Comprehending Estuary English | South China Morning Post
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Comprehending Estuary English

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 July, 1999, 12:00am

It may be the most widely spoken language in the world but even if you are a fluent English speaker don't expect to understand what the natives are saying if you visit the British Isles.

A new phrasebook intended to help visitors to Britain warns never to take at face value what an Englishman says and not to be surprised to find his speech littered with four-letter words.

According to the Scots, Welsh, English and American academics who drew up the Lonely Planet British Phrasebook, many commonly used terms reflect a nation that is too polite to say what it really means.

When you are told: 'You really must come and see us soon', you should understand this to mean: 'If you call on us we'll pretend to be out.' And the book tells visitors to beware of such conversational gambits as: 'With all due respect,' or, 'Far be it from me to say . . .' Rather than being a humble admission of the visitor's superior knowledge, such phrases are likely to preface a commentary on his profound ignorance.

A true Englishman will also use an apology to express his superiority and insincerity, the book says. 'If you step on his foot he will say 'I'm so sorry', before you have time to apologise, thus exposing your bad manners and lack of breeding.' But the phrasebook warns that the British love swearing more than most other nations and many are virtually dumbstruck without recourse to four-letter words.

Potential visitors to Britain are told that large numbers of the country's inhabitants drape their entire discourse around popular profanities and resort to more colourful descriptions with an ease that would shock many other English speakers.

Many of the new slang words identified in the book have developed from the twin British preoccupations of drinking and football.

Visitors are told the nation's football grounds resound to expletive filled refrains while supporters engage in full and frank exchanges about the merits of the referee and the opposing team.

For those celebrating after the match, no fewer than 65 words are listed to describe alcoholic indulgence including: bevvied; bladdered; kalied; mashed; plonked; reeling; scoobied; stotted; wazzed; and wrecked.

A spokeswoman for the publishers said the idea of the book was to explain the idiosyncrasies of the language.

'Of course some of it is tongue-in-cheek but there is an element of social anthropology as well. People need to know that getting tipsy [drunk] with your grandmother is not the same as getting bladdered with your mates and that is what we are trying to explain,' she said.

'We are not saying people coming to Britain should swear but we want visitors to know what to expect,' she said.

For a country only fractionally larger than the American state of Pennsylvania or New Zealand's North Island there is a surprising variety of accents and dialects used in Britain.

The variations in spoken English around Britain are a subject virtually any British person will be happy to volunteer an opinion on and are likely to provoke stronger feelings than the use of the words themselves.

Many guardians of the language are concerned that regional differences are fast becoming replaced by the adoption nationally of what has come to be known as 'Estuary English'.

The phrase was coined in 1984 by the linguist David Rosewarne to refer to the London East End Cockney-influenced accent which is identified with the Thames Estuary and the suburban communities in the South East as well as the capital itself.

In particular, it is characterised by a 'glottal stop', the swallowing, or non-pronunciation of the letter 'T' and the pronunciation of 'th' as 'f' or 'v'.

Jamie Shea, the Nato spokesman during the recent war in Kosovo, was compared to a London cab driver in the snootier elements of the British press because of his Estuary pronunciation, despite the fact that he is fluent in three languages and holds a Phd.

Earlier this summer the appointment of Nasser Hussain - a cricketer from Essex, just outside London - as the new captain of the English national team, was greeted with criticism of his accent.

'Somebody who went to a good university has no excuse for speaking in that ghastly Estuary sludge,' the Daily Telegraph newspaper commented. 'Verbal imprecision often reveals mental laziness. Be a good chap, skipper, use the letter 'T'. It's not just there to keep the 'S' and 'U' company.' But the growing popularity of Estuary English is such that Prime Minister, Tony Blair, whose voice normally reflects his private school and Oxford education, has been known to slip into Estuary pronunciation in his speeches to court public support.

Charles Owen, from Birmingham University's English department, predicted that Estuary would eventually become the accepted 'correct' pronunciation.

'In 100 years the editor of the Daily Telegraph, for example, will be speaking Estuary English or some version of it because by that time everybody will,' he said.

'But by that time there will be some new version from Essex or elsewhere and the editor of that type of newspaper will be complaining about that.'


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