Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.


May 17, 2010

17-5-10 Cross-talk

I’ve recently had a round of mail from my Carolina correspondent about English usage, here and there. It reminds me that it’s the things we least notice that are probably the most characteristic.

I don’t watch Eastenders yet I’m aware of the characters and the tone, more from parodies and impressions than from the series. This enquiry made me aware of how very difficult it is to pin down pronunciation using the Latin alphabet.

I’ve now lived nearly 40 years in Birmingham and in that time I’ve heard numerous attempts to imitate the Birming-gum accent misfiring slightly in various ways or reduced for comic effect to a dull nasal whine suggesting fewer pence than the shiny shilling.

Features caricatured include Brum vowels – Aye, Oeuil(FR.), Oi, Ow, Yu-ew – the roising stress in sibyllant stightments witch mike them sewnd loike questions? – a town of indignightion bised on a fürm footin-g of ignorance, might!

All literary attempts to render a character’s accent suggest lack of education. Their utterances don’t get an upgrade to business English.

I read a draft radio script once in which a renowned Professor of Sociopolitical Proctology (it was an ‘issues’ play) reminded us that he had risen to eminence from dank Scottish roots by beginning his speeches – there were lots of speeches –  with ‘Och’ and referring to his academic protegé as ‘lassie’. Goes to show; when you write thinking you are ‘subtly alluding’ the result may jar like the sporadic hammering of carpet-tacks.



J: Have a telly opp I want to check. At any rate, I’d love to see if you can type “Cockney.” Is that what I hear, or don’t hear, on EastEnders?

G: OK. First, lose the ‘r’ from your phonetic repertoire. The London ‘r’ is so compressed that it almost collapses into a w. It’s a bit like that speech inflection when instead of the tongue funnelling the R, a corner of the lower lip brushes the upper teeth. Not as pronounced as Elmer Fudd’s stway diction, but the finely-turned American R has ta go.

The diphthong ‘ou’ as in round/sound/mound becomes ‘ah’; rahnd/sahnd/mahnd is how they say it dahn Sahf. Note this th = f at the end of words – the teef in yor mahf; there are forty fousand fevvers on a frush; a foughtful fank you, bruv. As a kid I was always drawn to the TV when Joe Brown and The Bruvvers played. He always looked as cheerful as a bloke who can’t believe his luck ought to.

The 60’s showbiz impresario Larry Parnes was nicknamed ‘Parnes, Shillings and Pence’, which embedded the street-trader manner of Parnes’ business (‘…it’s not called show art’) in the pun.

If you’re humming and hawing you may be told not to keep goin rahnd the ahses.

Locate your vocal base of operations to the back of the tongue. It flattens the vahl sahnds.

The characteristic curve on the Cockney ‘i’ was misjudged memorably by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. He dived too far, came up with an irish ‘oi’ and remains off-key throughout. Oi’m fit to buRst to be wif you, Meery Pawpins! […what if Joe Brown had been cast as Bert in Mary Poppins? Tommy Steele would’ve had first refusal and would’ve brought some Gene Kelly pizzazz to it, but now it’s occurred to me it counts as one of those great lost opportunities.]

The key to Cockney is a slack jaw. Think of Michael Caine. M-wy-ch’l C-eye-ne, giving it some laconic.

As I typed that it occurred to me that you could transplant some of the va-awel sa-ahnds for the US Deep Sah-th into Cockney. The pronunciation patterns are almost identical if you shorten the drawl.

Ex. 1: Anywhy, I goes rahdn er ahse, an I sez to er wot-d you tyke me for, some kine-a mug or wot, you cheeky mare*?

*’Mare’ – combining a female horse with the contraction of ‘nightmare’ as in ‘I’m aving a ‘mare of a day.’

I aven’t gone into the dropped aitch because expect you take that for granted, but there’s also the glottal stop, where the t’s disappear: glo**al stop. This also serves to spring-load the exit vowel, as in ‘ this  bu**ah tystes be**ah than tha* uvver bu**ah in the refridgera*ah’.

Does this help you listen to Eastenders?


…and I don’t know if this book by William Safire is still in print. J asked if I knew of him and I was able to reply that his On Language was in its place on a shelf as I typed. It’s a collection of notes and queries and readers’ ripostes taken from his New York Times column.

A couple of days later…


At your prompt I took On Language off the shelf again and it’s become my default read, my briefcase book.

When you watch acrobats there’s some part of you that’s aware that although the performance pins you in the present you are seeing the result of hours and years of dedication to development of this one freak skill-set. On Language is thick book of pithy paragraphs and it’s easy to forget that every page represents hours of thought and active attention.

I love it that he too plays with language rather than striking a patrician pose and pronouncing.

I’m always in awe of comic timing in print. Perelman does it. Garrison Keillor does it. Alan Coren does it.

When I worked for Punch there were certain cartoonists whose line alone gave you an anticipatory wave of goodwill – oh, it’s a Mike Williams; this’ll be good! – before you read the caption. Some writers keep you in suspended chuckles on the assurance that sooner or later they’ll arrive.

Someone once described the US confidence to turn a phrase or hijack a definition as ‘English with its sleeves rolled up’. I like it that Safire insists on utility but encourages elegance.

Anyway, good call, J. Thank you.


…and while I’m at it: those pre-broadcast warnings that the following programme contains ‘strong language’.

If only this was a routine call to prepare yourself for language to inspire or encourage or set imagination free to rise on lucid wings… Nope, it means coarse language, signifying the won’t-tidy-my-room swagger of the writer, or gritty confrontational social authenticity when TV performs the function of the Victorian Extreme Backpacker’s tour of the London Stews, viewing humanity in its feral state.

[Crivens! Thank goodness Gordon Brown didn’t make for the sanctuary of his car to have a right old swear-up, like you would when you’d just hit your thumb with a hammer. Sometimes ‘ouch!’ doesn’t suffice. Ah, see he wis black affronted and awfy huffy but he wasnae *coarse*.]

The current TV warning bids you brace yourself for the jolt of strong language and judge whether you have sufficient insulation to take it. If you are likely to be offended you are likely to be rewarded.

The announcement that the following programme features Coarse Language throughout and from the outset would shriek snobbery – Ee-ew! – and provoke hilarity.

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