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.