Chelsea-Speak

While doing some channel surfing the other day, I stumbled upon the reality show Made in Chelsea. I’d describe the program to Americans as akin to The Hills or Laguna Beach (although I don’t recall Lauren Conrad cracking jokes about “phonological ambiguity” over billiards). You know the type: rich kids, fancy zip/postal code, romantic intrigue, etc. etc.

I have no idea if these young people actually represent today’s affluent and monied Londoners (probably not), but they offer an interesting glimpse at how such a subculture might talk. Here is an interview with a cast member nicknamed “Binky” (why do both American and British blue blood types have such strange nicknames?):

It’s striking which local Londonisms the MiC cast adopt and which they don’t. For instance, you’ll note that while the young woman above glottally stops her t‘s, she avoids this in the middle of words (note “hotter” at :13 and “dirty” at 4:57). Also worth noting (and this seems true of several other cast members) is that the vowel in FACE remains rather conservative; it seems that this diphthong’s shift toward the vowel in KITE, typical of London, has little impacted this group.

But where some marked Londonisms are avoided, others are extremely advanced. /l/ is frequently vocalized. Most striking are the vowels in GOOSE and GOAT, at times almost entirely front: y and øʏ. As with California English, fronter variants of these phonemes seems more salient in young woman than young men.

I would still categorize this English as “Received Pronunciation,” albeit a particularly youthful type. I’d imagine that a time-travelling RP speaker from the 1950’s might be aghast at such a categorization. But there is enough cautious avoidance of marked Cockneyisms that I’m hesitant to shove such accents into the “Estuary” box.

Yet unlike mid-Century RP speakers, I occasionally have a hard time understanding what MiC‘s youths are saying. Is it their accent, or is it their age? As I’m in my thirties, I find myself occasionally feeling early symptoms of “the kids don’t talk like they used to” disease. When the Chelsea crew strains my comprehension, it’s usually due to what sounds to me like mumbling (for instance “whannoysmeamosboutJamie” at 4:12 in the video above). Yet I feel the same way, at times, listening to 20-year-olds from New Jersey or California. Is it mumbling I hear, or merely English’s ever-evolving efficiency?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

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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11 Responses to Chelsea-Speak

  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    So what were they saying about phonological ambiguity?

    • The off-colored joke–delivered by one of the cast’s young men–was that you can influence a date by playing up the “phonological ambiguity” between “blow me” and “below me.” Presumably this works as a kind of neurolinguistic rohypnol?

      • Ben Zimmer says:

        Ah. Googling turns up a lot of NLP-ish chatter about “phonological ambiguity” from pickup artists. Ross Jeffries, who peddles a “Speed Seduction” system, talks about the suggestiveness of phrases like “below me” here.

  2. dw says:

    I notice that she avoids both TH- and R- fronting, which are both widespread among her age-group in contemporary London.

    I had very little trouble understanding the mumbling: in fact it’s just the kind of mumbling I tend to do myself (I’m in my late 30s, UK-to-US expat with a near-RP accent somewhat modified by my US environs).

    • Come to think of it, few of the kids on MiC exhibited r-fronting (as far I could tell from ten minutes). Which is not to say there are not more “posh” accents with this feature (Nigella Lawson, for instance). But it definitely seems to be avoided by this particular group.

    • m.m. says:

      so is r-fronting like how they do in cockney fauxnetically written as r->v?

  3. Ed says:

    You might be interested in the Channel 4 documentary series The Aristocrats. This features old as well as young speakers.

    T-glotallisation in word-end position is virtually categorical amongst young people in England now. I believe that the only areas that it’s still not conquered are those where /t/ is affricated, such as Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent.

    I agree that GOOSE-fronting is more common amongst young women than amongst young men. I wonder if men will adopt it at some point in the near future.

  4. Hm. It sounds to me like the middle consonant in “hotter” around 0:13 is S. “Jaime is hasa”

    • I believe that’s a “slit t.” It’s often associated with Ireland, but is quite common in England as well (although it’s usually one allophone among many). Basically it’s a type of s-like allophone for intervocalic /t/. I find that it especially common in contemporary variants of RP as a middle ground between old-fashioned RP [tʰ] (which is pretty unnatural for most people) and more markedly “Cockney” allophones like [ʔ] and [ɾ].

    • Iván Cruz says:

      I found a paper on this phenomenon

    • Iván Cruz says:

      The “slit t” can also happen at the end of words BTW

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