Victorian Book Report: Cockney Past and Present, by William Matthews

This book is a freaking gold mine.

It would be worth the purchase just for Chapter VI, “Pronunciation and Grammar.” Because this chapter lays out, very efficiently, all the characteristic quirks of Cockney speech, both in terms of how the words sound and how they are used. Here you will get statements such as “The raised pronunciation of short a, which resembles the ordinary sound of short e, has always been a feature of the dialect” and “The Cockney […] inclines toward the accusative rather than the nominative form of personal pronouns.” Followed by illustrative examples, often drawn from representative texts. If you want to know how to write Cockney dialogue, memorize this chapter.

(And then ignore the first half of it. I’m a firm believer in the axiom that you’re better off mimicking the speech patterns of a dialect, i.e. its word choice and grammar, than phonetically representing its pronunciation. The latter is just too damn hard to read.)

Of course, there’s more to the book than just Chapter VI. It also has Chapter V! Which is entitled “Mannerisms and Slang.” I haven’t read this one in great detail yet, and really, if you want slang (even period slang) there are other books that will give it to you in greater depth. More to the point, Chapters, I-III are a history of the dialect, reconstructed (to the extent that it can be) from period documents. These are a bit dry to get through, because it’s a lot of Matthews saying “this play shows some of the characteristics of Cockney” and then quoting a brief scene at you. But it serves two important purposes: first, it helps in tracking what features were early or late, and second, it establishes the basis for the claims given later. It’s truly amazing what we can figure out from written texts, even (or rather, especially) through the thicket of auricular spelling — which is to say, spelling a word how it sounds to you. If a particular vowel replacement or such shows up frequently in London texts (like diaries and parish records), and also in similar texts from outside the city, then it’s probably a period thing rather than a dialect one; but if it’s found primarily in London, and not elsewhere, then you’ve started to catch a whisper from the Cockneys of the past.

Which is the other interesting thing this book provides. I had heard before, but not seen it demonstrated, just where Cockney pronunciation came from. In short, it seems to have been the dialect of London and environs — a regional thing, rather than a class one. But a shift happened a couple of centuries ago; I’ve heard it said, but not read Matthews thoroughly enough to know if it’s in here, that wealthy families from the midlands moved into the city, at least for part of the year, and brought their pronunciation with them. Anyway, certain phonetic characteristics went from being something you’d hear out of the mouth of the Lord Mayor in Elizabeth’s day, to something you’d sneer at a costermonger for in Victoria’s.

(So yes, I have contemplated the spectacle of making all the fine lords and ladies of the Onyx Court speak like Cockneys, because they’ve been there for hundreds of years. But I figure they would have handled changing standards of speech the same way they have standards of dress, which is to say they copy what they like. Only the lower-class fae are likely to drop their aitches.)

Anyway, I see why Jerry White’s London in the Nineteenth Century cited this book as being the best work on Cockney speech out there. I’m sure there are ways to improve on it, but seventy-two years on, it’s still exactly what I need. If you ever need to write a Cockney into a story, try to find a copy of this book.

0 Responses to “Victorian Book Report: Cockney Past and Present, by William Matthews”

  1. dsgood

    There’s at least one other disadvantage to phonetic representation of dialect — it won’t work properly for readers whose dialects (regional, class, etc.) differ from yours.

    Ian Fleming said that Americans pronounced his first name as “Iarn.”

    • Marie Brennan

      True — but I think phonetic spelling can work as a pointer, calling up whatever experience the reader has of hearing the accent. (So when I read phonetic cockney, it helps me hear the cockneys I’ve seen in film.) And to some extent that isn’t dependent on what sound values I ordinarily assign to certain letters. But when somebody tries to spell out pronunciation I’ve never heard . . . then it fails, resoundingly.

  2. Anonymous

    Two comments:
    (1) Fleming obviously thought all Americans talked like Bostonians, where they warsh theyah cahs outside the garahzh. That’s sort of like saying that all Scots talk like Glaswegians… (very, very pointed reference to something else Fleming bloody well should have known).

    (2) But the Lords and Ladies of the Onyx Court should speak like those from the midlands… particularly given that whole “city v. country” tension in the “second act” of Midnight, wherein several different characters muse on how slightly unnatural it is to have the English faerie court under a city instead of under a hill in the country. So, arguably, they’re just Midlands (and perhaps Kentish) country folk “in for the season”… given comparative lifespans.

    • Marie Brennan

      Fleming obviously thought all Americans talked like Bostonians

      As opposed to the code that seems to prevail in much British TV, at least of the older sort — where every American is from West Texas.

      As for the Onyx Court . . . if I were really good with speech styles, and had lived in Britain all my life so had a fighting chance of actually knowing the regional dialects better, I would totally try and hint at the characters’ origins that way. As it stands, the best I can manage is hints of class, and not even much of that.

  3. Anonymous

    I’m intrigued by your theory that in this book Robert Jordan wasn’t as interested in Perrin’s plot as he used to be. I’d actually assumed the opposite– that he’d gotten sufficiently excited by certain Perrin/Faile/Berelain plot components that he took to repeating them ad nauseam. It’d never occurred to me that Jordan himself might be tired of that whole subplot, too! 🙂

    I like to think that if you cut the entire Faile Rescue Subplot from the series, along with anything Elaine says or does in Caemlyn at around the same time, you wind up with a pretty good books 9 & 10! (Up until book 11, where I feel things actually get good again on their own…)

  4. Anonymous

    rachat de credit

    You got good points there, that’s why I always check your blog, it seems that you are an expert in this field. keep up the good work, My friend recommends your blog.

    My blog:
    rachat des credits et Rachat de credit argsol

  5. Anonymous

    buy viagra online

    ed supplements
    [url=]viagra online
    [/url] viagra from canada daily privacy policy
    – buy viagra

Comments are closed.