Multicultural London ‘Oo’

One of English’s most rapidly evolving dialects is what is known as Multicultural London English (MLE). In a nutshell, MLE is a ‘young’ dialect (one might mark the birthday cutoff at 1970) that incorporates elements of Caribbean English and other ‘non-native’ influences. Although it is associated with Britons of African descent, it is spoken by inner-city Londoners of many ethnicities.

In some ways, MLE reverses the direction London English has been traveling for the past century. For an idea of what I’m talking about, watch this interview with hip hop artist Dizzee Rascal, a well-known speaker of MLE:

There is something clearly ‘London’ about this young man’s speech, yet he hardly speaks ‘classic Cockney.’ What is striking here are the diphthongs:

*In Cockney, the vowel in ‘face’ shifts toward the /ai/ in ‘price.’ In MLE, this vowel is the opposite: it’s more of a monophthong or close diphthong (IPA [e] or [ei]).

*In Cockney, the vowel in ‘price’ shifts toward the /oy/ in ‘choice.’ In MLE, the vowel becomes more of a monophthong, as in American Southern or some Northern English accents: (IPA [a:]).

*In Cockney, the vowel in ‘goat’ moves towared the /au/ in ‘mouth.’ In MLE, this vowel is more of a monophthong or close diphthong (IPA [o] or [ou]).

Yet in one respect, Multicultural London English does not reverse Cockney trends. That would be in regards to words like ‘goose,’ ‘food’ and ‘you,’ which in most London accents is pronounced with a central or nearly front vowel.  Not only does MLE participate in this forward shift, it actually seems to push this vowel further front than other types of London English (as per the study cited below).

Why is this vowel so typically ‘London’ when most other vowels of MLE are different from Cockney? Linguist Jenny Cheshire (et al.) explored this question in her Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: The emergence of Multicultural London English*. She found that MLE speakers seem to acquire many features of this dialect very early on in their childhood, the one exception being the fronting of ‘goose,’ which appears to slowly emerge during adolescence.

Remarkably, something similar is happening 5400 miles away.  Linguist Carmen Fought found that speakers of Chicano English in California** (that is, English spoken by Mexican-Americans) also participates in the fronting of ‘goose’ typical of other Californians.  As is the case with MLE, this is notable for how it goes against the dialect’s ‘non-native’ influence: the Spanish language typically has only a fully back /u/ sound.

So why is this one sound pronounced so ‘locally’ in these ethnolects?

*Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S., & Torgersen, E. (2011). Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: The emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 15, 151-196. 

**Fought, C. (1999). A majority sound change in a minority community: /u/-fronting in Chicano English. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 3, 5-23.


About Ben

Ben T. 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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20 Responses to Multicultural London ‘Oo’

  1. dw says:

    One thing I found very striking was the yod-dropping in “new” at 0:45: he sounds like a US midwesterner!

    • dw says:

      Before genuine US midwesterners write in to complain, let me rephrase that:

      From my vantage point (where not only my native near-RP but most of the accents I hear around me in the California Bay Area have a yod-like vocalic component in “new) his yod-dropping in “new” makes him sound much more my no-doubt-inaccurate stereotype of a US midwesterner(in that particular word) than I expected!

      • Andrew C says:

        I’m a Midwesterner and I was surprised to hear that in an English accent too. If he was from East Anglia it would be less surprising. They drop yod even more than I do.

      • trawicks says:

        I’m not entirely sure, but the yod in California may be something of an illusion. I’ve read at least one paper where the fronted California ‘goose’ vowel was rendered as [ɨʊ], which would arguably give it a yod-like quality. Also (and I may have made this point before), the natural inclination toward fronting the vowel after coronals might emphasize this quality in ‘news.’

    • AW says:

      Actually yod-dropping after n is pretty routine in London.

  2. Sooryan FM says:

    SF ”new” is not really [nju], the u fronting and semidiphthongization of [u] in [nu] is creating this illusion. Most people from SF would say ”we pronounce DO and DEW the same”. ”Cool” is kewl rather than kyool, but to outsiders with an untrained ear, Californian cool may sound like kyool (instead of kewl), and dude may sound like dyood (instead of dewd).

    I think ”ew” spelling is better than ”yoo” spelling here.

    • dw says:

      SF ”new” is not really [nju], the u fronting and semidiphthongization of [u] in [nu] is creating this illusion

      But phonetically, there is no distinction between [nju] and [niu].

      Most people from SF would say ”we pronounce DO and DEW the same”

      No doubt. I am reporting a phenomenon that seems to affect a small subset of GOOSE words, of which “new” is the most prominent. My impression is that young Bay Area speakers who have /nju/ in “new” might have /nu/ in “knew” (past tense of “know”). This is different not only from both RP (where both “knew” and “new” are homophonous as /nju/) and traditional GenAm (where both are /nu/).

      • Phil Thompson says:

        “But phonetically, there is no distinction between [nju] and [niu]”

        I’m afraid I found this sentence a bit hard to parse. Are you saying that in a narrow phonetic transcription of the word “new” — let’s say I’m transcribing your near-RP speech — I could use [nju] or [niu] interchangeably? Or are you saying that the small differences represented by these differing transcriptions aren’t important enough to bother with?

  3. IVV says:

    I think it’s interesting because I call the fronted GOOSE vowel the DUDE vowel, specifically because I don’t front my GOOSE (but I do front DUDE). There are no yods in DO, DEW, or DUE.

    I don’t think I have DUDE in any place where the vowel ends the word–there it’s GOOSE instead.

  4. stormboy says:

    “In a nutshell, MLE is a ‘young’ dialect (one might mark the birthday cutoff at 1970)”

    That’s interesting. I’m from London (RP) born in 1971 but grew up surrounded by many non-RP speakers – Cockney/Estuary, ‘immigrant’ English etc. – in addition to RP. I don’t think I’ve heard any MLE speakers of my age – they all seem to be at least a generation younger than me. Of course, that’s purely anecdotal with no data to back it up.

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  6. boynamedsue says:

    I tend to agree with stormboy.

    I’d say that there were very few non-black speakers of a dialect ressembling MLE in the 70’s and early 80’s, and that the features that distinguish MLE from British Creole English and Cockney didn’t start to settle until the late 80’s, or even the 90’s. Native speakers of BCE, and people of other ethnicities who had learned or immitated it, sometimes came out with phrases that sounded like modern MLE, but they were actually adapting there speech by social context.

    So a white londoner might have spoken cockney at the football, estuary at work and something approaching MLE if talking to friends in a mixed ethnicity group. A black londoner might do the same, but also speak BCE in an all black group, perhaps using a slightly carribean flavoured accent for his cockney. But the proto-MLE they used was actually an unstable mix of various features from the different dialects they were familiar with, with BCE and Cockney features used inconsistently.

    I personally doubt consistent MLE is the “default” speech of many people over 30, and I would be very surprised to hear it at all from someone over 45. For me, the dialect-levelling event that formed MLE happened between 1987 and 1997.

  7. stormboy says:

    “For me, the dialect-levelling event that formed MLE happened between 1987 and 1997.”

    That makes sense to me. When I left the UK in 1994, I was completely unaware of MLE (despite being ‘linguistically aware’). When I returned to London in 2003, I heard it everywhere.

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  10. PJ says:

    Most major English cities are multicultural and have a similar thing happening, but with their own dialects. The common thread is the Caribbean / “rudeboy” kind of elements, but mixed with the working class accents of their own areas. This has been going on for the last 10 years or so, along with the rise of a “British” MC style, as opposed to previously when there was more of straight US influence. Often, you have white kids using it whose parents speak in the more standard local accent, Asian kids too…

    As for yod-dropping, this is a common element of many British dialects, though usually considered a bit sloppy. E.g. heard today in Nottingham, “toozdi” (‘tu:zdi) for “Tuesday”. “Noo” (nu:) for “new” is very common, also “stoopid” etc… conversely, there are some words which are NEVER yod-dropped, e.g. “tune”, though are often mangled into other forms ( “choon” in this case).