July 28, 2016 2:59 pm
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Last week, we at uTalk were immensely proud to release our Cockney dialect app! It’s taken us years to get to this stage and we’ve already had a fantastic response. But it’s been one of the most unusual languages we’ve ever produced, and we knew you’d want to hear more…

First off, what is Cockney?

A dialect of English spoken in the East End of London, traditionally by the market traders and costermongers. What makes it unique is the rhyming element, whereby an unconnected phrase represents a word it happens to rhyme with – apples and pears for stairs, dog and bone for phone, plates of meat for feet, Hampstead Heeth for teeth – and then, literally to confuse outsiders, the rhyming part is dropped: I’m going up the apples; My plates are sore; I’ve got crooked Hampsteads; Answer the dog!

Confused? No need: grab uTalk on your way to London town to start getting to grips with it!

Dog and bone means phone in Cockney

So… why did uTalk do Cockney?

It’s a big part of East End culture, but Cockney’s also a big part of the national culture over here. Shows like Only Fools and Horses and The Sweeney have made the Cockney dialect recognisable throughout the country, even if some of their slang phrases are a bit imaginative! And, at uTalk, we’ve always wanted to produce a Cockney app. We’ve got so many other minority language from around the world (Alsatian, Breton, Chuvash, Friulian etc.) that it seemed ridiculous not to have the one from our own backyard. We want people to use it and have a bit of fun, which is the essence of our teaching philosophy, and to realise that learning a few phrases in another language really isn’t that hard.

How did we do it?

Ironically, Cockney’s been the biggest challenge yet – harder than Greenlandic, Fijian and Tok Pisin all put together! It’s not, by any means, a standardised dialect, and although there have been attempts to create books and websites collecting together various Cockney phrases, there’s often no consensus on what’s proper Cockney and which is the best variant. There are a few classics which everyone observes (I’ve never heard anyone use anything but ‘mince pies’ for ‘eyes’, or ‘Barnet Fair’ for ‘hair’), but others which have multiple variants: a nose can be an ‘I suppose’ or a ‘fireman’s hose’, and a £5 note (a fiver) can be either a ‘Lady Godiva’ or a ‘Jacks’ (from Jack’s Alive). This really comes down to personal preferences and what you’ve grown up with.

Our uTalk app, being quite big, obviously includes lots of words which don’t have rhyming slang equivalents, but we’ve also tried to capture the syntax, grammar and pronunciation of Cockney, using East End actors to voice the work. And, although we’ve tried to avoid Mockney (fake Cockney, not accepted by the old boys) as much as we can, as the use of celebrity names can be very transient, we’ve intentionally included one or two little comic elements in the app (‘plastic fantastic’ for credit card, ‘snap, crackle and pop’ for breakfast cereal) as a nod to the inventiveness of Cockneys and the fact that this dialect, though in danger of disappearing one day, is still very much alive and being twisted and mangled just like any other everyday living language. In one of my favourite East End pubs, people used to come in and ask for a pint of Gary (Gary Glitter – bitter), and although that was well understood in the context of our pub, it’s not used much – or possibly at all – beyond the limits of its walls. And that for me encapsulates what Cockney is: being used by real people, with a cheeky sense of humour and a desire to see outsiders comically flounder as they try to work it out, with a passion for the East End culture and the fact that it’s their home at the bottom of it all.

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What are our plans now?

We haven’t finished Cockney – not by miles! We’ve released the Cockney app and gave it away free to all Londoners through the Evening Standard, and now we’re opening up the debate: we want to hear from anyone who has an opinion on what we’ve used, whether they think there’s a more common variant, whether they think something’s not used very much (or at all!) Any thoughts can be sent to mycockney@utalk.com or tweeted to us @uTalk using the hashtag #myCockney, so do get in touch! We’ll be collecting suggestions over the next few months and going through them with Cockney groups to sign off an updated version of the app in the new year!

Nat (language expert and East End resident)

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