Estuary English (Language Variety)

English celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who grew up in Essex, speaks a version of Estuary English
Richard Bord/Getty Images

Estuary English is a contemporary variety of British English: a mixture of non-regional and southeastern English pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, which is thought to have originated around the banks of the River Thames and its estuary. Also known as Cockneyfied RP and Nonstandard Southern English.

In some of its features (but not all), Estuary English is related to the traditional Cockney dialect and accent spoken by people living in the East End of London.



According to Alan Cruttenden, Estuary English "is often characterised among younger speakers as having 'street credibility' or 'streetcred' or being 'cool,' i.e. as being fashionable" (Gimson's Pronunciation of English, 2014).

The term Estuary English was introduced by British linguist David Rosewarne in 1984.

Examples and Observations

- "[Paul] Coggle [lecturer in modern languages at the University of Kent] predicts that Estuary English (think Jonathan Ross) will eventually take over from RP. Estuary already predominates in the South East and has apparently spread as far north as Hull."

(Emma Houghton, "It's Not What You Say." The Independent, Oct. 15, 1997)

- "Not so long ago some academics argued that estuary English (or non-standard southern English, as linguistics experts prefer to call it) was, thanks to TV shows such as EastEnders, slowly taking over the whole country and that some northern accents--particularly Glaswegian--were being diluted.

But [Jonnie] Robinson [curator of English accents and dialects at the British Library] points out that this latest version of the imperialist south has turned out to be a false alarm.

"'There is no doubt the London dialect we have come to call estuary has spread out across the south-east,' he says, 'but research has shown that northern accents and dialects have withstood its spread.'"

(John Crace, "It's the Way That You Say It." The Guardian, April 3, 2007)

Characteristics of Estuary English

- "Features of Estuary English include the glottalisation (replacing 't' with a glottal stop, as in butter pronounced as 'buh-uh'), pronunciation of 'th' as 'f' or 'v' as in mouth pronounced as 'mouf' and mother pronounced as 'muvver,' the use of multiple negation, as in I ain't never done nothing, and the use of the non-standard them books instead of those books."

(Linda Thomas et al., Language, Society and Power. Routledge, 2004)

- "One popular explanation for the development of Estuary English put forward by linguists including David Crystal (1995) is that RP is going through a process of casualisation at the same time as Cockney speakers are experiencing social mobility and thus moving away from the most stigmatised variety.

"Estuary English is seen by sociolinguists as evidence that a process known as dialect leveling is taking place, as certain features from this southeast variety have been witnessed spreading across the country...

"From a grammatical perspective, Estuary English speakers will omit the '-ly' adverbial ending as in 'You're moving too quick' . . .. There is also usage of what is known as the confrontational tag question (a construction added to a statement) such as 'I told you that already didn't I.'"

(Louise Mullany and Peter Stockwell, Introducing English Language: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge, 2010)

The Queen's English

"Jonathan Harrington, Professor of Phonetics at the University of Munich, conducted a thorough acoustic analysis of the Queen's Christmas broadcasts, and concluded that Estuary English, a term coined in the 1980s to describe the spread of London's regional pronunciation features to counties adjoining the river, might well have had an influence on Her Majesty's vowels. 'In 1952 she would have been heard referring to "thet men in the bleck het." Now it would be "that man in the black hat,"' the article notes. 'Similarly, she would have spoken of . . . hame rather than home. In the 1950s she would have been lorst, but by the 1970s lost.'"

(Susie Dent, The Language Report: English on the Move, 2000-2007.

Oxford University Press, 2007)

Further Reading