David Rosewarne coined the term “Estuary English” (EE) in 1984, when he noticed a new dialect being spoken on the banks of the Thames and its estuary. He described the variety as being found in the “middle ground” between RP and “London Speech” (Cockney). Since then, it has grown drastically in popularity, and in this essay, I will discuss the reasons for its prominence, its features, and why people choose to speak Estuary English.
It is indisputable that Estuary English should be classed as a dialect rather than an accent, as it has lexical (as well as phonological) differences to Standard English spoken in an RP accent. However, the more interesting debate is whether Estuary is a social or regional dialect, that is to say, whether it is spoken by people who live in a certain area (on the banks of the Thames and its estuary) or people of a certain class. Sara Thorne argued that it is a social variant, referring to Estuary as a “classless dialect”. And it is true to some extent; speaking EE allows you to distance yourself from those who might be labelled as “posh”, whilst still maintaining sufficient connotations of well-educatedness and intelligence. Society is becoming increasingly meritocratic, so these are certainly desirable traits.
Thorne believes that speakers of Estuary English include young people who feel that it is a form of English with street credibility. It has been pointed out that working class speech, like many other aspect of working class culture in our society, seems to have connotations with masculinity and toughness, traditionally supposed to be characteristic of working class life. For men, these are very desirable qualities, provoking them to attempt to sound more like a working-class speaker. However, those from a middle class background are likely to be aiming for a good job and respectable income, so they avoid going to the extreme of using a cockney accent (which is associated with a poor education and upbringing), and instead find a middle ground between the two classes, hence speaking Estuary English. The dialect is sometimes even referred to as ‘High Cockney’. In doing so, they tend to use some non-standard linguistic forms (known as stigmatisations), which I will go into more detail about in the following paragraph. Thorne also believes that this also works in the other direction, as “Southerners who are upwardly mobile adopt it, [Estuary] losing the harshest features of Southern accents in order to move closer to ‘prestige’ forms of English”. Surely though, that would imply that EE is a regional dialect?
Estuary English is more distinguishable for its phonological features (accent variants) than for its individual lexicon (dialectal variants). Most of its phonological differences from RP take the form of stigmatisations, of which the most notable is glottlisation, taking three forms. The first is the omission of the /k/ phoneme, where /lʊk/ becomes /lʊʔ/. Second is the omission of /p/, so that /tap/ becomes /taʔ/, and finally the more common omission of the alveolar plosive /t/ where /fʊt/ becomes /fʊʔ/. The latter is actually integrating into the pronunciation of speakers of modified RP! Another noticeable feature of EE is the use of the /w/ phoneme where RP would prefer /l/ in syllable final positions, so they would have ‘aw’ for ‘all’ and ‘miwk’ for ‘milk’. Estuary is further characterised by the use of /iː/ instead of /i/ in word final position: /sitiː/ for ‘city’ and /lʌvliː/ for ‘lovely’. Like Cockney, speakers of EE use the labio-dental fricative /f/ to replace the dental fricative /θ/. As I stated earlier, Estuary English does have lexical differences to Standard English, although for the large part, the two are alike. One example of a variation is the use of Americanisms in its vocabulary, such as “cheers”, “basically” and “guesstimate”.
The rise in Estuary has come hand in hand with the fall in Received Pronunciation. RP is perceived to alienate non-speakers, and is therefore avoided in most social situations. Peter Trudgill conducted a study, before concluding that only 2% of the UK speaks with an RP accent. However, it was later discovered that this was based on a study of 50 people in Norwich, so it is hardly conclusive evidence. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that RP is an accent in decline. The rise in Estuary is also down to the fact that the dialect (whilst not necessarily tied to a location), originated in London. Since William Caxton’s introduction of the printing press in 1476, London has been the most influential area in the UK, so it comes at no surprise that Estuary is growing. Multiple television personalities, such as Jonathan Ross, as well as politicians, such as Tony Blair speak it, and their influence through the media and the television (which mainly comes from London) has provoked others to mimic them. As a result, linguists believe that Estuary English could replace RP as the dominant accent and dialect for the middle classes around London, changing the language map of Southern England quite dramatically.