Perfect Your Cockney Accent With These Tips and Tricks

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Photo Source: “Sweeney Todd” Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Of all the UK accents, Cockney is one of the most famous, but it’s also one of the trickiest to pull off. Best known for identifying working-class Londoners, actors like Michael Caine and Jason Statham brought the inflection to Hollywood. If you want to fit right in on a show like "Peaky Blinders" or bump shoulders with "Sweeney Todd," here’s what you need to do.

Cockney accent origin and features

Beginning in the 16th century, Cockney started being used by UK residents to refer to the slang and accent of urban residents, East Londoners in particular. Historically, the East End has been well-known for housing dense populations of the city's poorest citizens, minority groups, and immigrants. It was Essex migrants especially who infused their traditional accents and dialects, such as Romani and Yiddish, with the old London accent, laying the basis for what became the Cockney accent. 

Flash forward to today and the Cockney accent is still alive and well. You’ll find it in East London, as well as in the worlds of film and TV shows like “Call the Midwife” and “Peaky Blinders.” 

Th-fronting: Instead of the typical placement of the tongue against the upper teeth or just behind them, Cockney speakers often put their upper teeth directly on the lower lip. This position turns a “th” sound into an “f” sound, so “think” sounds more like “fink,” and “therapy” becomes “ferapy.” But if the “th” is nestled in the middle of a word, it often morphs into a “v” sound. So, “brother” sounds like “bruvver,” and “bother” turns into “bovver.” 

Dropping the R: In the Cockney accent, the “r” sound at the end of words is typically dropped, which is called non-rhoticity. This means that the “r” sound is not pronounced unless it's followed by a vowel sound in the next word.

So, in Cockney, a word like “car” would sound more like “cah.” Dropping the “r” gives the accent its distinctive, smooth sound. It’s a common trait in many British accents but is particularly noticeable in Cockney.

When a Cockney speaker says a phrase like “better idea,” the “r” in “better” might be slightly pronounced because it’s followed by a vowel sound in “idea.” This phenomenon, known as the linking “r," is where the “r” reappears to smoothen the transition between words.

Glottal stops: Cockney accents are notorious for glottal stops, which are the “uh” sounds that replace consonants. In particular, it’s common to drop the “h” at the beginning of a word and the “t,” “k,” and “b” in the middle of words. For example, “butter” becomes “buh’eh.”

Diphthongs: These transitional sounds are what you get when two vowels meld together in the same syllable (for example, “proud” or “loin”). However, this is significantly different in Cockney accents

Cockney vowels are more open and gliding than other English accents. For instance, the vowel sound in “day” [eɪ] would shift to “day” [æɪ], which would sound like “ah” sound in the word “cat.” Simplifying diphthongs so there’s no perceptible change in vowel quality is also common. For example, “like” [laɪk] would become “lahk” [lɑ:k]. The “ai” sound becomes more like a long “ah.” You could apply the same to “time” [taɪm]. The “ai” sound becomes more like a long “ah,” similar to “like.”

Cockney accents also tend to lengthen their diphthongs, especially when they’re in words that end with an “r,” which usually isn’t pronounced. You would take “beer” [bɪər] and pronounce it as “beeyah” [bɪə]. 

Rhyming slang: A hallmark of the Cockney accent, Cockney rhyming slang is like a secret code that replaces common words with phrases where the second word rhymes with them. For instance, instead of saying “stairs,” you’d say “apples and pears,” or you might call a “bike” a “clever mike.”

How to practice a Cockney accent

“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” Courtesy Gramercy Pictures

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” Courtesy Gramercy Pictures

Now that you know the characteristics of a Cockney accent, you’ll need to put them into practice so you can master it. Try these four tricks:

1. Learn from the real deal: What better way to practice an accent than learning from native speakers? UK actor and voiceover artist Anna Frankl-Duval recommends checking out reality shows like “The Only Way Is Essex” if you want to hear authentic Cockney accents, but she warns that you might need subtitles to understand the dialogue.

You can also take notes from other actors with natural Cockney accents. As mentioned, Statham and Caine are famous for their Cockney. Caine shows off his accent brilliantly in the film “Alfie,” and Statham does the same in “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” 

2. Keep your mouth and breath under control: Relax that jaw! Americans tend to hold their jaws tight, but a loose jaw is key for most UK accents, including Cockney.

3. Write it out phonetically: It’s crucial to understand the basics when learning any accent. “The danger is listening to something and trying to imitate it without understanding the rules,” says Frankl-Duval. To that end, she recommends using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to phonetically write out Cockney phrases. That’ll help you see exactly where and how you should pronounce words. “I would always suggest you use IPA and look it up properly and transcribe it,” she says.

4. Be careful not to mix accents: According to Frankl-Duval, American actors accidentally but frequently mix up different UK accents. For example, they may confuse Cockney accents with northern UK accents or posh UK accents. This mistake will make you sound ignorant to the knowing ear. “It's a massive contrast, both in culture and an accent,” says Duval.