The Most Controversial Thing I Said on this Site

Ricky Gervais

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Writing about dialects (or anything language-related), it’s hard to avoid disagreement.  Yet of all the things I’ve said here, my most controversial statement, it seems, is something fairly trivial. That would be my assertion that comedian Ricky Gervais speaks with an Estuary accent.  I’d like to take a moment to clarify.

Estuary English refers to a type of British accent that is “Londonized” or “Cockneyfied.”  As I’ve said before, this “accent” barely has an accepted definition to begin with.  It’s sometimes described as a happy medium between Received Pronunciation and Cockney, but I don’t know if that hits the mark.  In fact, the only definition I can muster is hopelessly vague:  it’s a type of speech with features associated with the Greater London Area.

Getting back to Mr. Gervais, though, let’s take a listen to his accent (apologies for possible YouTube ads):

The problem with seeking evidence for Estuary’s spread is that many London English features were already present in areas throughout Southern England.  Gervais is from Reading, a city which, given its geographical location between London and the West Country, seems especially hard to pin down in terms of local vs. non-local speech.

In fact, there were “Estuary” features in Reading’s accent that pre-date the coinage of the term.  The 1950s Survey of English Dialects profiled a speaker from Swallowfield, a rural village now incorporated into Reading.  The elderly interviewee, born in 1887, exhibited several features popularly associated with London:  t-glottalling (the ‘t’ in better is pronounced with a glottal stop); backing of the first element in the diphthong in kite and time; and fronting of the first element in the diphthong in mouth and loud.  So it’s hard to say how the accent has changed recently to fit a more “London” mold.

Why, then, do I consider Gervais an Estuary speaker?  I must admit, my classification stems primarily from his frequent vocalization of the letter ‘l’ (i.e. he turns the ‘l’ at the end of “bottle” and “ball” into an “oo” or “w” sound).  That doesn’t strike me as part of the ‘traditional’ Reading accent, but I can’t say for sure: I don’t know what the city may (or may not) have once sounded like.

I’d like to put this to something of a vote, though:  could Gervais be described as an Estuary speaker?  Or would his accent be better classified along local lines?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched 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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31 Responses to The Most Controversial Thing I Said on this Site

  1. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    “could Gervais be described as an Estuary speaker?”

    Not only would I say yes, but he is my go-to example for EE.

    And as for how the Reading accent may have changed to fit a London mould, I’d be surprised if that interviewee born in 1887 didn’t have a rhotic accent.

    • Katie says:

      Yes he did have a rhotic accent as you can hear here . He also had h-dropping, as you can hear immediately, which would be a difference from EE.

      • trawicks says:

        True. That interviewee certainly didn’t speak anything like Estuary, I’m just pointing out that many of the features that are associated with Estuary were already present in the accent of that city.

  2. Malti says:

    Isn’t l-vocalisation a traditional feature of West Country accents as well though? Certainly in Devon, the older the speaker is the more likely they are to pronounce “milk” as if it were “moke”, and Bridgestow becoming Bristol is often attributed to hyper-correction.

    So is it a spread from the East or the West to Reading…

    • trawicks says:

      I’m shaky on some of the finer distinctions of West Country accents, but I think what you’re referring to is possibly a kind of earlier l-vocalization that later receded (and is perhaps now re-emerging). I haven’t heard that about Bristol before, although I have heard of the “Bristol L,” a feature unique to that city where by ‘l’ is inserted after a schwa (hence “comma” sounds like “commel”).

    • Ed says:

      West Country accents retain the L in several other words though (e.g. salmon, walk, palm, etc.).

  3. Jim Johnson says:

    He’s one of my standard examples of EE. The accent is rather elusive – seems it hasn’t become its own stereotype yet… Fascinating that this is your most controversial statement. You need to piss more people off! Keep up the good (angering) work!

    • trawicks says:

      Controversial is maybe a strong word! In sheer venom, an angry commenter once railed against my misuse of “begs the question.” But he seemed like somebody who Googles “beg the question” to find people to argue with, so he doesn’t quite count.

  4. CaitieCat says:

    I think of the fellow who played Gavin on Gavin & Stacey, and who lived in Billericay, and his family, for a nice set of examples of EE. Especially when contrasted with the Welsh accents of Barry and Cardiff that are also much heard.

  5. boynamedsue says:

    Gervaise is influenced by Estuary, as are most Southern British accents. But his residual rhoticism means he’s a bad example of it. You can’t be rhotic and estuary at the same time, as estuary is by definition a non-rhotic accent. Though as a Readingite who lived 15 years in the smoke, he has clearly moved closer to estuary with his vowels and less pronounced rhoticism, he still exhibits vowels which sound ‘country’.

    There are two real barriers to estuary’s spread, rhoticism, which is receeding westwards, and short ‘a’ which is holding its line in the midlands. It’s very difficult for short ‘a’ to go long, as there is big cultural rejection to it.

    • Andrej Bjelaković says:

      Yeah, you’re right about the residual rhoticism, but coud you elaborate on the “vowels which sound country” bit?

      • boynamedsue says:

        I’m not great at phonetics, but the the long “a” he sometimes uses isn’t quite the estuary one, being more like the west country, and the short a doesn’t show as much movement towards “e” as you get in typical estuary accents.

        you’ve got examples in this video at 35-42, fat and snacks. calories 3.29

        start at 3.59

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXTq2_3LfXM

        The “got” vowel is also further back than a typical estuary accent in this clip, and there’s rhoticism for “worthy”, also the vowel is a little further back than estuary.

        This clip sounds much less estuary than the one T linked, and to a British ear has something of the farm about it.

    • trawicks says:

      The reason I don’t exclude Gervais is that his occasional r-fulness is that is very residual, only manifesting itself in a slight slip here and there.

      Interestingly, he most often seems to rhoticize the NURSE vowel. That’s suggests an opposite pattern from what you find in de-rhoticized accents in the US. Whereas a New Yorker (for example), rhoticizes NURSE before rhoticizing unstressed r’s, for Gervais it looks like NURSE may be the last to become NON-rhotic.

      • Andrej Bjelaković says:

        Yeah, Maisie Williams (14), who plays Arya Stark in HBO’s Game of Thrones, is from West Country, but keeps only her NURSE set rhotic (and pretty consistently so, as far as I’ve noticed).

      • Katie says:

        I’ve never heard Gervais pronounce non-pre vocalic r’s before, so this is news to me.

  6. Andy says:

    Re Boynamedsue’s comment about the the spread of Estuary and the holding of the short ‘a’ in the Midlands – does anyone have any comments on the holding of the West Country ‘a’ I know those with similar backgrounds to my cousins (ie working-class, born east Wiltshire late 50s/start 60s) still have the shorter ‘a’ but due to the influx of middle class people from the South East and a lack of affordable housing in the villages those with Wiltshire accents have had to move into towns (Swindon in their case). Does this all equate to an eventual weaening/moving west of the shorter ‘a’ West Country accent?

    • Ed says:

      The picture is incredibly complicated. All of the south west (together with East Anglia and large areas of the Midlands) had a long, fronted vowel [a:] or [æ:]. I think that it is only in East Anglia that [a:] is still the majority’s pronunciation now.

      In most of the West Country, there’s little predictability and it’s on an individual basis whether you say [a] or [ɑː]. This seems to be a vowel in transition at present. As you’d expect, areas closer to the Midlands (e.g. Hereford) have more people who say [a] and areas closer to London have more people that say [ɑː], but God knows what the dominant form is in Cornwall.

      • Katie says:

        So there is a short [a] variant in BATH words in the West Country? I never knew that. I thought that was Northern.

        • AW says:

          I believe [a] is found around Plymouth. (See Wells Vol2 P345)

        • Ed says:

          It’s Midlands as well as Northern. Most of England uses [a] but the BBC favours [ɑː], which gives the impression that [ɑː] speakers are more numerous than they are in reality.

          Basically there’s no rule for BATH in the West Country. The dominant form used to be [a:] but there’s no clear winner any more.

        • Katie says:

          I found Wells’ Accents of English online and he does make West Country BATH sound quite complicated. It seems, based on that and what I’ve been told here that it can be any of [a], [aː], [æ], [æː] and [ɑː]. Or is that an exaggeration?

        • Katie says:

          I suppose it also depends on one’s definition of the West Country. I wouldn’t include Herefordshire, for example.

        • Ed says:

          @ Katie: I don’t live in the south-west, but I think that you are correct. Out of all the dialects of Britain, the West Country one seems to have died out to the greatest extent. What’s left behind is an anarchy of pronunciations. Some say that there is a country-bumpkin stigma to the traditional accent. I find it strange that it’s faded so much, as it’s closer to a General American accent than all other British ones and you’d expect American-sounding accents to be strengthened by the media we receive from over the Atlantic.

          Even John Wells seems confused about this area. He uses /a/ for both BATH and TRAP in Bristol on pp.348-349, yet he says that a BATH-TRAP distinction is made in Bristol on pp.345-6 (with [a:] or [æː] for BATH). In his 2009 speech that I attended, he said of his BATH powerpoint slide that it all gets very murky when you go the West Country.

          If you compare the Bristol vowel system on pp.348-9 to the lexical-sets guide on pp. xviii-xix, Bristol seems closer to General American than to RP. Was this really the case?

  7. Ed says:

    About two years, I was at a speech by John Wells about dialects at a folk festival. He said [in passing] that he had come to the conclusion that Estuary English was all media hype and that different parts of the south-east still have different ways of speaking.

    He is an expert, of course. I (like most northerners) struggle to locate the accent of a south-easterner any more precisely than that, unless they’re an old-fashioned Cockney. However, we can tell the difference between south-west and south-east, and Gervais sounds generally south-east to me. You have to listen very closely to realise that he’s from slightly west of London.

  8. IVV says:

    I can’t really speak to what Estuary English sounds like, but I keep thinking that London is such a mishmash of accents anyway, it would be hard pressed to call one or another a “true example of Estuary.”

    I’d just love to hear your discussion of the accents represented in the series “Misfits.”

  9. Andy says:

    Re Ed’s comment above yes Ricky Gervaise says “summat” which people in certain parts of northern England and the South West (probably starting around Reading) say and which no-one says in the south-east;-)

    But yes I think the whole concept of the “Estuary” accent is all false and possibly cautionary about ideas about ideas springing from less than academic sources.
    The more I read about estuary English the more I come to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist at least not in the way in which some try to explain it. IMO the only possible use the term has is as shorthand for those attempts at what they see as a more down to earth accent by celebrities and middle-class people faking it. A sort of new “mockney”.

    But if it’s to be used to stand for a dialect/accent spoken unselfconsciously by average working-class people in South-eastern England half of the marker’s I’ve seen mentioned to define it are don’t in actuality exist. Non-pronuniciation of the ‘h’ at the beginning of words and the full glottal stop are from my knowledge (someone from a working-class background in the south east (20-30 miles from central London)) as common in those people’s speech as in full-on Cockney. Whilst the ‘estuary’ idea is that the ‘h’ is pronounced and there’s sort of a semi-glottal stop.That from my personal experience is just plain wrong. But if we’re talking the language of minor-royals, MP’s and pop stars slumming it yes the fake demotic they use WOULD include initial ‘h”s and a weird sort of (sometimes) glottal stop and to someone not faking their false accent/dialect is so obviously not real. Therefore the term ‘Estuary English’ shouldn’t be used for the genuine accent of the region and should if it’s used at all remain solely a description for the modern affectation spoken by those I’ve mentioned above.

    Re; the West Country ‘a’ and not to be too simplistic but is the pronunciation of ‘Bath’ etc a question of class and would it be fair to say that that at least for those over about 30 you’d be far pushed to find any working-class native Wst Country people who would use the long ‘a’ . All my father’s side of the family still use it (and that’s as far up as Wiltshire) and ironically (and unusually not connected and all now living in the Halifax area of Yorkshire – I thought there must have been some major migration going on at first!) 4 people I come into regular contact with through my job also all preserve it.
    In all probability if any speakers are becoming ashamed of it they’d probably be those who have gone to university/professionals who would probably have spoken a less broad version of it anyway and who’s families may have wll moved into the area comparetively recently anyway.

  10. AW says:

    Estuary (like “General American”) isn’t a single accent but a range of accents occupying the sociolinguistic space between RP and Cockney. If Ricky has non-London and non-RP features in his accent (like rhoticity and “summat”) then he doesn’t speak it.

    Mockney is quite different, it’s when the expensively-educated start affecting cockney features to sound trendy.

    As for West Country accents, they do seem to be dying out. See this page:
    http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~wmaguire/survey/dawn_horn.html

    Most of those replying to the survey were middle class, but the lost of rhoticity in the South West is striking, compared with analogous features in the north (e.g. http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~wmaguire/survey/gut_foot_hoot.html).

    I suspect it’s because the Wessex accent is seen as the language of inbred yokels, so people have no pride in it, whereas northerners do.

  11. Andy says:

    RE AW:
    I agree with you about what ‘estuary’ is SUPPOSED to mean /originally meant but I have read on many occasions writers talking about minor royals/Eton educated politicians having an ‘estuary’ accent – ie obviously not genuine being a conscious-choice/affectation (ie they didn’t grow up speaking like that). This is far from the original meaning of ‘estuary’ and more aligned with the an annoying affectation of someone slipping into ‘mockney’.

    Re West Country dialect and accent:
    I’m afraid I give very little credence to those surveys you’ve inckluded as by there very (self-responsive) nature they will be answered by mostly (virtually all?) middle class/educated people of the type who would never have had a noticeably broad accent.

    Added to this they admit that they had too few responses from the region to give an accurate result – notwithstanding this and in my view surprisingly in view of the survey’s unsatisfactory nature the poor colour scheme on one does still mask a slight preponderance of ‘West Country’ markers which the commentary seems to ignore.

    But yes I’d agree that many middle-class people will be ashamed of what they perceive as the ‘lacking in intelligence’ sound of the accent and dialect, something only rivalled by ‘Black Country’. For instance you can possess an educated but still noticeably Yorkshire accent but betray many of the West Country dialectical attributes and many non-speakers will automatically be making unfair judgements related to “stupidity”.

    But in respect of its disappearance I still think this is unlikely to happen in relation to the speech of more uneducated/static/working-class people. And a trip to any council estate in the South Western region would confirm that to you.

  12. Montmorency says:

    I think I knew quite well already how Gervais spoke, but I listened to this carefully with closed eyes to reduce possible distraction by gestures, etc.

    Now, I live in a part of south Oxfordshire that used to be in Berkshire (county town Reading), and what I’m hearing is pretty close to a Berkshire accent. Not a broad one, but it’s there. Clearly influenced by London – as someone said, he’s lived there a long time (and importantly, went to University there – a pretty formative time), but you can take the boy out of Reading (Berks), but you can’t take the (Berkshire) out of the boy, and I can hear people talking a lot like Ricky if I go outdoors and listen.

    I don’t think it’s west country though. I don’t think that starts until somewhere west of Swindon, and by Cheltenham-Stroud-Gloucester, and definitely Bristol, you are getting into it.

    As some have suggested above: what if Estuary doesn’t actually exist, outside of media stories? Now, there is a liberating thought.

    The interesting thing about Ricky is how little he compromises his accent when speaking to interviewers on either side of the Atlantic. You might have thought he’d soften some of his regional features either to be more “respectable” or more understandable, but he seems to speak exactly the same as he did when I first heard him years ago before he hit national, let alone international stardom.