The Cockney v/w Mystery

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?

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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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15 Responses to The Cockney v/w Mystery

  1. AL says:

    I’ve noticed some Indian (or South Asian) colleagues exhibit a v/w switch. It always struck me as an interesting feature because they can clearly pronounce both sounds (they aren’t pronouncing both v and w like v, nor both like w).

    • It’s a common hypercorrective thing in languages that only have /v/. It’s noticed German speakers do it too. I have found, however, that some Spanish speakers merge v and w to [β] before /u/ (Javier Bardem once referred to Woody Allen as βudi in an interview). /w/ exists in Spanish, but can’t occur before /u/.

      • IVV says:

        It’s indistinct, at least in the case of my German wife. She does have the standard w-becomes-v of a German accent, but she also has v-becomes-w in a handful of cases: “survive” becomes “surwive.” This was particularly interesting, becuase I was teaching her to say “survive” and she had terrible trouble making that first v, even when I was pointing it out.

        In her case, I think it’s because she uses a bilabial fricative for her w/v, so that it opens into an approximant (or just a vowel) when followed by an i. She definitely doesn’t use a labiodental fricative, and I’m not convinced she’s using a labiodental approximant.

    • Ed says:

      Yes, I have a well-educated Indian friend who confuses /v/ and /w/ all the time.

      It was also a feature of traditional East Anglian speech in England, but I think that it’s extinct now. It’s always difficult to know whether a feature is entirely gone. There might be some recluse in a little Norfolk village who still speaks this way.

    • PJ says:

      I could be wrong, but I have always understood this to be the result of the Indian subcontinent languages lacking a distinct “v” phoneme, but having one which is halfway between “v” and “w”. Similarly, Japanese has no separate “r” and “l”, but one which is halfway between the two, resulting in similar “l” and “r” swapovers in a stereotypical Japanese accent.

  2. Nathan Carr says:

    Strange. I just watched this movie the other day.

  3. Interesting. I don’t know of any evidence, except for the fact that writers like Dickens very consistently presented the sounds as switched (though as you say, that may have just been faulty hearing.) I’m sure the Cockney [w]/[v] thing is a separate phenomenon from the Yiddish accent, which would voice initial /w/ and devoice syllable-final /v/ .

    • I actually meant more the fact that older Yiddish-influenced accents would swap /v/ for /w/, despite otherwise falling within the New York spectrum of accents. Not that it would be any different if we were talking about another Germanic language influencing English.

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  5. Natan says:

    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).

    They didn’t speak Yiddish. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Jewish migrants in England spoke Dutch, Spanish/Portuguese/Ladino and English.

    Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, Yiddish-speaking Jews from eastern Europe began to settle in the United Kingdom.

  6. Mark Riggleman says:

    A late reply but I stumbled across this after reading Peter Trudgill’s take on the situation. He posits (in Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics) that the two sounds actually merged as a bilabial approximant. Japan’s one liquid consonant sounds like “r” when an English speaker expects “l” and vice versa and the bilabial approximant would presumably have a similar effect on people without the merger — leading Dickens to believe that v’s and w’s were swapped. Trudgill suggests that dialect contact with unmerged dialects allowed for the sounds to unmerge in Cockney eventually.

    He bases part of his case (well, much of it) on the fact that there are varieties of World English that still seem to maintain this merger and others that seem to be unmerging.

    • Mark Riggleman says:

      Er, that should say “Japanese’s liquid.” I don’t doubt that Japan possesses many fine fluids.

  7. ELLIS BERG says:

    Thank you all for your scholarly comments. My search was for the song All Round my Hat which I’ve always sung as I vears a green viller (notwithstanding Steeley Span’s MUCH later recording). Glad to kn0w I’m right.