Prescriptivism and ‘Cockney’ Letters in the Nineteenth Century


By Elizabeth Bohnert


Copyright 2005



Prescriptivism in England: Historical Overview


With the unprecedented rise of print culture in the eighteenth century, a need for standardization within the language arose, eventually leading to the codification of English.  The speech patterns of the educated and aristocratic in the capital were naturally considered to be superior throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it was not until the age of prescriptivism that certain accents began to be considered “faulty or incorrect” (Mugglestone 19).  In the late eighteenth century, a handful of writers from ironically diverse linguistic backgrounds, such as the Irish Thomas Sheridan, the Scottish James Elphinston, and the actor John Walker, took it upon themselves to distinguish between proper and improper pronunciation.  Originally meant to instruct provincials on how to imitate the speech of Londoners (Beal 184), by the late nineteenth century this prescriptivist impulse had transformed into an effort to expunge any hint of accent that would betray regional distinction, including that of London.  This accent was eventually associated with the socioelect all over the country, which became known as “Received Pronunciation” (Beal 183). 


Cultural Effects of Prescriptivism


The overall effect of this prescriptive impetus, however, was less in establishing a workable standard for all English speakers, than in creating an environment of unprecedented linguistic anxiety and near-hysterical condemnation of perceived deviations from what was ‘acceptable in polite society’ (Beal 183).  As a result, a new market emerged for guides to “correct” pronunciation, which “increasingly became seen as another aspect of etiquette (Beal 179).  In her book Talking Proper, Linda Mugglestone records that the rise of books on elocution during the period of 1760-1800 quintupled that of sales before 1760 (4).  In order to sell better, many of the guides relied on amusing stereotypes and over-simplifications to keep the reader entertained (Beal 180).  Under the combined influence of the original prescriptivists and the commercial ‘guides’ of the nineteenth century, “incorrect” and “vulgar” pronunciations would “take on the character of shibboleths” (Ibid).  This term is based on the Biblical story in Judges 12: 5-6 in which the Gileadites are distinguished from the Ephraimites by the latter’s articulation of shibboleth as sibboleth, and is therefore a useful term to describe social distinction made through pronunciation (Mugglestone 70).


Creation of “Cockney” Shibboleths


With the rise of prescriptivism, the term “Cockney,” originally referring to working-class Londoners of the East End, transformed into the most condemning term for improper speech in the nineteenth century.  As Lynda Mugglestone writes, “Cockney” was used as “a term of abuse regularly applied to many linguistic sins of the age” (100).  To accuse someone of talking like a Cockney was to condemn them as “vulgar” and “ignorant” (91), not necessarily deeming them lower-class, but suggesting their incompatibility with “polite” society. The concept of  “Cockney” speech patterns being formed though the ignorance of the lower working classes is a prescriptive fiction.  As modern critics like Lynda Mugglestone, Joan Beal, and Richard Bailey among others have uncovered, in reality the pronunciation of all the social classes of nineteenth century London was riddled with “Cockneyisms.”


The h Shibboleth: /h/ Dropping


The dropped /h/ was the most condemned shibboleth of the nineteenth century (Mugglestone 52), and those with any social ambitions took great pains to eliminate it from their speech.  The popularity of corrective self-help books with names such as Henry Hawkin’s H Book and Mind Your H’s and Take Care of Your R’s and The Poor Letter H: Its Use and Abuse is a testament to society’s over-sensitization to the so-called “fatal letter” (Mugglestone 12).  Improper /h/-usage was associated with the uneducated and illiterate, as proper usage required a knowledge of where h “made itself manifest in spelling” (117).  “In other words,” as one critic notes, “those who dropped an h [did so] because they were unaware of the h in the spelling (Ibid).  Ironically, the concept of the literate /h/ transformed the landscape of pronunciation within the English language in the nineteenth century.  Historically, loanwords such as humour, herb, human, host, hospital, and hotel did not have an aspirated /h/ (115).  However, by the end of the nineteenth century, only heir, honest, honour, and hour remained h-less (Bailey 127). 


The h Shibboleth: /h/ Insertion


For the average nineteenth century citizen who had nothing to guide him but his own native speech patterns, the resulting confusion about the proper use of /h/ led to what Beal refers to as ‘hypercorrection,’ or the over-use of /h/, “introduced to avoid the greater stigma of h-dropping” (160).  /h/ insertion was eventually judged to be even more odious than /h/ dropping, as it denoted an overenthusiastic emulation of one’s betters (Bailey 133).  Its overly vigorous pronunciation was the stamp of the parvenu, the self-made man who, despite his wealth, “had total absence of the niceties of manner and breeding which denote the socially acceptable” (Mugglestone 124).  The complex and fluctuating rules of /h/ usage became a nuanced method of sniffing out the “vulgar rich” (125). Although /h/ dropping and insertion were considered, as one critic describes in 1842, “the most Cockney of errors” (Bailey 129), it was, not surprisingly, found in all areas of English society.  In 1880, an American visitor to the House of Lords “galled his English audience” by pointing out that some of the members of the nobility frequently dropped their h’s (Bailey 131). 


The R Problem: Post-Vocalic /r/ Dropping


Much like the /h/ shibboleth, improper /r/ usage was blamed on the Cockney’s illiteracy, resulting in corn being pronounced as cawn and girl as gall (Bailey 101).  As early as 1791, Walker recalls the ‘feeble’ pronunciation of Londoners’ “sunken” /r/ (Beal 153).  Beal comments that Walker is describing a change that was occurring “from below” (154)—the lower-class illiterates were deemed the prime culprits of the deviation, in contrast with those who practiced careful speech based on spelling.  However in reality, the gradual weakening of post-vocalic /r/ in London speech can be traced back to the sixteenth century (Bailey 99), and by the 1800s, its absence rather than its presence was far more typical of most London speakers (Mugglestone 100).  Though most prescriptivists maintained that post-vocalic /r/ dropping was a defect found only in the lower classes, a few observed that it was a conscious and difficult exertion for almost everyone, as Edwin Guest notes in 1838,  “Many who insist upon its pronunciation drop it immediately after their attention is diverted, or their vigilance relaxed” (102). 


The R Problem: The Intrusive /r/


/r/ also had a corresponding insertion, known as the “intrusive /r/,” which many prescriptivists described as being “characteristic of Cockney breeding” (Mugglestone 157).  Examples include drawring for drawing, or windore for window (Bailey 103), which language snobs sneeringly described as “insufferably vulgar” (Mugglestone 157).   However, after the effects of prescriptivism began to be felt, /r/ insertion, like its cousin /h/, was considered the mark of the parvenu.  As the century progressed, observers were forced to admit that intrusive /r/ was not merely used by the vulgar and affected but extended upwards to include the dialect of good society, as phonetician Henry Sweet notes: “I know as a fact that most educated speakers of Southern English insert an r in idea(r) of, India(r) Office etc … and yet they all obstinately deny it” (Mugglestone 158). 


The A Confusion


The most ambiguous and erratic of the nineteenth century shibboleths, the confusion involves /a/ being pronounced as either the short [ae], as in sat, hand, ban, or the long [A], calm, are, father, car.  In the second edition of his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, Walker described the use of [A] in past, last, and chance, as lingering only in the speech of the vulgar, “who are generally the last to alter the common pronunciation” (Beal 140).  In contrast, “the short <a> in these words is now the general pronunciation of the polite and learned world” (141).  Walker’s commentary was in reaction to fellow phonologist William Smith supporting the use of [A] in these words, which is an example of the highly contentious and fluctuating standard of <a> pronunciation throughout the nineteenth century (Smith himself considered the use of short [ae] “a character of effeminacy or affectation” (Beal 138)).  Instead of acknowledging their inability to assign a fixed norm onto vowel usage, however, the prescriptivists still appealed to the social and status insecurities of their audience to keep them under tight rein.  One of the solutions towards the fluctuating usage was to invent a new pronunciation called “middle a” that avoided both the “broad, drawling” ([A]), and “mincing, affected” ([ae]), forcing conscientious speakers to steer “a very narrow course” between the two (Beal 141).  By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the shift from [ae] proved irresistible among those hewing to London fashion.  For instance, Beal notes that semi-phonetic spellings such as <larst>, <larf> for last, laugh, which were used throughout the nineteenth century to represent Cockney speech, is now typical of RP (141). 




In the nineteenth century, “Cockney” was transformed from a name for the working class to the rallying point for prescriptivists to condemn the decay of proper pronunciation.  By reducing pronunciation to ideas of norm and deviation, prescriptivists described the Cockneys as the prime culprits of language degeneration, and a threat to all gentility and grace.   The association of these shibboleths with the Cockneys was mostly a scare-tactic aimed at the middle-classes, whose social insecurities made them a ready market for prescriptivist coercion (Mugglestone 130).  As this article has exposed, however, nearly all of these shibboleths eventually became part of Received Pronunciation, which suggests the shift was a shared development rather than the result of a change from below. As an amusing example, many critics condemned the Romantic poet John Keats for basing his rhyming structure on the aural rather than visual.  As Bailey comments, “So attached were these observers to the historic spelling of words that the poets of the ‘Cockney’ school were routinely roasted for rhymes such as “crosses” and “horses,” even though these were full rhymes in the speech of the elite” (102).  Fellow poet George Manley Hopkins even accused Keats of being “[without] learning enough to distinguish between the written language of English, and the spoken jargon of the Cockneys” (101).  The utter audacity of this attack, in accusing a poet as being in essence an illiterate, is a testament to how much importance prescriptivists and their disciples attached to an idealized version of “polite” pronunciation, especially when anyone dared to expose it as the fiction it was. 




For Further Reading



Beal, Joan C.  English in Modern Times: 1700-1945.  New York: Oxford UP, 2004.


Bailey, Richard W. Nineteenth-Century English.  Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1996.


McCrum, Robert, et al.  The Story of English.  3rd Ed.  NewYork: Penguin, 2003.


Mugglestone, Lynda.  Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol.  Oxford: Oxford

UP, 2003.


Silverten, Eva.  Cockney Phonology.  Norway: Oslo UP, 1960.


Wright, Peter. Cockney Dialect and Slang.  London: Batsford, 1981.