Estuary English

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Estuary English
Native toUnited Kingdom
RegionRiver Thames (South East, London, Essex)
Native speakers
8.6~ million
Early forms
Latin (English alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
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Estuary English is an English accent associated with the area along the River Thames and its estuary, including London. Phonetician John C. Wells proposed a definition of Estuary English as "Standard English spoken with the accent of the southeast of England". Estuary English may be compared with Cockney, and there is some debate among linguists as to where Cockney speech ends and Estuary English begins.[1][2][3][4]


The scholar Alan Cruttenden uses the term London Regional General British[5][6] in preference to the popular term 'Estuary English'.

The names listed above may be abbreviated:

  • Estuary English → EE
  • London Regional General British → London General,[7] London Regional GB,[6] London RGB[7]

Some authors[8] use different names for EE closer to Cockney (Popular London) and EE closer to Received Pronunciation (London Regional Standard or South-Eastern Regional Standard).[9]

Note that some other authors[10] use the name Popular London to refer to Cockney itself.[11]

Status as accent of English[edit]

The boundary between Estuary English and Cockney is far from clearcut.[12][13] Several writers have argued that Estuary English is not a discrete accent distinct from the accents of the London area. The sociolinguist Peter Trudgill has written that the term "Estuary English" is inappropriate because "it suggests that we are talking about a new variety, which we are not; and because it suggests that it is a variety of English confined to the banks of the Thames estuary, which it is not. The label actually refers to the lower middle-class accents, as opposed to working-class accents, of the Home Counties Modern Dialect area".[14] Peter Roach comments, "In reality there is no such accent and the term should be used with care. The idea originates from the sociolinguistic observation that some people in public life who would previously have been expected to speak with an RP accent now find it acceptable to speak with some characteristics of the London area... such as glottal stops, which would in earlier times have caused comment or disapproval".[15]

Foulkes & Docherty (1999) state "All of its [EE's] features can be located on a sociolinguistic and geographical continuum between RP and Cockney, and are spreading not because Estuary English is a coherent and identifiable influence, but because the features represent neither the standard nor the extreme non-standard poles of the continuum".[16] In order to tackle these problems put forward by expert linguists, Altendorf (2016) argues that Estuary English should be viewed as a folk category rather than an expert linguistic category. As such it takes the form of a perceptual prototype category that does not require discrete boundaries in order to function in the eyes (and ears) of lay observers of language variation and change.[17]


  • Non-rhoticity.
  • Use of intrusive R: pronouncing /r/ in places where etymologically no /r/ is present to prevent consecutive vowel sounds. For example, drawing is pronounced /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/.
  • Presence of several vowel splits:[18]
    • Wholly–holy split,[19] so wholly [ˈhɒʊli] is pronounced differently from holy [ˈhəʊli].
    • Foot–strut split so foot /fʊt/ does not rhyme with strut /strʌt/.
    • Trap–bath split so trap /træp/ has a different vowel from bath /bɑːθ/.
    • Another split that has been reported is the THOUGHT split, which causes board /bɔːd/ to be pronounced differently from bored /bɔəd/.[20] /ɔː/ (phonetically [ɔʊ] or [])[20] appears before consonants, and /ɔə/ (phonetically [ɔə] or [ɔː])[20] appears at a morpheme boundary.[20] However, Przedlacka (2001) states that both /ɔː/ and /ɔə/ may have the same monophthongal quality [ɔː].[21]
  • T glottalisation: the non-initial, most-commonly final /t/ is a glottal stop instead of an alveolar stop: can't (pronounced [kɑːnʔ]).
  • Yod-coalescence, the use of the affricates [d͡ʒ] and [t͡ʃ] instead of the clusters [dj] and [tj] in words like dune and Tuesday. Thus, the words sound like June and choose day, respectively.
  • Realization of non-prevocalic /l/ different from that found in traditional RP; four variants are possible:
    • L-vocalisation, the use of [o], [ʊ], or [ɯ] in places that RP uses [ɫ] in the final positions or in a final consonant cluster: sold (pronounced [sɔʊd]). In London, that may even occur before a vowel: girl out [ɡɛo ˈæoʔ].[22] In all phonetic environments, male London speakers were at least twice as likely to vocalize the dark l as female London speakers.[22]
    • According to Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), the vocalized dark l is sometimes an unoccluded lateral approximant, which differs from the RP [ɫ] only by the lack of the alveolar contact.[23]
    • Coda /l/ pronounced as clear [l], as in most accents of Irish English. Przedlacka (2001) notes that in her study, "all four Essex speakers have a clear [l] in pull."[24] In New Zealand English, word-final clear /l/, as opposed to usual in that variety vocalised [ɯ],[25] has also been reported for some speakers.[25] A reverse process, clear [l] realised as dark [ɫ], has not been reported in Estuary English.
    • Alternation between the vocalized [o ~ ʊ ~ ɯ], dark non-vocalized [ɫ] and clear non-vocalized [l], depending on the word.[24]
A possible realization of Estuary /əʊ/ on a vowel chart, from Lodge (2009:175)
  • It has been suggested that th-fronting is "currently making its way" into Estuary English, for example those from the Isle of Thanet often refer to Thanet as "Plannit Fannit" (Planet Thanet).[26] However, this feature was also present in the traditional dialect of Essex before the spread of Estuary English.[27]
  • Vowel changes:
    • /iː/ (as in FLEECE) can be realised as [], [ɪi] or [əi],[21] with the first two variants predominating.[28] Before the dark l, it is sometimes a centering diphthong [iə].[21]
    • /uː/ (as in GOOSE) can be realised in many different ways, such as monophthongs [ʏː], [ɪ̝ː], [ʉː], [ɨː], [ʉ̠ː], [u̟ː][21] and diphthongs [ɘɵ], [ɘʏ], [ʏɨ] and [ʊu].[29] Front pronunciations ([ʏː], [ɪ̝ː], [ɘʏ] and [ʏɨ]) are more often encountered in female speakers.[21] Before the l, it is always back.[30]
    • /ʊ/ can be central (rounded [ʊ̈] or unrounded [ɪ̈])[31] near-front [ʏ],[32] or simply near-back [ʊ], as in RP. Only the last variant appears before the dark l.
    • /ɔː/ (as in THOUGHT), according to Przedlacka (2001), can be pronounced in two different ways: diphthongal [oʊ] in closed syllables and [ɔə] or [ɔ̝ə] in open syllables[21] and monophthongal [ɔː].[21] According to Parsons (1998), it is either [ɔʊ] or [] before consonants, and either [ɔə] or [ɔː] at a morpheme boundary.[20]
    • /ʌ/ (as in STRUT) can be realised as [ɒ], [ʌ], [ɐ], [ɐ̟] or [æ],[21] with [ɐ] being predominant.[21] The first two variants occur mostly before /ŋ/.[21] The last two variants are more often used by females.[21]
    • /æ/ (as in TRAP) can be realised as [a], [a̝], [æ], [ɛ̞] or [ɛ].[21][33] A somewhat retracted front [a̠] has been reported for some speakers in Reading.[34]
    • /əʊ/ (as in GOAT) may be realised in a couple of different ways. According to Przedlacka (2001), it is any of the following: [əʊ], [ɐʊ], [əʏ] or [ɐʏ]. The last two are more often used by females.[35] She also notes a fully rounded diphthong [oʊ] (found in some speakers from Essex),[35] as well as two rare monophthongal realizations, namely [ɐː] and [o̞ː].[35] According to Lodge (2009), Estuary /əʊ/ may be pronounced [ɑːɪ̯̈] or [ɑːʏ̯̈], with the first element somewhat lengthened and much more open than in RP and the second element being near-close central, with or without lip rounding.[36]
    • /eɪ/ (as in FACE), according to Przedlacka (2001), can be realised as [ɛ̝ɪ], [ɛɪ], [ɛ̞ɪ] or [æɪ],[35] with [ɛɪ] and [ɛ̞ɪ] being predominant.[35] According to Wells (1994), it can be realised as [eɪ], [ɛɪ], [æɪ], [ɐɪ] or [ʌɪ].[30]
    • /aɪ/ (as in PRICE) can be realised as [aɪ], [a̠ɪ], [ɑ̟ɪ], [ɒ̟ɪ], [ɑɪ] or [ɒɪ].[35]
    • /aʊ/ (as in MOUTH) can be realised as [aʊ], [aʏ], [æə], [æʊ] or [æʏ].[35] [a] denotes a front onset [a], not a central one [].[35]
  • Vowel mergers before historic /l/:
    • /iːl/ (as in REEL) merges with /ɪəl/ (as in REAL).[30]
    • /ɔɪl/ (as in OIL) merges with /ɔɪəl/ (as in ROYAL).[30]
    • /aʊl/ (as in OWL) merges with /aʊəl/ (as in VOWEL).[30]
    • Other possible mergers include the following:
      • /iːl/ (as in FEEL) can merge with /ɪl/ (as in FILL).[30] Since /ɪəl/ merges with /iːl/,[30] it also participates in this merger.
      • /uːl/ (as in POOL) can merge with both /ʊl/ (as in PULL) and /ɔːl/ (as in PAUL).[30]
      • /eɪl/ (as in VEIL) can merge with both /æl/ (as in VAL) and /aʊəl/ (as in VOWEL).[30]
      • /ɛl/ (as in WELL) can merge with /ɜːl/ (as in WHIRL).[30]
      • /aɪl/ (as in CHILD'S) can merge with /ɑːl/ (as in CHARLES).[30]
      • /ɒl/ (as in DOLL) can merge with /ɒʊl/ (as in DOLE).[30]

Despite the similarity between the two dialects, the following characteristics of Cockney pronunciation are generally not present in Estuary English:


Estuary English is widely encountered throughout southeast England, particularly among the young. It is considered to be a working-class accent, although often used by the lower middle classes too. In the debate that surrounded a 1993 article about Estuary English, a London businessman claimed that RP was perceived as unfriendly, so Estuary English was now preferred for commercial purposes.[37] Some adopt the accent as a means of "blending in" to appear to be more working class or in an attempt to appear to be "a common man". That affectation of the accent is sometimes derisively referred to as "Mockney". A move away from traditional RP accents is almost universal among middle-class young people.[38]

Traditional Essex and Kent[edit]

Older rural dialects were once mainly confined to Kent and the north and the east of Essex, which showed a few early features of, as well as some features distinct from, the modern Estuary dialect that has since spread through the region.[39][40] Certain features associated with rural East Anglian English were common: the rounding of the diphthong of [aɪ] (right as roight), yod-dropping in Essex, and non-rhoticity, although Mersea Island was rhotic until the mid-20th century.[41] Modern Estuary dialect features were also reported in traditional varieties, including L-vocalization e.g. old as owd and th-fronting (a feature now widespread in England, was found throughout Essex in the 1950s Survey of English Dialect)[27] in Essex and yod-coalescence in Kent. The pronunciation of /iː/ as [ɪ] in words like been or seen was also once a feature of both counties. The Kentish and Sussexian dialects were strongly rhotic until after World War II.[42]

There are audio examples available on the British Library website and BBC sources for the older Kentish dialect,[43] and an Essex Dialect Handbook has been published; the Essex County Records office has recorded a CD of the sounds of Essex dialect speakers in an effort to preserve the dialect.[44][45][46] The Survey of English Dialects investigated 15 sites in Essex, most of which were in the rural north of the county and one of which was on Mersea Island—an unusually high number of sites, being second only to Yorkshire.[47] Many of the first English books to be published were by Kentish writers, and this helped spread Kent dialectal words (e.g. 'abide', 'ruck') to the rest of the country.[48] The pattern of speech in some of Charles Dickens' books pertain to Kentish dialect, as the author lived at Higham, was familiar with the mudflats near Rochester and created a comic character Sam Weller who spoke the local accent, principally Kentish but with strong London influences.[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Estuary English Q and A - JCW". Retrieved 16 August 2010.
  2. ^ Joanna Ryfa (2003). "Estuary English - A controversial Issue?" (PDF). Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  3. ^ "Rosewarne, David (1984). Estuary English. Times Educational Supplement, 19 (October 1984)". 21 May 1999. Retrieved 16 August 2010.
  4. ^ A handout by Wells, one of the first to write a serious description of the would-be variety. Also summarised by him here [1].
  5. ^ Gimson (2014:81–82)
  6. ^ a b "Phonetics at Oxford University". Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  7. ^ a b Gimson (2014:82)
  8. ^ Such as Wells (1982)
  9. ^ Wells (1982:302–303)
  10. ^ Such as Gimson (2014)
  11. ^ Gimson (2014:89)
  12. ^ Maidment, J.A. (1994). "Estuary English: Hybrid or Hype?". Paper presented at the 4th New Zealand Conference on Language & Society, Lincoln University, Christchurch, New Zealand, August 1994. University College London. Retrieved 21 April 2009.
  13. ^ Haenni, Ruedi (1999). "The case of Estuary English: supposed evidence and a perceptual approach" (PDF). University of Basel dissertation. University College London. Retrieved 21 April 2009.
  14. ^ Trudgill (1999:80)
  15. ^ Roach, Peter (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. Cambridge. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-521-71740-3.
  16. ^ Foulkes & Docherty (1999:11)
  17. ^ Altendorf (2016)
  18. ^ "A London Accent - Pronunciation Studio". Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  19. ^ Estuary English: A Controversial Issue? by Joanna Ryfa, from
  20. ^ a b c d e Parsons (1998:39)
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Przedlacka (2001:43)
  22. ^ a b Ashby (2011)
  23. ^ Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:193)
  24. ^ a b Przedlacka (2001:45)
  25. ^ a b Bauer et al. (2007:101)
  26. ^ Altendorf (1999)
  27. ^ a b Britain, David; Cheshire, Jenny, eds. (2003). "Dialect levelling and geographical diffusion in British English". Social Dialectology: In Honour of Peter Trudgill. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing. p. 233.
  28. ^ Przedlacka (2001:42)
  29. ^ Przedlacka (2001:43–44)
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Wells (1994)
  31. ^ Lodge (2009:174)
  32. ^ Altendorf & Watt (2004:188 and 191–192)
  33. ^ Altendorf & Watt (2004:188). They list [a], [a̝] and [æ].
  34. ^ Altendorf & Watt (2004:188)
  35. ^ a b c d e f g h Przedlacka (2001:44)
  36. ^ Lodge (2009:175)
  37. ^ Crystal (2003:327)
  38. ^ Crystal, David. "RP and its successors". BBC. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
  39. ^ Benham, Charles Edwin (23 October 2017). "Essex ballads and other poems". Colchester : Benham – via Internet Archive.
  40. ^ Gepp, Edward. "A contribution to an Essex dialect dictionary". London G. Routledge – via Internet Archive.
  41. ^ page 44
  42. ^ BBC. "BBC - Kent - Voices 2005 - Voices". Retrieved 29 December 2020.
  43. ^ "Kent Voices". BBC. 2005. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
  44. ^ "Essex". John Nickalls Publications. Archived from the original on 30 October 2010. Retrieved 26 November 2009.
  45. ^ "Essex County Council".
  46. ^ "Archivists launch campaign to save Essex accent". The Telegraph. 10 June 2009.
  47. ^ Craig Fees, The Imperilled Inheritance: dialect and folklife studies at the University of Leeds 1946-1962, Part 1: Harold Orton and the English Dialect Survey Archived 25 September 2013 at the Wayback Machine, page 20
  48. ^ Howe, Ian (2012). Kent Dialect. Bradwell Books. p. 3. ISBN 9781902674346.
  49. ^ Parish, W.D.; Shaw (1888). The Kentish Dialect and Provincialisms (PDF). Lewes: Farncombe & Co. p. vii.


Further reading[edit]

  • Rogaliński, Paweł (2011), British Accents: Cockney, RP, Estuary English, Łódź, ISBN 978-83-272-3282-3
  • Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, ISBN 9781405881180

External links[edit]