The alleged Bangladeshi way of speaking English—“thank you beri maas”—is the new Cockney accent in the East End of London, according to new academic research published today.
In the heart of the East End is Brick Lane, which today boasts more than 50 “Indian restaurants”, staffed mainly by Bangladeshis from Sylhet.
The children of first generation immigrants have combined the East Bengali way of speaking Bengali and English with the local dialect to develop a contemporary form of speech—apparently.
Until now, to be a true Cockney, a person had to be born within hearing distance of the bells of St. Mary-Le-Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London. The traditional working-class accent of the region is also associated with such areas in the East End of London as Stepney, Hackney, Shoreditch, Poplar and Bow.
One of the best known exponents of Cockney is the actor, Sir Michael Caine, who is now so rich and famous that he allows comics to mimic the kind of accent he had in Alfie, an iconic British film in which a young Eastender has his wicked way with a string of “birds” (East End slang for pretty girls, as in “Cor blimey, I know that bird fancies me something rotten”).
Judging from the research, it may be more accurate henceforth to describe the new Cockney as someone born within earshot of the muezzin’s call to prayer from the East London mosque in Whitechapel Road.
Alternatively, it could be within earshot of the waiter outside Café Naz with his plaintive cry of “Today’s special menu, chicken tikka masala, bhuna lamb, chicken korma, alu gobi, naan, pilau rice, eat as much you like, £5.”
The research shows that the old Cockney accent of working class Britons is dying out in parts of its spiritual home. This is being replaced with a new dialect among youngsters.
Dr Sue Fox, a research fellow in socio-linguistic variation at Queen Mary College, University of London, said a new mix of Cockney and Bangladeshi had developed.
The academic, who studied youngsters at a Tower Hamlets youth club, told the BBC programme on regional speech called Voices: “The majority of young people of school age (in the East End) are of Bangladeshi origin and this has had tremendous impact on the dialect spoken in the area.”
She said: “What I’ve actually found with the young people in Tower Hamlets is that they are using a variety of English which is not traditionally associated with Cockney English. It’s a variety that we might say is Bangladeshi-accented. And in turn what I’ve found is that some adolescents of white British origin are also using these features in their speech as well.”
The BBC Voices project involves a week-long series of programmes on national and local radio to celebrate the way people speak around the UK in the 21st century.
Dr Laura Wright, senior lecturer of English Language at Cambridge, said the Cockney accent is not disappearing altogether but instead shifting to outlying towns and boroughs around the capital.
“Long-standing East-End communities were very much disrupted after the Second World War, partly due to bomb-damage, partly due to slum-clearance, and many inhabitants were transferred out of London to the newly-built New Towns, such as Basildon and Harlow,” she explained.
“Of course, when the East-Enders resettled they took their speech with them, and they and their descendants continue to speak in East London dialect with East London accents—although this has changed over the intervening half century, as language is continually changing, and so such speakers today would not sound identical to their East-End antecedents.”
Professor David Crystal, a BBC Voices consultant and one of the world’s leading language specialists, said the shift in accents was part of the increasing cultural diversification in the last 50 years.
“Accents are a reflection of society and as society changes so accents change,” he said. “In Cardiff I’ve heard a number of accent mixes that weren’t previously heard before such as Cardiff-Hindi. This pattern is repeating itself in many urban communities across the UK, especially where people are keen to develop a strong sense of local identity.”