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The ultimate guide to speaking like a Londoner

Tom Crosby

If you’ve got into a London University, chances are your English is already pretty fantastic. Unfortunately, you may not be ready for the myriad of accents, dialects and languages hosted in a capital city where almost every country in the world is represented.

If you find yourself dropped into the heart of British Jamaica, in Lambeth, among the huge Bangladeshi population of Tower Hamlets, or at the centre of European Sikhism in Southall, it may not feel much like the London from Love Actually. But if you want to love London, you actually need to embrace the thousands of cultures in the capital, foreign or indigenous.

So, lean in, switch on, and let Uniplaces explain the way London’s traditional accent is changing, from the old East End all the way to the new multiculturalism.

And yes, we will be explaining Cockney rhyming slang.

The Cockney Accent

The ultimate guide to speaking like a Londoner: A Pearly

A typical Cockney Pearly King and Queen – by Flickr user: Glen Scott

The word ‘Cockney’ is often used by non-Londoners to describe anyone from the capital. Traditionally though, it should refer to someone born within the sound of Bow Bells, the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church in the poignantly named Cheapside district of East London. The word often simply means a Londoner from the East End, or even just a working class Londoner in general.

‘Cockney’ is one of the more famous British accents that’s made it abroad. It’s the sound of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and Adele, during interviews, certainly not when she’s singing.

The accent involves long vowel sounds, soft consonants and the chronic use of complicated slang. A slang we’re now about to explain.

Cockney rhyming slang involves replacing a common word with a connected pair of words that rhyme with it

e.g.: Butcher’s Hook = Look

If I wanted to say: ‘Can I have a look at that?’ I would replace the word look with the first of the pair, Butcher’s. This makes the sentence ‘Can I have a butcher’s at that?’

There are thousands of examples, although only a few common ones are in general use. Their creation has become a bit of a game, with many slang words referencing famous celebrities or even referencing each other (But we won’t get into those).

Here are a few more common examples:

Rabbit & Pork = Talk. E.g: ‘He wouldn’t stop rabbiting all night, I had to tell him to shut up in the end’

Tod Sloan (Famous 50s American Jockey) = Alone/own. E.g: ‘He was sat on his Tod, so I went over for a chat, but I think I was just rabbiting at him in the end. He told me to shut up!’

Scooby Doo = Clue. E.g. ‘I haven’t a scooby how Cockney rhyming slang works!’

Also, some key ones for any prospective UK student:

Geoff Hurst (Famous English Footballer) = 1st

Attila the Hun = 2:1 Desmond Tutu (Former Archbishop) = 2:2

Douglas Hurd (Conservative Politician) = 3rd

And, just to confuse the hell out of you, here’s a clip from Austin Power with Michael Caine (look out for ‘Apples & Pears = Stairs’), but don’t worry nobody actually talks like this:

Multicultural London English (MLE)

Although its name makes it sound like an accent concocted by a depressingly well-meaning left-wing cultural outreach program, it’s actually the best name we’ve got for this new phenomenon.

MLE is quickly supplanting the Cockney accent, pushing it out to the surrounding towns and villages. It’s based partially on Caribbean and African slang and accentuation, as well as a mix of other cultures, languages and street slang.

It’s particularly common amongst young people, or ‘Da Yout’ (The Youth), as I’ve just cringingly typed it. Typical words you’ll encounter will be:

Bruv (Close friend, ‘Brother’)
Fam (Family)
Ting (Thing/Situation)
Sket (Slut)
Init (Isn’t it. Often used at the end of sentence rhetorically)
You get me? (Do you understand me. All often rhetorical)

The letter ‘H’ has also been added back to the accent, in a way that it would be dropped in Cockney or softened in a traditional Jamaican accent.

The South London alien invasion movie Attack the Block, featuring John Boyega, best sums the new accent up:

The British Asian Accent

The ultimate guide to speaking like a Londoner: A Sikh Guard

Sikh Guard by Flickr user: Defence Images

The word ‘Asian’ to a Briton almost always refers to the Asian Sub-Continent, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The British Asian population is vast, over three million, with many London boroughs being one quarter to one third Asian.

To say there’s a ‘British Asian accent’, when pronunciation can differ wildly between language, religion and region, is more than a little unfair. However, there might be a few tips and tricks to help you integrate into you’re new beautifully multicultural London community.

Typically, you might hear a merging of ‘D’ and ‘T’ sounds, so that words with a ‘T’ or ‘TH’ sound become ‘Ds’ when pronounced.

Also it is common, due to the grammatical nature of some South Asian languages, that people talk in the present continuous a lot, e.g: ‘I am liking you very much’, for ‘I like you very much.’

The accent can also be beautifully musical and spoken terribly quickly, making it hard to understand for somebody fresh off the boat.

Although, like Cockney, this accent is falling away, being replaced by MLE or even regional forms of Asian British speech, particularly in cities such as Bradford, West Yorkshire.

I’ll leave you with one of the greatest bits of British satire, the cast of British Asian comedy show Goodness Gratuitous Me going out for an ‘English Takeaway’ in Bombay.


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