized, I would assume the process with /r/ begins with post-vocalic r being pharyngealized, then the apical gesture being reduced until only a pharyngeal consonant remains.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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34 Responses to Is the Glasgow Accent Being “Cockneyfied?”

  1. Interesting post Ben, but only just begins to scratch the surface (as might be expected!). The media is certainly a contributory factor here, but perhaps not in quite the simplistic way we might expect (re: watch EastEnders-> acquire TH-fronting -> produce TH-fronting).

    Some really great work is being done by Jane Stuart-Smith at University of Glasgow, and I’ve posted briefly about it in my own blog:

    http://thesociallinguist.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/sociolinguistics-summer-school-3/

    I don’t think there’s any one explanation for what is going on here, but I think that Jane is onto some good stuff with trying to move beyond traditional models of language change.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for the link, Robert! I’ve actually had a hard time tracking down Stuart-Smith’s actual research on this, which is why I don’t mention her above (don’t want want to misrepresent her work!) There is a power-point presentation online from a lecture she gave, but it obviously doesn’t tell the whole story. I also found an excellent paper she wrote on the matter in 2007, but she concluded by urging very much the same caution that I do in the above post. Know anything about her more recent findings?

      I also want to state, for the record, that the above is not intended to be a “rebuttal” to any actual studies regarding the media’s influence on Glaswegian: rather, the Glasgow-Cockney connection is something I’ve heard from a number of people outside of an academic context, and I think everybody (myself included) should use a bit of caution before assuming entirely media-related causes before all the facts are in.

      My slight skepticism with regards to three features mentioned above is their frequency in various dialects of English. As I hint at above, African American Vernacular English often features all three of these features, despite having no connection to London English. So I’d want to see some pretty compelling evidence that these aren’t independent developments.

      • I’m happy to send you a couple of her more recent articles on this, and she’s working on a book at the moment as well which should be out next year.

        As I said, it’s not simply about watching TV, engagement plays a large role in this, and determining whether it’s causal or correlation is difficult, but the statistical analyses seem to bear out that a simple correlation doesn’t quite cut it.

        Although they are more frequent in the dialects you mention, one thing is that the variants under consideration can be historically attested. Glaswegian, on the other hand, doesn’t. Scottish English is typically r-ful and non-TH-fronting, right back to its origins. The fact that they’ve suddenly exploded in usage (among a very particular population) can’t be explained by traditional gravity models or wave models of language change. And I’m not convinced by the idea that they’re independent developments simply because of the speed and rate of change. If they were independent developments, you would expect them to be constrained within a small speech community, not to spread quite as far as they have in as short a space of time.

  2. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    Surely, young Scots watch more series and films with various North American accents than those with Cockney? Yet we hear no one from Scotland adopting features of American accents?
    As far as I am concerned, TV strongly influencing anyone’s accent is firmly in the lay linguistic myth territory. You need frequent actual two-way communication for anything like that.

    • trawicks says:

      I have mixed feelings about it. When I was growing up, many Caucasian teenage boys I went to school with adopted features of African American Vernacular English, despite having little to no direct contact with that dialect. It’s almost a certainty that they picked these features up from various media. But that case strikes me as a bit different for two reasons: (1.) they adopted an entire dialect wholesale, rather than individual features, and (2.) I’m almost certain they don’t speak that way now.

      • Mary Bucholtz has some great work on AAVE being used by white kids (mainly white males), almost as a way of claiming symbolic capital of a certain type of masculinity. Maybe that influenced the kinds of choices the boys in your school made re: their speech?

        • Andrej Bjelaković says:

          Hah, we posted our replies at the same time. Yes, the paper I mentioned was my Mary Bucholtz, I’m pretty sure. Covert prestige and all that.

      • Andrej Bjelaković says:

        Well, certain slang words originating in AAVE? Sure, TV could’ve done that. But if it’s accent we’re talking about, then that little contact, however little it may have been must’ve done it, IMO.

        Or, more likely, those white boys had contact with other white boys who had more contact with some black boys etc. etc. I… *think* I once skimmed a paper that dealt with something like that. I’ll try to track it down.

    • Maybe they do, but it’s not simply to do with watching, and listening to some of the data collected on this, the speakers who exhibit this kind of TH-fronting *are* in some way engaged in pseudo-two-way conversations with the television. Have you ever shouted at the television? Said something directly to it when an interview is on or anything like that? That’s the kind of engagement I’m talking about.

      In the recorded conversations of Glaswegian speakers, when they start talking about EastEnders, it’s almost as though they are speaking about them *as if they were real characters*. Now, of course they know they’re not real, but the engagement is there.

      The other thing that you allude to is that a feature used on television needs to have the potential to be integrated into the linguistic system of the speaker exposed to it. So although someone might watch loads of American TV, the phonology is so different to the existing system that it would be difficult for features to be integrated. But in the case of something like TH-fronting, it’s not quite as far a stretch to integrate that into the existing system. Even then, it’s not so straight forward because [f] competes not only with [θ] in Glasgow, but also with [h] (so ‘hink’ for ‘think’), so it’s a three-way competition.

      I don’t think it’s quite as extreme as you say (cf. ‘strongly influencing’), but it is something which appears to have an effect. Quite how this maps out in real-life language use is something currently being investigated, but the points made by Stuart-Smith are quite persuasive (IMO).

  3. KEDkrafty says:

    I’m not going to venture an opinion on the general theme for discussion, but I must stress that ned is absolutely not an acronym for Non-Educated Delinquent. It is not an acronym for anything. It just a noun meaning hard-man or thug. It has recently become fashionable to “unvent it” in this way. It’s just a word, not an acronym.

  4. Ed says:

    It’s interesting that all the features mentioned are consonants. British people pay far more attention to their vowels than to their consonants.

    I agree with your analysis that there’s no reason to credit these changes to Estuary English. Non-rhoticity is a feature of most of the speech in England and Wales.

    One point: your image is a sign from the southern area of Scotland. The Scottish Borders is a council area of Scotland, and they have a very different dialect there. Glasgow has its own council.

    • trawicks says:

      I was waiting for someone to make that point! No, actually, I just put that up there to symbolize the notion of Estuary creeping northward … oooor maybe I just liked the colors.

      • Póg Muhone says:

        With deep respect (and the possibility that you are “American” which would, of corse, excuse you!), on this side of the Atlantic ‘color’ is spelt “colour”. Such is the case in all Estuaries including the Clyde, the Thames and the Liffey

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    Years ago it was all the rage to claim that television would homogenize American accents. It never happened. I find it absurd to think that TV and other forms of media have suddenly gained some magical abiliity in Great Britain that they never achieved in the United States. It’s a lot of baloney.

  6. Sorry, being hammering this page with comments! If you hadn’t already guessed, this area is closely aligned with my own research interests!

  7. trawicks says:

    @Marc,

    I agree that American television was never the great leveller of dialects it was supposed to be. Matthew Engels’ crazed rants to the contrary!

    @Robert,

    This is in response to several comments. You make a good point about how quickly l-vocalization seems to be spreading–that’s something I hadn’t considered. BTW, In the one Stuart-Smith paper I have read (which I can’t locate at the moment), she mentioned that l-vocalization was “sprodically” reported in the early 1980s. I’d note that this would suggest the feature existed before EastEnders, although it would be silly to assume that fact proves or disproves anything.

    Regardless, it would seem that l-vocalization was present in the speech of at least a small minority of Glaswegians for several decades. Why it seems to have suddenly become more common is the question at hand!

    • Well, L-vocalisation exists in Scottish English anyway (e.g. baw ~ ball, fu’ ~ full etc), but the words it’s spreading to (bible, people etc) seem to be exhibiting an innovative form of L-vocalisation.

      TH-fronting was also reported in Glaswegian in the 70s (possibly even as early as just post-WW2), and I’m sure I found an example of it in some Older Scots poetry in ‘Richard the furd’ (need to double check this though).

      As you say, it’s the ‘why is it more common now?’ question that’s the difficult one, and I don’t think we can necessarily discount out of hand the effect of the media. It’s a very interesting area of study in sociolinguistics at the moment, and when Jane’s book comes out, I’d hope that she’ll be able to bring together all the different threads she’s been weaving on this topic for the last 10 years or so!

      • trawicks says:

        I actually mentioned an earlier example of l-vocalization in Scots some months back — the possibility of ‘ye aw’ being a relative of American Southern ‘y’all.’ Interestingly, the ‘l’ is often vocalized in the latter term as well (ever seen Paul Deen on the Food Network)? But it’s probably an unrelated development.

        I’d be very interested to read that book when it comes out!

  8. Sandra Jansen says:

    I’m doing work on the north-west of England and TH-fronting is already reported in the middle of the 19th century there. In the same vein, Beal (2007 I believe) has shown that most of those ‘Cockney’ feature were found in the north of England in the 19th century. As for my part, L-vocalisation seems to be a tricky business in the north-west and I have still no clue what is exactly going on there but already Joseph Wright reports some of it for Cumberland.

    • trawicks says:

      Quite interesting. Are there theories as to why th-fronting seems to have receded there?

      • Sandra Jansen says:

        I was gonna say no but you got me thinking. Besides TH fronting TH stopping is reported. Maybe that has something to do with that? I cannot recall exactly what Joan Beal said but I think she just wanted to make a point by saying that those Cockney features are not innovations but had been around for quite a while in some varieties.
        BTW, TH fronting is re-occurring in Carlisle English now (which shouldn’t come as a surprise).

        • trawicks says:

          I sometimes wonder if accent features “go into remission.” That is, they either become only very sporadic or they become confined to small subsets of the population. So perhaps we sometimes confuse innovation with re-emergence.

    • Ed says:

      L-vocalisation in -old words (cold, hold, fold, etc.) was part of the West Yorkshire and Lancashire dialects for a long time, but has now died out. (See KM Petyt, Dialect & Accent in Industrial West Yorkshire, John Benjamins Publishing Company, page 219)

      It was also a part of the Potteries dialect in the Midlands. I don’t know enough about the Potteries to say whether it’s still there or not. I’ve never been there and dialectologists have always ignored the area.

      I had a look on Joanna Beal’s webpage and her only 2007 publication is “Creating and Digitizing Language Corpora”. I don’t think that it would be that one.

  9. Sandra Jansen says:

    Hm, I didn’t want to mention him but Ray Hickey has written an article called ‘Ebb and flow. A cautionary tale of language change’ which discusses exactly this idea. And to be fair, I think that we have to be careful if we talk about innovations sweeping the country. It might not be an innovation after all …

  10. mel says:

    Thts lies man , glesga cunts dnt say bother like bovver :)) we say it lit the wiy it shood b
    Or nae borer

    • Gemma Learmonth says:

      Although crude, the above poster is correct. It’s more often pronounced “bor”, with a swallowed /r/. Similarly, think how Glaswegians use the ubiquitous word “pure”. The /r/ is still very much present. I’d say the above example was a fairly dense Glaswegian accent, and it does differ across the city.

  11. boynamedsue says:

    The theory that this is caused by the media doesn’t stand up to 5 minutes scrutiny. As T said Glaswegians hear estuary accents much less than they hear American ones in the media. Eastenders is out there on its own, and acting English carries serious social stigma in Scotland.

    Th > f has always had a wider range than admitted, I personal believe this because it is a logical reduction when speaking quickly, f requires only a slight lower lip movement instead of the tongue movement neceessary to make th. I’ve certainly heard it all my life in Leeds, and remember childre being told off for saying “fink” at infant school.

    I suspect British Asians may be reinforcing th > f, as Asians often have stronge family links with other areas of Britain, so London Asian English influences the speech of Asians in other areas, who in turn influence their white neighbours.

  12. Andy says:

    Re the question of why certain attributes of south-eastern English seem to have missed the rest of Britain out and appeared in Glasgow i’ve got the following thought.
    With London and Glaswegian once* being the accents most associated with the glottal stop – has this similarity got any bearing on the wider question? . *

    * I say once as we all know the glottal stop has been gradually moving northwards over the last few decades and I believe only the extreme North East of England (as far as England goes anyway) now doesn’t have it.

  13. Marc says:

    Sorry to sound like a total (US) noob here, but is there a transcript of what he’s saying? I’ve listened to the clip about 15 times, and my comprehension has gone from about 20% to about 50%. I’ve discussed it with other US friends, who are at about the same level.

  14. Terry Collmann says:

    Since the OED finds a cite for “ned” from 1910, some time before acronyms became common, I think we can firmly rule out “non-educated delinquent” as its origin.

  15. Giovanbattista says:

    (Sorry for commenting two years later, I just found out about this blog)

    My personal suggestion is to familiarize with current research on accent levelling and urban dialectology. Abstract conceptions of unidentifiable and volatile entities such as Estuary English supposedly colonizing new territories are not a good starting point, based as they are on the (widely believed wrong) assumption that such a variety exists and it can influence the way other people in other parts of Britain do speak. (read Przedlacka, 2003 on the matter).

    I believe a much more serious approach takes into account sociolinguistic factors (sounds associated with “belonging to a place or a group”) as well as geographical and sociophonetic barriers to the spread of new features. In this perspective, the spread of such “London features” as /t/ glottaling, L-vocalisation or TH-fronting in urban areas in the north has been studied seriously for decades and the literature is vaste: the most recent is by Paul Kerswill and people who worked with him (Ann Williams, Sue Fox, Jenny Cheshire, Eivind Tørgersen that might shed some light on “Cockneyisms” in northern teenage speech, also see Peter Trudgill’s investigations in Norwich and Dominc Watt e Lesley Milroy in Newcastle.

    A lot can be found in Foulkes and Docherty’s (eds.)

    Hope this answers your questions.

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