When I think of ‘Cockney,’ my mind goes to gritty 1960’s tough guy films: Poor Cow, Get Carter, that kind of thing. That is, I imagine something like the hilarious ‘duelling Michael Caines’ from the Michael Winterbottom comedy The Trip:
We associate ‘Cockney’ with a particular type of 20th-Century speech. But the word has been around since the Renaissance, and has surely referred to several dialects, some unrecognizable to contemporary ears.
One such example of this evolution is ‘Cockney v/w’ confusion. Throughout the 19th-Century, literary caricatures of Londoners featured characters who mixed up /v/ and /w/. In a post on this topic, JC Wells notes that Dickens often has his East Enders switch the two sounds. And it’s attested even further back, as 18th-Century elocutionist Thomas Sheridan makes clear:
The chief difference lies in the manner of pronouncing the ve, or the u consonant as it is commonly called, and the w; which they frequently interchangeably use for each other. Thus they call veal weal, vinegar winegar. On the other they call winter vinter, well vell.
This ‘mistake’ reminds me of old Yiddish New York accents, which did something similar (Hank Azaria‘s ‘old Jewish man’ character from the Simpsons is an exaggerated example). London saw an increase in Jewish immigration in the 17th- and 18th-Centuries, of course, but I don’t suggest this influenced Cockney v/w confusion (I doubt many of these early British Jews spoke Yiddish). More generally-speaking, the various newcomers from throughout Europe (which would have included numerous Germanic languages that lack a v/w distinction) would more likely have contributed.
To my knowledge, this London v/w switcheroo didn’t survive into the age of recorded sound. So the question remains whether this was a ‘mixup’ between the two consonants, or some type of merger. It seems plausible that /v/ and /w/ were in reality conflated into an intermediate sound such as the labiodental approximant ʋ. This would give the impression that water is ‘vater’ and ‘very’ is ‘wery.’ (ʋ occurs in contemporary Cockney, as an allophone for /r/, although I doubt the two phenomena are related).
Anyone know of evidence suggesting one or the other?