It's yer English, innit?: A voyage into the vernacular of London

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The Independent Online
So many immigrant waves have broken on the East End that Cockney and Essex have overflowed into each other, to become one broad flood of Estuarine. My journey in search of the future of Estuarine English started with wondering at the peculiar tones of our prime minister, a Brixton lad. Suppose that Major's tones are not just a pureed version of sous-l'escalier Estuarine, but the first intimations of Estuarine-speak of the future? Suppose he has been striving, like a visionary sleepwalker, to draw us all towards his place of greater sheepishness, and he is born to succeed? Suppose that in the future, there will be no other way to speak?

In order to read the straws in the wind of linguistic destiny, I undertook a pilgrimage. I would go below Bow, to stand tiptoe on the tower of Canary Wharf, to commune with the geniuses of language and place, before being borne back on an incoming tide, up through the twisting silver intestine of Father Thames. I would be, throughout the journey, a recording angel for the unforced communication of Estuarine, hunting it for hints of development: perhaps at the end I could divine some hint of what Essex Man is fated to sound like in the year 2050.

Gaining access to Canary Wharf felt like trying to steal into heaven. It is hard to imagine bankruptcy visiting the authors of either place, and market forces dictate that both are still guarded and half empty. The Otis lifts in Canary Wharf have no manufacturer's marque: they are as close to the Ideal Lift as one can get in a non-Platonic age. Access to the top of the tower is now denied to hoi polloi. However, having thoroughly confused the janissaries of the tower with my quest, I was finally escorted up 50 floors from the 60ft marble-floored atrium. I found myself on an empty floor, the size of a small football pitch.

Out of each aspect was one of the most spectacular views anywhere. To the east, the True Estuary broadened beyond the flood barrier, snaking its way past Kent towards an invisible sea, while at my left shoulder, Hampstead nodded to Crystal Palace, as Hammersmith winked at my back in the haze.

The soul of Estuarine lay for a moment in my grasp. It seemed a solid thing, for a moment, though l knew Darwin's own law on species applied to language as well. (No vowel or consonant will transmit its unchanged likeness to a future age.) I became so enthusiastic that my well-spoken guide asked me if I was thinking of relocating. The guide's name was Dale Pile. Mis-hearing the fugitive labials I wrote it down at first as Dell Pie. This was the kind of evolutionary carelessness that led us Estuarines to lose so much. There were once, they say, two consonants folded within 'Convent Garden: one day the 'n' vanished, never to be heard of again.

Having left the tower and crossed under the river via the underground walkway, I thought I had arrived if not in heaven, then close. A pub in Greenwich promised Estuarine sound bites, from a fruit machine. The voices were to be from 'Stars of EastEnders'.

I was raised in sodden Berkshire fields, too far up-river to hear Bow Bells, or Rada for that matter. Here were approved standards. I put my 20p in. The wheels spun for arf a mo. Then there was a silence, following the clatter of small change disappearing for ever out of the pockets of fools.

The fare from Greenwich pier to Charing Cross is five quid, which goes some way to explaining why the river is neglected these days by all except tourists. On the good ship Pridela, I finally heard the voice of Historical Estuary, over the tannoy, giving out a version of the story of Farver Thames. It was unconventional, to say the least. 'We do all ver commentaries ourselves. As you leave the boat downstairs, there is a red box I will be holding if you did enjoy . . . I'm not a perfessional guide, but way down on the left is the, er, county of Essex . . . An' there's Cuckol's Point . . . named for navigation reasons.' Hard by Cuckold's Point, where King John made sport with the wife of a labourer, stands a wharf owned by Rupert Murdoch and piled high with rolls of newsprint for the News of the World and the Sun, so perhaps the old story will be out again soon after all: 'Gotcha, Bonking John]'

To port, rubbish barges made their way on the ebb tide down to Essex, doubtless full of old copies of the News of the World and the Sun, while behind them, the Bloody Tower and the National Theatre were passed in silence. As the boat drew level with a glass-walled building overlooking the river, the voice suddenly became skittish: 'An' now - the building on the right . . .' The Japanese cameras all pointed obediently and clicked at a many-windowed merchant bank - '. . . It was designed by an Italian window cleaner, name 'a Luigi Squeegee' '

In the end I was not able to divine what the accent of the future will be. The wind blows where it listeth, and branches of Estuarine go likewise. Its roots are like the cargo of the sewage barges the river bears, ferrying your nightsoil and mine, dear reader, to The Black Deep: of origins dark and unfathomable, vile, obscene and yet like life, inexhaustible in variety.

(Photograph omitted)

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