Anniversary of a dialect that sparked a linguistic storm

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
A seminal TES article 25 years ago made Estuary English, now the most influential accent in the South East, a household name

It can attract bile-laden letters to Points of View and can send the hairs on any public-school master's neck standing to attention but, until an article appeared in this paper 25 years ago, it never had a name.

Estuary English, the bane of the Daily Telegraph reader, was first coined as a phrase in an article for The TES this week in 1984.

The phrase was devised by the lecturer David Rosewarne, who had observed the phenomenon, which he described as the biggest rival in the English language to Received Pronunciation.

Mr Rosewarne wrote in The TES on October 19, 1984: "Received Pronunciation (RP) is the most widely understood pronunciation of those in the world who speak British English as their reference accent ... It seems, however, that the pronunciation of British English is changing quite rapidly.

"What I have chosen to term Estuary English may now, and for the foreseeable future, be the strongest native influence upon RP."

Estuary English was described by Mr Rosewarne as being spoken by those who occupy the middle ground between RP and "London speech".

The heartland of this dialect was the banks of the Thames Estuary, but it is now commonly understood to be the most influential accent in the South East, stretching from the Wash in East Anglia diagonally to the Bristol Channel.

The phenomenon involves the use of a "w" in the place of an "l", such as in "bottle" and the occurrence of the glottal stop in the place of a "t" or a "d", as in "Ga'wick" and "sta'ement".

The observation and the subsequent phrase proved to be a seminal point for English linguists and has gone on to become a household term.

However, not everyone has embraced the existence of Estuary English, with many believing it has wiped traditional regional accents in the South East off the map.

Back in 2005, Canon Glyn Webster, the chancellor of York Minster, publicly echoed Prince Charles's views that the Church was surrendering to "mean, trite, ordinary language".

Canon Webster added that while he found nothing wrong with regional accents, he did "take exception to what has become known as Estuary English, and to the sloppy grammar that it employs".

Mr Rosewarne said he wasn't surprised his term has been adopted so readily, and puts its expansion down to it being used across all classes. It was regularly employed by Tony Blair when talking to the public. Books have been written about it, it is taught in schools and registers more than 360,000 references when typed into Google.

"It was the first description given to any variety of speech since Daniel Jones used the phrase Received Pronunciation in the 1920s," Mr Rosewarne said. "The thing with Estuary English is that it is used by people with power and money, and people of different age groups."

And he believes Estuary English itself is changing as well as changing the dialect of others.

"Perhaps until the mid-1980s, when a person from the North moved down to London, they would adopt RP, but now they are keeping their accent but with a mixture of Estuary English, so it is becoming a hybrid," he said.

The observation has led to the linguist travelling around the world and featuring on TV and radio programmes, and is used as a question in a national exam in France.

"People don't make the connection so much between me and the phrase, and there are no tangible benefits," Mr Rosewarne added. "It's just very nice to have it attributed to me and has meant I have been able to do a lot of travelling."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today