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Estuary English

Estuary English is an accent of English widely spoken in South East England, especially along the River Thames and its estuary. Phonetician John C. Wells proposed a definition of Estuary English as "Standard English spoken with the accent of the south-east of England", although he criticised the notion that the spread of language from London to the south-east was anything new.[1] The name comes from the area around the Thames, particularly its Estuary. Estuary English can be heard from some people in London, north Surrey,[2] north Kent, and south Essex. Estuary English shares many features with Cockney, and there is some debate among linguists as to where Cockney speech ends and Estuary English begins.

The variety first came to public prominence in an article by David Rosewarne in the Times Educational Supplement in October 1984.[3] Rosewarne argued that it may eventually replace Received Pronunciation in the south-east. Studies have indicated that Estuary English is not a single coherent form of English; rather, it consists of some (but not all) phonetic features of working-class London speech spreading at various rates socially into middle-class speech and geographically into other accents of south-eastern England.[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]


An example of a Berkshire male with a working-class Estuary accent (entertainer Ricky Gervais)

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An example of an Essex male with a working-class Estuary accent (entertainer Russell Brand)

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Estuary English is characterised by the following features:

  • Non-rhoticity.
  • Use of intrusive R: pronouncing /r/ where etymologically no /r/ is present to prevent consecutive vowel sounds. For instance, drawing is pronounced /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/.
  • Presence of a couple of vowel splits:
    • Wholly-holy split,[12] which means that wholly /ˈhɒʊli/ doesn't rhyme with holy /ˈhəʊli/.
    • Foot-strut split, which means that foot /fʊt/ has a different vowel to strut /strʌt/.
    • Trap-bath split, which means that trap /træp/ has a different vowel to bath /bɑːθ/.
    • Another split that has been reported is the THOUGHT split, which causes board /bɔːd/ not to rhyme with bored /bɔəd/.[13] /ɔː/ (phonetically [ɔʊ] or [])[13] appears before consonants, while /ɔə/ (phonetically [ɔə] or [ɔː])[13] appears at a morpheme boundary.[13] However, Przedlacka (2001) states that both /ɔː/ and /ɔə/ may have the same, monophthongal quality [ɔː].[14]
  • T glottalisation: realising non-initial, most commonly final, /t/ as a glottal stop instead of an alveolar stop, e.g. can't (pronounced /kɑːnʔ/).
  • Yod-coalescence, i.e., the use of the affricates [d͡ʒ] and [t͡ʃ] instead of the clusters [dj] and [tj] in words like dune and Tuesday. Thus, these 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, i.e., the use of [o], [ʊ], or [ɯ] where RP uses [ɫ] in the final positions or in a final consonant cluster, for example sold (pronounced [sɔʊd]). In London, this may even occur when a vowel follows, e.g. in the sentence I’d like to ask that girl out [ɡɛo ˈæoʔ].[15] In all phonetic environments male London speakers were at least twice as likely to vocalize dark-l as female London speakers.[15]
    • 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.[16]
    • Dark /l/ realized 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."[17] In New Zealand English, word-final clear /l/ (as opposed to usual in that variety vocalised [ɯ])[18] has also been reported for some speakers.[18] A reverse process, namely clear [l] realized as dark [ɫ] has not been reported to occur in Estuary English.
    • Alternation between the vocalized [o ~ ʊ ~ ɯ], dark non-vocalized [ɫ] and clear non-vocalized [l], depending on the word.[17]
File:Wide Southeastern GOAT on a vowel chart.svg
A possible realization of Estuary /əʊ/ on a vowel chart, from Lodge (2009:175)
  • Vowel changes:
    • /iː/ (as in FLEECE) can be realised as [], [ɪi] or [əi],[14] with the first two variants predominating.[19] Before the dark /l/, it is sometimes a centering diphthong [iə].[14]
    • /uː/ (as in GOOSE) can be realised in many different ways, among which are monophthongs [ʏː], [ɪ̝ː], [ʉː], [ɨː], [ʉ̠ː], [u̟ː][14] and diphthongs [ɘɵ], [ɘʏ], [ʏɨ] and [ʊu].[20] Front realisations ([ʏː], [ɪ̝ː], [ɘʏ] and [ʏɨ]) are more often encountered in female speakers.[14] Before the dark /l/, it is always back.[21]
    • /ʊ/ can be central (rounded [ʊ̈] or unrounded [ɪ̈]),[22] near-front [ʏ],[23] 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 realized in two different ways: diphthongal; [oʊ] in closed syllables, and [ɔə] or [ɔ̝ə] in open syllables,[14] and monophthongal [ɔː].[14] According to Parsons (1998), it is either [ɔʊ] or [] before consonant, and either [ɔə] or [ɔː] at a morpheme boundary.[13]
    • /ʌ/ (as in STRUT) can be realised as [ɒ], [ʌ], [ɐ], [ɐ̟] or [æ],[14] with [ɐ] being predominant.[14] The first two variants occur mostly before /ŋ/.[14] Fronted realisations ([ɐ̟] and [æ]) are more often used by females.[14]
    • /æ/ (as in TRAP) can be realised as [a], [a̝], [æ], [ɛ̞] or [ɛ].[14][24] A somewhat retracted front [a̠] has been reported for some speakers in Reading.[25]
    • /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.[26] She also notes a fully rounded diphthong [oʊ] (found in some speakers from Essex),[26] as well as two rare monophthongal realizations, namely [ɐː] and [o̞ː].[26] According to Lodge (2009), Estuary /əʊ/ may be pronounced [ɑːɪ̯̈] or [ɑːʏ̯̈], i.e. with the first element somewhat lengthened and much more open than in RP, and the second element being near-close central, either with or without lip-rounding.[27]
    • /eɪ/ (as in FACE), according to Przedlacka (2001), can be realised as [ɛ̝ɪ], [ɛɪ], [ɛ̞ɪ] or [æɪ],[26] with [ɛɪ] and [ɛ̞ɪ] being predominant.[26] According to Wells (1994), it can be realized as [eɪ], [ɛɪ], [æɪ], [ɐɪ] or [ʌɪ].[21]
    • /aɪ/ (as in PRICE) can be realised as [aɪ], [a̠ɪ], [ɑ̟ɪ], [ɒ̟ɪ], [ɑɪ] or [ɒɪ].[26]
    • /aʊ/ (as in MOUTH) can be realised as [aʊ], [aʏ], [æə], [æʊ] or [æʏ].[26] [a] denotes a front onset [a], not a central one [].[26]
  • Vowel mergers before the dark /l/:
    • /iːl/ (as in REEL) merges with /ɪəl/ (as in REAL).[21]
    • /ɔɪl/ (as in OIL) merges with /ɔɪəl/ (as in ROYAL).[21]
    • /aʊl/ (as in OWL) merges with /aʊəl/ (as in VOWEL).[21]
    • Other possible mergers include:
      • /iːl/ (as in FEEL) can merge with /ɪl/ (as in FILL).[21] Since /ɪəl/ merges with /iːl/,[21] it also participates in this merger.
      • /uːl/ (as in POOL) can merge with both /ʊl/ (as in PULL) and /ɔːl/ (as in PAUL).[21]
      • /eɪl/ (as in VEIL) can merge with both /æl/ (as in VAL) and /aʊəl/ (as in VOWEL).[21]
      • /ɛl/ (as in WELL) can merge with /ɜːl/ (as in WHIRL).[21]
      • /aɪl/ (as in CHILD'S) can merge with /ɑːl/ (as in CHARLES).[21]
      • /ɒl/ (as in DOLL) can merge with /ɒʊl/ (as in DOLE).[21]

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

  • H-dropping, i.e., Dropping /h/ in stressed words (e.g. [æʔ] for hat)[21]
  • Monophthongal ([æː] or []) realization of /aʊ/ (as in MOUTH).[21]

However, the boundary between Estuary English and Cockney is far from clear-cut,[28][29] hence even these features of Cockney might occur occasionally in Estuary English. 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 name 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";[30] see also Roach (2009:4). 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".[31]

It has been suggested that th-fronting is "currently making its way" into Estuary English, for example those from Isle of Thanet often refer to Thanet as "Plannit Fannit" (Planet Thanet).[32]


Estuary English is widely encountered throughout the south and south-east of England, particularly among the young. Many consider it to be a working-class accent, though it is by no means limited to the working class. In the debate that surrounded a 1993 article about Estuary English, a London businessman claimed that Received Pronunciation was perceived as unfriendly, so Estuary English was now preferred for commercial purposes.[33]

Some people adopt the accent as a means of "blending in", appearing to be more working class, or in an attempt to appear to be "a common man"Template:Spaced ndashsometimes this affectation of the accent is derisively referred to as "Mockney". A move away from traditional RP accents is almost universal among middle class young people.[34]

The term "Estuary English" is sometimes used with pejorative connotations: Sally Gunnell, a former Olympic athlete who became a television presenter for Channel 4 and the BBC, quit the BBC, announcing she felt "very undermined" by the network's lack of support after she was widely criticised for her "uninspiring interview style" and "awful estuary English".[35]

See also


  1. ^ "Estuary English Q and A - JCW". Retrieved 2010-08-16. 
  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)". 1999-05-21. Retrieved 2010-08-16. 
  4. ^ A handout by John C. Wells, one of the first to write a serious description of the would-be variety. Also summarised by him here [1].
  5. ^ Cruttenden (2014:81–82)
  6. ^ a b "Phonetics at Oxford University". Retrieved 17 May 2015. 
  7. ^ a b Cruttenden (2014:82)
  8. ^ Such as Wells (1982)
  9. ^ Wells (1982:302–303)
  10. ^ Such as Cruttenden (2014)
  11. ^ Cruttenden (2014:89)
  12. ^ Estuary English: A Controversial Issue? by Joanna Ryfa, from
  13. ^ a b c d e Parsons (1998:39)
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Przedlacka (2001:43)
  15. ^ a b Ashby (2011)
  16. ^ Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:193)
  17. ^ a b Przedlacka (2001:45)
  18. ^ a b Bauer et al. (2007:101)
  19. ^ Przedlacka (2001:42)
  20. ^ Przedlacka (2001:43–44)
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Wells (1994)
  22. ^ Lodge (2009:174)
  23. ^ Altendorf & Watt (2004:188 and 191–192)
  24. ^ Altendorf & Watt (2004:188). They list [a], [a̝] and [æ].
  25. ^ Altendorf & Watt (2004:188)
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h Przedlacka (2001:44)
  27. ^ Lodge (2009:175)
  28. ^ 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 2009-04-21. 
  29. ^ Haenni, Ruedi (1999). "The case of Estuary English: supposed evidence and a perceptual approach" (PDF). University of Basel dissertation. University College London. Retrieved 2009-04-21. 
  30. ^ Trudgill (1999:80)
  31. ^ Foulkes & Docherty (1999:11)
  32. ^ Altendorf (1999)
  33. ^ Crystal (2003:327)
  34. ^ Crystal, David. "RP and its successors". BBC. Retrieved 12 April 2011. 
  35. ^ Jo Knowsley (15 January 2006). "BBC undermined me so I quit, says Gunnell". The Mail on Sunday. Retrieved 2009-04-21. 


Further reading

  • 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