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I saw a LinkedIn post being shared about Cockneycide – the decline of speakers of London’s traditional working class English dialect. Or as it was put to me: Cockneycide describes conscious or unconscious acts that wilfully deny the existence of a cultural group. Disclaimer – I consider it to be an inappropriate use of the -cide suffix, but for the rest of the article I am going to let it stand.
The organisation behind the post on Cockneycide is Grow Social Capital (GSC). GSC is a social enterprise focused on social capital in society and how communities and individuals can increase it. They look at things like the role of record shops as third spaces within their communities.
Are working class people racist?
The train of thought that got to Cockneycide started with an initiative called Cockney Conversations Month designed to celebrate Cockney heritage and pride stumbled upon on anecdotal feedback that some people perceive ‘Cockney’ as being a racist identity.
The media stereotype of a right wing racist in the UK is usually working class heritage and are often portrayed having a Cockney accent. The reality of race and working class culture is more complex as London’s history from the Battle of Cable Street onwards shows.
National Trust Nazis
Oswald Moseley wasn’t working class and neither is Nick Griffin. Secondly, London has its share of what a friend calls ‘National Trust Nazis’. People who look middle class in their Barbour jackets and ‘National Trust’ enamel badges who feel its perfectly acceptable to tell people of colour in West London to go back home from where they came from.
The racist working class stereotype was seen by the group to reinforce discrimination and polarisation as even informing bad policy. One such policy that they consider to be bad is the Mayor of London’s Cultural Strategy which ignored accent bias as well as aspects of London’s indigenous culture. Apparently it doesn’t mention Cockney once.
Systemic working class discrimination?
As described Cockneycide is a microcosm of a wider pattern in the UK. GSC have done some research into identity and accent is bundled into this.
The numbers suggest a decoupling from mainstream culture of working class communities, of which Cockneys could be considered to be one of many alongside Scouse or the different variations on the Midlands accent. There is a decline in across the UK in regional accents being mentioned in printed texts over the past five years. Cockney with a decline of 3% does comparatively well compared to Brummie with a 10% decline and 15% for Scouse.
The factors causing this are likely to be multi-factorial in nature:
- A century of mainstream media from the talkies, radio, television and voice services will all have an impact on language. Just in the same way that my childhood Irish accent was ‘run over’ by the Merseyside environs where I spent a good deal of my teenage years
- Local population change. Within my lifetime accents have changed in areas were I lived. The small town of Neston on the Wirral used to have locals who spoke with a hint of the Midlands in their accent. Many were descended from miners who had moved up to the town during the 18th and early 19th centuries ago to mine coal seams. A former colleague from when I started work pointed out that the ‘nasal’ Cheshire accent of Ellesmere Port had changed in the space of a generation to a Liverpool accent
- There aren’t featured in a positive light in the media, in London or Liverpool there aren’t news presenters with strong local accents. While we are seeing more people of colour represented in the media, there are challenges based on class.
- A wider alienation of working class communities by elites. Part of this is down to the academisation of political thought focused on social justice over economics, rather than social justice and economics. Political parties and academics left working class and working poor communities behind way before these communities pivoted more towards reactionary politics
Londoners or cockneys?
I might be considered to be a Londoner. Like just under a third of Londoners, I am not British. The part of my childhood that I spend in the UK growing up was not in London, but I have had my home in London for about half my life now.
The reality is that my identity is complicated and multi-layered. My passport says that I am Irish, my accent is Northern but it would take a discerning ear to place it back to the Merseyside of my teen years where my Irish accent was overwhelmed by the Liverpudlian accents around me. I had a sense of being part of an outside group in Merseyside living in an Irish household and spending the other part of my childhood with relatives on the ‘family’ farm that my cousin now looks after.
I see my accent as something that happened to me like puberty rather than as part of my identity. My accent softened as I worked with colleagues from around the world and even spent time working in Asia.
It has been made clear to me that certain opportunities weren’t available to me due to cultural fit – aka I didn’t sound right, which again emphasised the ‘otherness’ of a perceived working class background.
Have I been in London long enough to be considered a Londoner, let alone a Cockney. Is my identity itself an aspect of Cockneycide?
The new Cockney and Estuary English
A good deal of indigenous Londoners that could have called themselves Cockneys were moved out beyond London in the post-war reconstruction period. There was also continual waves of immigration into London from my own people (the Irish), people from Commonwealth countries and Europe that continues to this day.
As far back as 1995 we were seeing academic literature on the new Cockney and how the accent and identity attached to it evolved. As the population spread out from London, so did the accent, admittedly changing and becoming what David Rosewarne called ‘Estuary English’ in 1984:
a variety of modified regional speech. It is a mixture of non-regional and local south-eastern English pronunciation and intonation. If one imagines a continuum with RP and London speech at either end, ‘Estuary English’ speakers are to be found grouped in the middle ground.David Rosewarne
Rosewarne’s point about change and evolution is interesting. Is it an aspect of what GSC consider Cockneycide? As Brexit showed us, more reactionary politics tended to show up in populations who were concerned by the rate of change in their communities. It is also easy to see how Cockneycide could be seen as yet another anti-neo liberal fear of change.