Thursday, March 29, 2012

The death of Cockney (part 175)

a cockney geezer, yesterday
Today's Daily Mail provides a feast for those of you who like a bit of doom and gloom in the shape of "English being destroyed by text language" headlines. This time round, texting is not making us stupider (d'oh) or turning us into a nation of chavs, but destroying that loveable old variety, Cockney Rhyming Slang.

The article looks at a recent survey of 2000 people by the Museum of London which suggests that most of them don't encounter much Cockney rhyming slang and would be baffled by terms such as apples and pears for stairs or brown bread for dead (although genuine Cockneys would never use the rhyming part of the term and stick to apples or brown, to confuse the casual listener yet further). It's not really that much of a surprise because, after all, Cockney speakers are and have probably always been a small group, although admittedly one whose influence was greater than their number.

What helps the Mail turn this into a sad tale of prescriptivist woe is not that the dialect is dying a natural death, with its users shuffling off to Romford or drinking too many Britneys and keeling over, but that the good old Cockney dialect is being destroyed by textisms like LOL and OMG. This is the Cockney variety which, if you look back through the decades, has often been damned - by the selfsame mainstream media that now bemoans its loss - for its coarseness, vulgarity and general untrustworthiness. They're having a bubble. A couple of years ago, texting wasn't the threat to Cockney: Multicultural London English was, apparently.

For Language Change students this makes for a great example of a declinism discourse, with some of the "bottom half" - the comments below the story from Daily Mail readers - adding to the sense that this is yet another symptom of a language, a nation, a proud island race in decline. There's not much that doesn't upset some of these commenters: one day it's pasties, the next it's patois. But it's fantastically fertile ground for a bit of Language Discourses analysis...Look there's a Crumbling Castle! And there's an Infectious Disease! OMG, I can even see a Damp Spoon!

Thankfully, the Daily Telegraph takes a slightly more restrained view, quoting the world's favourite linguist, David Crystal who says "Cockney slang was never very widely known as it started as a secret way for people to talk to each other. As soon as the slang became known the Cockney’s stopped using it".

The elevation of Cockney to its place in a theme park of English identity is an odd one. In 1909, S.K.Ratcliffe of the English Association described it as a "debased dialect, which is spreading from our schools and training colleges all over the country", and he added, "in ten years' time the English language will not be worth speaking". Its origins lie in East End criminals developing a language of inclusion among their own (in-group language) and exclusion of outsiders (the out-group), so it was always meant to fox and confuse outsiders and keep the business of the insiders to themselves.

So, why celebrate such a dubious dialect? Will the Daily Mail in thirty years' time be running a headline "Innit dies. Arks is on its last legs. A nation mourns."? I doubt it...

Cockney has become part of a heritage industry, a set of linguistic markers of a passing (or in some cases, passed on to the other side) English identity which some still cling on to. In times of uncertainty over identity - globalisation, mass immigration, economic downturn, social change -  people often hang on to those things that signal tradition. And while RP might be a more prestigious marker of Englishness, Cockney has also developed a place in this theme park because it's associated with more innocent, more certain times.

But, as anyone who has looked at language change knows, these certainties, these notions of a shared and communal language identity are a myth. Language has always had different varieties which have pretty much universally been looked down upon by the ruling classes and their media: Cockney is no exception. Working class varieties like Cockney might well signal higher solidarity than more overtly prestigious forms like RP, and therefore trigger feelings of warmth and nostalgia, but when Cockney was in its prime, the users of it probably wouldn't have been looked on as cuddly old-fashioned figures, but unpleasant and antisocial criminals.

So, perhaps Cockney is on its way out - maybe it's been on its way out for a long time already - but if we look at why it's being mourned we can see that so many other strands of concern about change - not just language change - are apparent.

Edited on 30.03.12 to add this link: Take the Cockney Rhyming Slang quiz here.

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