Extremes Of English Language


When books are written about slang and colloquial language – and my friend Max Décharné’s delightful ‘Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang’ is one of the best – they tend to miss out a particularly odd form of speech patterns. A kind of ‘extreme English’ that can be heard in the films of the 1950s.

‘It’s crackers to give a rozzer the dropsy in snide’

I don’t invent any of the terminology I use in my books. Sometimes it’s picked up from friends, or I’ve overheard it. I value the richness of language over its comprehension. But I occasionally utilise the kind of dialogue one hears in old monochrome British comedies, when Cockneys still had distinctive accents, with a rounded ‘ow’ vowel and the odd habit of breaking a single syllable word into two syllables so that ‘yours’ becomes ‘yew-ers’. It’s an alien lingo, rich and visual, with quirky turns of phrase, and though it’s probably better off gone, I’m curious about it now.

‘You’re an absolute shower.’

The upper classes had their own strangled cut-glass language, marvellously made fun of in the linguistics books called ‘Fraffly’. A friend who makes TV commercials says they’re terrified of losing viewers who detect class in speech. He keeps to a safe road veering between cheeky working class and pedestrian middle-class, but avoids using upper class accents because ‘they sound old-fashioned’.

The odd linguistic corner of fifties dialogue seems to be unique. It is warm and friendly, never far from vulgarity. Classic Cockney Irene Handl had a Received Pronunciation speaking voice but was very good at playing language-mangling East End charladies. Anthony Newley, a Jewish East End singer, rolled wide vowels to stretching point, making every song distinctive and slightly odd because that particular sound was dying out. It was far more common among the lower orders, but remains hard to define. If you grew up on old British films you probably aren’t even aware that you know it.

‘Nark it and bung me the ackers’

While the argot and pronunciation of the old London streets might have vanished, a new form of speech has evolved, especially among young black and Indian Londoners. The Financial Times describes it thus; ‘A combination of slang and accent, this combines features of estuary English (a sort of diluted Cockney, relentlessly glottal-stopped) with elements of Caribbean Creoles, particularly the Jamaican patois used by the West Indian immigrants who settled in London in the 1950s and 1960s.’ There’s a huge vocabulary of words that bear no resemblance to their meaning.

Beast, Bayden and Bennin

But it’s even more complex than that because the stress-timed rhythm of English, which spaces the stresses out across a sentence, has changed to syllable-timed rhymes. This is where all syllables get equal time and stress, thus removing traditional cadence from sentences. It’s best to think of it in musical terms; sing-song harmonics changing to a steady beat. The street poetry of English is changing. We cringe when we hear someone trying to sound street cool because it sounds forced and dated instead of natural and organic.

Certainly hip-hop has brought in new words, but their shelf-life is short. West Indian street speech has slipped its reins and moved into multi-cultural speech with ease. ‘Bruv’ will be used by all but not ‘Blood’, understandably. Add this into the polyglot language of European ESLs and you get a new hybrid of London speech that is impossible to replicate in a novel simply because it will be out of date by the time the book appears. I’m sure the same phenomenon exists in every culture, which is why we all had to put subtitles on for ‘The Wire’.

The English language has always been a pungent stew of arriving and departing words and phrases. New language penetrates faster now because of television. And there’s this London snobbery, from a new slang dictionary:

Northerner – Anyone who lives outside the M25.

With the pandemic making people stay put, local reportage becomes important again. Most of the UK is defying the government and refusing to return to offices. Suburban property prices are rising fast. The old ‘Work 15 minutes from home’ rule is back. So if people reduce their travel patterns and stay put more, will we see a return to the localised speech patterns of pre-war England?

23 comments on “Extremes Of English Language”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I rate Irene Handl as the best character star of all time, even above Margaret Rutherford.

    Spinster and Bachelor have completely disappeared from the English language, and when was the last time anyone ever heard the word “moribund?”

    One modern fad which I hope will soon die out is the habit of starting every sentence with “So.” I also think “Train Station” is an abomination.

    And don’t get me started on “Don’t get me started” …….

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    My grandmother said ‘gorn’ and ‘yersss’ neither of which seem to have survived.
    Last encountered by me in Cream’s version of ‘your baby ‘as slipped dahn the plug ‘ole’ I think – a song I learnt from our next door neighbour when I was very young.

  3. John Howard says:

    Brian, the last time I heard “moribund” was when listening to Peter Gabriel’s song “Moribund the Burgermeister”

  4. David Ronaldson says:

    My Grandmother was from Whitechapel, and pronounced “Sausages” as the fruity-sounding “Saucy Jizz”.

    .I like to pick up bits of “Polare” in old British film and tv. I heard a “Nanti Palare” (say nothing) in a Steptoe and Son recently. The Coach and Horses in Soho was the last place I know where it was often spoken, by ageing queens and actors.

  5. admin says:

    ‘Ooh, she’s got all the polari, in’t she?’ Kenneth Williams to Hugh Paddick about Kenneth Horne.

  6. Brooke says:

    Let’s institute a hefty monetary fine for anyone who uses the initial “so.” And a Surrey-home-mortgage size fine for anyone who uses the word “utilize.”

  7. Dawn Andrews says:

    Like the Magersfontein Lugg quote, advice to a young tea leaf. I wonder where Margery Allingham did her research, she obviously enjoyed exploring the less glamorous side of London, her books are great on atmosphere.

  8. Dave Young says:

    Magersfontein Lugg – a character so wonderful John Lawton borrowed him to appear as ‘The Fat Man’ in his Inspector Troy novels

    In my experience ‘So’ is used by the sort of person who ‘reaches out’ instead of contacts (even the bloody BBC does this) – in short a wasteman who chats shit.

  9. Peter T says:

    So, so is Joanna Lumley an exception to the upper class accent rule? Personally, if she or more precisely her voice selling it, I’ll buy it.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I’m with you, Dave. I have succumbed to “so” myself but am trying to conquer it. “Reaches out” indicates a failure to “make contact with” since contact was never a verb. (I’ve just donned my Unnecessary Pedant cape, haven’t I?)

  11. Helen Martin says:

    We had Nothing Like a Dame last night. Four ladies of the theatre commenting on life and work.After watching for the 1 1/2 hours I found my speech patterns had altered. (Briefly, only. All normal this morning.) They talked for quite a bit at one spot about the York Morality Plays, in which Judi Dench had played a part (1952 and she still remembered speeches!). That was the only time you could hear a trace of northern speech. Joan Plowright was levels below “cut glass” and Maggie Smith shifts around a bit. By the way, she’s Margaret but was even presented her award as Maggie. Is that class, personal, or just persistence of an original choice? Eileen Atkins was the only one I don’t know at all. They come from wide spread parts of Britain but in conversation there was a fair unity of speech. Now it wasn’t casual conversation as it was being filmed as a documentary but it appeared to be their accent of choice. What determines that? Is it just, this is my polite version?

  12. Richard says:

    ‘So’ is a really bizarre incomer. I’m sure I first heard it as a sentence opener from non-UK F1 drivers in interviews in the 80s or 90s. At a guess, they’d been taught to use it as a placeholder while they constructed a sentence in English to answer whatever daft question they’d been asked. It does seem to have replaced err and ummmm.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    So, it seems to have replaced the long, drawn-out, Well at the start of a sentence, usually followed by you see. Which was used as a placeholder as Richard noted with so.

    Oddly enough youngsters have started using ‘man’ again, just like we did in the 70’s. It seems rather odd an 8 year old using it.


  14. Dawn Andrews says:

    I can’t help liking the ‘oh, man!’ employed by some kids, involving eye rolling and exasperated sigh. Very expressive. Anything as hesitant as an ummmm doesn’t seem to be tolerated anymore. Pity. I enjoy a good awkward ummm.

  15. Peter T says:

    Has ‘so’ arrived from other languages? Dutch frequently use it as a ‘start up’ word when speaking English.

  16. Liz Thompson says:

    So, I’m reaching out to utilise moribund, but I’ ll need to check SOD on how to utilise it first……….

  17. Wayne Mook says:

    A phrase that came in a few years ago that also reinforces this is, ‘So long sucker.’ Very 70s again.

    I agree Dawn, ‘Oh, man,’ does look good especially when they are very little. They also have the arms out wide and palms up.


  18. Peter Dixon says:


  19. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Pro-Active’ needs to be etched on to 6″ long bits of splintery wood, and thrust vigorously into the fundamental orifice of any person who uses the damn word.

  20. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, that’s two words-or one and a half due to the hyphen.

  21. Trace Turner says:

    I’m ok with so being used at the beginning of a sentence…I try to avoid doing it but sometimes slip up. However, I can’t stand sentences that begin with “I mean…” I have noticed a lot of the reporters on NPR with this habit.

  22. Dawn Andrews says:

    In fact hmmmm could be said to be moribund. (snicker snicker)

  23. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – a 12″ bit of splintery wood, then.
    “You. You there – you’re an absolyooote shaaaaaar.” The sort of thing said by a tweedy type, who drives a red MG TC, and has his own tankard hanging behind the bar in his local. The sort of person, who if he needs to relieve himself, says to his cronies:
    “Watch my pint, whilst I go for a sleeyash.”

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