A note on accent and its representation in my stories.

Many of my characters speak what is known as 'Estuary English'. This is a dialect mainly centred on London and the south-east of England. It is closely related to Cockney, but far less localised and with some important differences in pronunciation. Due to the accent's prevalence in British media/culture, its influence can be heard far more often in other traditional British dialects than theirs can within it.

Like any other dialect or language, Estuary English is constantly growing and changing. Words and phrases are exchanged with adjacent cultures, such as those of the Jamaican and Indian sub-continent immigrant communities. The Hindi/English merging, or Hinglish, now even has its own admittedly semi-humorous dictionary

Film, television and popular music also contribute to the ubiquity of certain phrases and word forms originating in the US within all British dialects.

It's also important to note that there are many gradients of Estuary, and not all speakers have poor spoken grammar or use all-purpose tag phrases such as 'innit' at the end of most sentences. Estuary is as much specific vowel sounds and dialect conventions as it is particular words, idioms or sentence structures.

It's easy for me to write Estuary English as that's what I speak, having lived almost all my life in Essex. Being of a middle-class background, but having long since moved to a decidedly working class area (read: clapped out old council estate) and being a mother of a ten-year old, all put me in the ideal place to manage the many degrees of the accent. In this case, at least, it certainly is easier to write what I know.

Having said that, were I to write in pure broad Estuary English, modifying the spelling of each word to ensure the reader pronounced it correctly in her head, then my writing would be largely unreadable. Nobody likes to wade through pedantically transcribed accents; it's considered a general no-no of creative writing.

I have also tried to bear in mind that my stories need to be comprehensible to all my small but international readership, which means that too much use of, for example, rhyming slang, wouldn't be a good idea.

So I have endeavoured to find a compromise between easily readable, comprehensible English, and evoking the way true Estuary speakers speak therefore giving character and realism to my stories. In order to achieve this balance, I've made several compromises. To give a few examples:

1. Ain't
While considered poor grammar, 'ain't' remains a recognisable and therefore easily readable word. In truth, Estuary speakers pronounce the word, in most cases, far more like 'int'. As that's not a recognisable word, however, and would therefore throw the reader, I have stuck with 'ain't'.

2. All right/alright
I've always used the two-word spelling for non-Estuary speakers and for Estuary speakers when they used it within sentences such as 'that would be all right'. However, within both Estuary and Cockney, and indeed many other British dialects, the word 'alright' (pronounced, in Estuary, as 'awright' with a glottal stop rather than a hard 't' at the end) has taken on a single word status of its own.

It's an all-purpose, positively weighted word used among other things as:
a. a greeting ('Alright, mate?')
b. a questioning tag phrase ('We'll do it now, alright?')
c. an emphasising phrase (Well, that's buggered that alright')
d. an affirmative, ('Alright, alright, I'll go now')

However, I got fed up with people pointing out my deliberate use of 'alright' as a grammatical error and so have swapped to using two words for all uses now. :)

3. Ubiquitous tag phrases such as 'innit?', 'izzat?', or 'Y'know wot I mean?'
Within the common Estuary/Cockney of the young, such tag phrases often end almost every sentence, regardless of grammatical accuracy in the case of the first two. This, apparently, springs from tag phrase usage in Hindi, which does not change form regardless of the tense or structure of the preceding sentence. This can look strange to more conventional English eyes as we have such a wide variety of tag phrases that adapt to suit the grammar of the preceding sentence.

There is a large Hindi-speaking population in East London. One of many effects of the blending of Cockney and Hindi that has taken place amongst the youth of the area is the habit of using only a single invariant tag phrase. This habit of speech has spread outwards, throughout the ever-growing Estuary area.

So, in English, we get sentences such as, 'He went down the market, innit?' and 'She's a right slag, izzit?'.

I personally have a problem with ending virtually every sentence my Stepney characters speak with the word 'innit', and I'm sure it wouldn't be much fun to read either. So I just sprinkle a few around the conversations and hope that will do to represent at least an echo of the real speech pattern.

4. Like and Right
It's important to note that there is a significant crossover from the American-English used in popular imported TV and/or films to all British dialects. However, separate from this crossover (although it may well have originally spread from America in the 50s), the word 'like' is used extraneously in Estuary English in a slightly different way to, say, how it appears most commonly in Californian Valley Speak.

Generally, you would expect to find the extraneous 'like' in Estuary as a tag at the end of a clause or sentence. It really doesn't mean very much used this way, imparting, if anything at all, just a vague sense of approximation to what has just been said. Example: 'Well, I went down the pub, like, and Bob was there.' The word 'right' can be used in a very similar way, although there is often more of a questioning aspect involved in its use.

5. Modern vs Dated
Within youth culture, Estuary English changes on an almost daily basis. A ubiquitous phrase one week might be gone and forgotten a month later. As such, I can't realistically give my stories cutting edge accuracy, so I have opted instead for a more Everyman version of Estuary, which in reality would sound somewhat dated to genuine youth culture in the area but is still recognisable for what it is.

6. Swearing
I use a fair amount of swearing in the dialogue of my most broadly accented characters. Realistically, I could use a lot more, especially the omnipresent 'fucking' which can often be used as an intensifier many times in the same sentence. I have reduced this to what I hope are more reader-friendly levels, again searching for that happy medium between realism and readability.

I hope that explained at least a few of my language decisions. If you have any questions about this sort of thing, do feel free to contact me. :)


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