Byline: Harry Mount
EVEN Professor Henry Higgins -- rarely lost for words -- would be dumbfounded. New research shows that the cockney dialect he battled so hard to beat out of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady will disappear from London's streets within a generation.
As its traditional speakers emigrate to Essex and Hertfordshire, the 650-yearold accent is dying off in London, to be replaced by multicultural London English, heavily influenced by West Indian patois, Bangladeshi and remnants of old cockney. The dialect won't die off altogether.
It will survive in the descendants of those Home Counties emigres. You can hear it happening today: teenagers in Essex speak like Henry Cooper and Barbara Windsor; in Lambeth, they are more likely to sound like Ali G. As cockney makes its way out of London, Kings Place, the arts centre in King's Cross, is building up a vocal time capsule of the old dialect, asking Londoners to talk to their grandparents and contribute cockney poetry and phrases to an archive (kingsplace.co. uk/celebrate-cockney) for performance at a future spoken word event. Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, the man behind the research, will next year publish his findings in Multicultural London English: the Emergence, Acquisition and Diffusion of a New Variety. "In much of the East End of London, the cockney dialect that we hear now spoken by older people will have disappeared within another generation," says Professor Kerswill. "People in their forties will be the last generation to speak it and it will be gone within 30 years. Since the 1950s and the New Town movement, more affluent east Londoners moved out of the capital and into Essex and Hertfordshire, especially to places like Romford, Southend and Hemel Hempstead, and they took their accent with them.
"Cockney in the East End is now transforming itself into multicultural London Continued on Page 32
Continued from Page 31 English, a new, melting-pot mixture of all those people living here who learned English as a second language. Ever since the 1960s, these areas of London have become home to immigrants from the West Indies, the Indian subcontinent and many other places, from South America and Africa to Central Asia and the Far East. Some of these people spoke the kind of English typical of their original countries. Others couldn't speak English, so children were speaking their native language at home but were learning English at school.
"This means that children were no longer learning their English dialect from local cockney speakers but from older teenagers, who themselves had developed their English in the linguistic melting pot. Out of all this, the new English which we call multicultural London English emerged, and this is the sound of inner-city London we hear today."
This hybrid, known in slang terms as "Jafaican", is a mixture of cockney, Bangladeshi and West Indian. Its leading fictional exponent is Ali G; a genuine user is Dizzee Rascal, the 24-year-old rapper, born in Bow, and a supporter of the cockney football team, West Ham.
When Jafaican finally supplants cockney across London, the curtain will fall on an ancient story. The earliest recorded use of the word is in 1362, in William Langland's The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman. …