Remember two weeks ago, when I said that I’d get back to you about Southern Hemisphere Englishes? Well, I’m following through with this post!1
So, what do I mean by Southern Hemisphere (SH) Englishes? Well, it can be defined more broadly or more narrowly, but for this post I mean varieties of English that are spoken as a first language in the Southern Hemisphere, such as in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, St Helena, and the Falkland Islands. Today, I will focus on the first three varieties on that list: Australian English, New Zealand English, and South African English.
If you, like me, enjoy listening to accents, imitating them, and trying to figure out their characteristics, you may have noticed that these three SH varieties often sound very similar2. With Australian and New Zealand English, them being geographical neighbours could partly explain this, but this does not work as an explanation for South African English. Also, there is not great dialectal variation within these varieties, relative to, for example, the UK, where you get distinct accents and dialects between two places only a commuter’s distance apart. How can this be?
In my post about American English I went a little bit into how the development of that variety is affected by the linguistic diversity of the input (that is, what English accents and dialects were spoken by settlers), challenging the claim that American English would be a preserved Shakespearean English. The story of the formation of SH Englishes is, unsurprisingly, not so different from this. Once again I want to investigate the idea that a language develops in a straight line from one single older language, and the question of the week is therefore: Is Cockney to blame for the similarities between SH Englishes?
The SH countries in question were colonised by Britain much later than North America was, but in the same century as each other; the 19th century. The nature of their settlement differed slightly, however: Australia was at first a penal colony, New Zealand was initially settled by craftsmen, labourers, and farmers, and in South Africa, which was previously colonised by the Dutch, a deliberate action was made to start British farming communities by sending out 5000 British settlers to start this up (this did not work very well, and the British settlers soon moved into the cities to take on other professions).
Now, let me tell you a little bit about Cockney:
Famous fictional Cockney speaker: Eliza Doolittle, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (perhaps more known from the stage musical adaption My Fair Lady)
Famous non-fictional Cockney speaker: Michael Caine (an actor who, depending on your age, you either know from the movie Alfie, or as Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy)
Famously bad attempts at Cockney: America’s Next Top Model season 4 acting challenge
Cockney is the accent traditionally spoken in London’s West End, which, in the 19th and early 20th century, was one of the more impoverished areas of London. The Southern English accent spoken in the West End developed in a quite distinct way, influenced in part by the culturally diverse population which resided there. If you’re not from Britain, you may recognise Cockney as the accent often used to make fun of/imitate the British. Some notable Cockney features are, for example: pronouncing the diphthong in words like ‘mate’ so that it sounds like the diphthong in ‘might’, dropping word-initial /h/ so that ‘hello’ becomes ‘ello’, vocalising (= turning into a vowel) the /l/ in certain environments so that ‘milk’ sounds like ‘miwk’, and glottalising the /t/-sound between vowels so that words like ‘glottal’ become something like ‘glo-al’. The cockney accent also had more general South-Eastern English features (and indeed, some of the already mentioned features are also found elsewhere), such as not being rhotic (so that ‘far’ is pronounced ‘fah’), and raising of the ‘e’-vowels to sound more like ‘i’, making ‘better’ sound more like ‘bitter’.
During the 20th century, the rise of the prestigious Received Pronounciation (RP)3 meant that Cockney became more and more seen as vulgar and overall unprestigious. However, Cockney speakers were large in numbers, and, as is often the case in language change, features from Cockney have successively found their way into wider South-Eastern British English and even RP – so much so that the traditional RP known as the Queen’s English sounds much more “common” these days, even when spoken by the Queen herself.
Cockney is frequently given credit for the Australian English accent, and this is not an entirely bonkers idea. In a situation such as the settlement of Australia and New Zealand, the number of speakers of a certain variety, i.e. the frequency of certain accent features, has been said to play a greater role than the social prestige of a variety, and the majority of convicts arriving in Australia were Cockney speakers. The interaction between the convicts, and thus the numerical influence of Cockney features over other accents, started already on the ships taking them to Australia, and once there, the speech of the convicts even affected the speech of the penal officers. Thus, Cockney speech features became numerically dominant in Australia and shaped the way English was spoken there.
We know already that the type of settlement was different in New Zealand, so what role did Cockney play there? Well, Cockney speakers in New Zealand were not as many as in Australia, but there were significant numbers of speakers from the South-East of England (about half of the settlers). There were also many settlers from Scotland, and a smaller but relevant number of settlers from Australia (7%)4, in the early days of New Zealand settlement. So, even though Cockney specifically wasn’t spoken by great numbers in New Zealand, those features of Cockney which were also found in other Southern English and (Cockney-influenced) Australian accents spoken in New Zealand had numerical strength among the settlers there. Therefore, these features, such as the high ‘e’ in better, non-rhoticity, and the distinct diphthong in mate, eventually became features of New Zealand English.
Likewise, the British settlers in South Africa were largely from the South-East of England. While the number of settlers was quite small in South Africa, they formed a tight-knit community of English-speakers in a region where many other languages were spoken, Dutch/Afrikaans being only one of them, and largely resisted influence from these other languages. Thus, even though the group of English-speakers in South Africa was small in numbers compared to the rest of the South African population, it was the majority accent within the English-speaking community, i.e. South-Eastern British English, which came to influence the development of South African English.
The numerical strength of individual features, rather than the “whole accent”, is important to understand why some notable cockney characteristics, such as h-dropping and t-glottaling, are missing from all of these SH accents. New Zealand, for example, had plenty of input from other British accents than South-Eastern ones, so pronouncing /h/ and /t/ was more common among speakers than not doing so. Australia was also subsequently settled by speakers of different English varieties, which we can assume swamped out some of the features more specific to Cockney.
So, can we blame Cockney entirely for the similarities between the different SH varieties? Of course, which I hope to have shown in this post, it is never that simple.
1 The content of this post is again largely credited to material by Dr. Claire Cowie at the University of Edinburgh. I also recommend this video for a general (albeit slightly dated) overview of Cockney and Australian English.
2 Of course, a more trained ear than mine will hear clear differences between them. If you’re not very familiar with these accents, listen to some samples from the International Dialects of English Archives (IDEA):Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English.
I picked three samples that were similar in that they were all by men in their 20s. There are more samples to listen to on the IDEA site (and many many more accents!).
3 We’ve mentioned RP before, for example here in the context of standardisation.
4 As a reminder, I’m getting these numbers from material put together by Dr. Claire Cowie for the course LEL2C: English in Time and Space at the University of Edinburgh.