Is Cockney brown bread?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2005, 12:00am

Cor blimey guvnor, they ain't talkin' proper. Not in London's East End, anyway. The fabled birthplace of rhyming slang and the epicentre of that famous, chirpy Cockney accent is fading from the scene.

Soon it will be brown bread (rhymes with 'dead') say eagle-eared academics on the BBC's linguistic show Voices. They say the East End accent is becoming extinct, dying out quicker than you can order a Vera Lynn philharmonic (gin and tonic), or measure up a new whistle (whistle 'n' flute, or suit).

Cockney is being subverted and replaced by a mish-mash of vowels and words from new East Enders - the young Bengalis who make up more than 50 per cent of students in the manor's main borough, Tower Hamlets. Even the white youngsters are at it, saying nang (good), skets (slippers, trainers) and, instead of 'isn't it' or the London 'ain't it', there is 'innit' ('I'm Hank Marvin [starvin'], I need a curry, innit.'). Old Cockneys would turn in their Chas and Daves (graves).

This is prompting mass mourning for the good times, when all East Enders were apparently white, talked like Dick van Dyke's chimney sweep, left doors unlocked and had little to worry about but poor sanitation, bad health and high unemployment. Nostalgics pine for a time when the streets were safe: villains answered to the Kray twins, thugs who at the drop of a titfer tat (hat) would redesign faces with a 'Chelsea smile' - the broadening of both sides of the mouth with a sabre.

Such rose-tinted reflections have sparked a row: rival linguists say the East End accent has not died, but moved east. It has travelled to urban Essex - Dagenham and Romford, plus new towns such as Basildon and Harlow, where East Enders were dumped en masse in the name of slum clearance.

Besides, some say, the strength of English is its adaptability.

The old East End for 'good' was pukka, itself an Indian word taken from the Raj. What is more, with such soaps as East Enders, large swathes of Britain are now influenced by cockney or, as linguists call it, Estuary English. We are all 'mockneys' now, they say - not just Michael Caine, who actually hails from south London. Cockneys, which is derived from 'cockeneyes' - meaning misshapen eggs, as if laid by a cock - were once only those born within hearing of the Bow bells - the bells of St Mary-Le-Bow church.

Rhyming slang was meant to bamboozle outsiders, so it seems pointless for everyone to practise it. For traditional Cockneys that is hardly a pain in the Harris (Harris, short for Aristotle, short for bottle, as in bottle and glass, as in ... must we explain?).