Linguistic Innovators: The English of Adolescents in London Lancaster University Home Page
Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University, LA1 4YT, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 594577 Fax: +44 (0) 1524 843085
Home > Overview


Project funded by the ESRC (grant RES-000-23-0680).
The project runs from October 2004 to September 2007.

Principal investigator: Paul Kerswill
Co-investigator: Jenny Cheshire

London is said to be the source of linguistic innovation in Britain in pronunciation and grammar. Quantitative sociolinguistic research in the southeast centres outside London, and notes great dialect levelling (homogenisation), with features apparently diffusing from London. London has not yet seen a systematic sociolinguistic study, and we will remedy this. Our study takes account of (1) London’s massive multilingualism; (2) linguistic innovation in adolescence; (3) the effect of a ‘multiracial vernacular’ among young Londoners on mainstream speech; (4) differences in ethnic makeup, mobility and networks between inner and outer London, resulting in differences in capacity to innovate and spread linguistic features. We sample 16-19 year olds in two boroughs, using quantitative and qualitative methods to find explanations for their speech patterns. We seek the origins of linguistic change in London’s complex social mix, thus gaining a critical understanding of levelling in Britain.

This project is a study of the spoken English of London, the first to be undertaken for some time and the first taking full and explicit account of the diversity of London’s population and its social and geographical mobility. Many linguists have claimed that London is in fact the origin of many changes in spoken British English – a claim we will test, since it is not obvious that it is true in every detail. The project tries to answer the following questions:

i) What are the characteristics of London English today? How has it changed from traditional ‘Cockney’? Which Cockney features are still thriving? How do Londoners differ in the way they speak? What social factors (e.g. ethnicity, district, gender, class, age) seem to account for these differences?

ii) Do London features spread out from London to other accents and dialects in the south-east and beyond? If so, which? Do all features spread in the same way and the same direction? If not, how can we explain these differences?

iii) What effect does the massive multilingualism of London have on the English spoken there? (One-third of the primary school population does not have English as a first language).

iv) What types of Londoners are linguistically innovative in their pronunciations and grammatical features? Are these differences in innovativeness related to ethnicity, gender, degree of geographical mobility and type of friendship groups?

v) Are there different types of linguistic innovations in inner vs. outer London boroughs? Do these depend on factors such as differences in affluence, mobility and the proportion of second-language English speakers?

vi) In what kind of contexts (e.g., formal interviews vs. ordinary chat with friends) do particular pronunciations and grammatical features turn up? Does this give up a window on how features are spread from person to person?

The project starts from the insight that young people are innovative linguistically. It investigates the possibility that this innovativeness, in the context of the strongly multiethnic metropolis of London, leads to changes in the spoken English of Britain as a whole. It is often noted that young people are able to put on a range of different ‘voices’ – often to achieve special effects, and often playfully. Some of this involves using speech patterns characteristic of ethnic groups other than their own: for example, a white teenager will on occasion use ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ English pronunciations. This leads to the possibility that non-majority speech forms find their way into mainstream English.

To answer the questions, we will record the speech of 64 16-19-year-old college students in two east London boroughs, as well as 16 elderly residents – a total of 80 subjects. As a benchmark, we will also use the limited number of good-quality older recordings that exist.

1. London as the origin of change

Writing about London in 1982, Wells asserted that ‘its working-class accent is today the most influential source of phonological innovation in England and perhaps in the whole English-speaking world.’ (p301). This claim is in line with the ‘gravity’ model of geographical diffusion (Britain 2002a). Yet it remains an article of faith: while there have been accountable sociolinguistic studies of several British cities, all of which claim to detect the influence of London, none has dealt with the English of the capital itself. This project fills this gap. Besides its purely descriptive intent (i), it addresses five further sets of research questions (ii–vi):

i. What are some of the characteristics of spoken English in London in terms of phonetic and grammatical features? How do these vary along the broad parameters of district, class, ethnicity and gender? How have these features, and their non-linguistic correlations, changed since previous published studies?

ii. What evidence is there that phonological and grammatical innovations start in London and spread out from there? New speech data from London needs to be compared with older and more recent data from London and elsewhere in order to establish the direction and linguistic nature of changes.

iii. One-third of London’s primary school children have a first language other than English (Baker/Eversley 2000). Does this degree of multilingualism have any long-term impact on ‘mainstream’ English? Does the use of a teenage ‘multiracial vernacular English’ identified by Hewitt (1986:151), Rampton (1995:125f) and Sebba (1993:59f) lead to change?

iv. Which types of Londoners, socially defined, innovate linguistically? Which types are in a position to spread innovations, once started?

v. Given differences between inner and outer London boroughs in ethnic profile, proportion of recent migrants, non-first language English speakers, and socio-economic class, is there evidence that different linguistic features, including innovations, are characteristic of inner vs. outer London?

vi. In what kinds of conversational contexts do we find non-standard features, including innovations, manifested? That is, are such features manipulated on account of their symbolic value, linked perhaps to ethnic and other identities (Rampton 1995; Eckert 2000)?

The project will give a nuanced view of the social embedding of change in London English. It will also give a clear picture of the direction of influence both geographically and socially, in a way never before attempted for London or the country as a whole. It will impact on the sociolinguistic study of language change, while broadening understanding of language in multilingual communities in a way that can inform policy and practice.

2. Literature on dialect levelling in British English since 1990

British English accents and dialects have undergone dialect levelling – “a process whereby differences between regional varieties are reduced, features which make varieties distinctive disappear, and new features emerge which are adopted by speakers over a wide geographical area” (Williams/Kerswill 1999:149; Britain 2002b). While ‘levelling’ evokes a picture of simultaneous attrition, it is plain that the process is mainly one of dialect diffusion: features spreading across geographical space. Articles in Foulkes/Docherty (1999) provide evidence. Thus, th-fronting (the replacement of ‘th’ by ‘f’ or ‘v’ in words like think and other), a feature of London English for more than 150 years and Bristol for 100, appears to have spread to Reading with the generation born in the 1930s/40s, to Norwich 20 years later, followed by the North (Kerswill 2003). Vowel features, however, radiate out locally, from urban centres like Newcastle: there is little national levelling (Watt/Milroy 1999, Watt 2002, Watt/Tillotson 2001, Cheshire et al. 1999). Around London, Cheshire et al. 1999, Williams/Kerswill 1999 and Torgersen/Kerswill 2004 found strong convergence between vowels in Reading, Milton Keynes and Ashford (Kent). Grammatical features are also subject to diffusion and levelling, resulting in only around a dozen features now being widespread (Cheshire et al. 1989). Studies include Tagliamonte 1998, Britain 2002c, Pietsch fc and Cheshire et al. fc.

However, the paucity of studies of English in London is a lacuna in our understanding of levelling and diffusion: we have no direct evidence that the innovations started here. Studies to date are old, have small sample sizes, or have non-sociolinguistic aims. These include Sivertsen 1960, Hurford 1967, Beaken 1971, Harris 1990 and Tollfree 1996. They provide some baseline information. Of broader scope is Hudson/Holloway 1977, an account of phonological variation among London 14-15-year-olds. It shows class and/or gender polarisation for some features. With reservations, it constitutes a viable baseline. Wells 1982:301-334 provides a thorough description. Tollfree 1999 offers a phoneme-by-phoneme account of working- and middle-class accents.

3. Approaches to dialect diffusion and levelling

This project is informed by previous ESRC-funded research by us. The British Dialect Grammar project (A survey of British dialect grammar, 1986-88 (ref. C00232264)) (Cheshire, Edwards & Whittle 1989/93) logged the geographical distribution of non-standard grammatical features through a school-based questionnaire. The Milton Keynes project (A new dialect in a new city: children’s and adults’ speech in Milton Keynes, 1990-94 (ref. R000232376). ESRC evaluation: “outstanding”) focused on levelling in new-dialect formation/koineisation (Kerswill/Williams 2000a). Levelling on a wider geographical scale was the focus of the Dialect Levelling project (The role of adolescents in dialect levelling, 1995-99 (ref. R000236180). ESRC evaluation: “outstanding”), covering Reading, Milton Keynes and Hull (Cheshire et al. 1999). It noted differences in the patterning of features, depending on their level (vowels, consonants, grammar) and their ‘salience’. The projects dealt with class and mobility (Kerswill/Williams 1999), peer groups and networks (Kerswill/Williams 2000a) and identity (Kerswill/Williams 1997). They were based on children and young adolescents, the supposed ‘movers and shakers’ in language change (Kerswill 1996; Croft 2000; Eckert 2000; Roberts 2002). In 2003, an ESRC-funded MA+PhD student of Kerswill’s (Khan) examined Asian and Black adolescent speech in Reading, comparing this with our results. The innovative variants are much less advanced among Black and, particularly, Asian adolescents.

The proposed project focuses on London, the purported origin of many of these changes. It is not possible without real-time methodology to trace actual changes. However, by comparing old and new data, we can detect whether changes already noted are more, or less, advanced in London. We will look for the type of social network in which linguistic innovations might take place. Following Eckert’s 2000 Detroit study, we consider inner- vs. outer-city speech by recording speakers from both areas. We look for innovators and propagators, informed by the work of J. Milroy 1992 and Milroy/Milroy 1992.

This distinction is related to the notions of endogenous (system-internal) vs. exogenous (contact-induced) change (Andersen 1989; Trudgill 1999): we expect endogenous changes in big cities. We are also expect exogenous change caused by contact between different ethnic groups and between different social groups.


Al-Tamimi, Y. 2001. ‘h’ variation and phonological theory: evidence from two accents of English. Reading University PhD.

Andersen, H. 1989. Understanding linguistic innovations. In L Breivik & E H Jahr eds Language Change. Contributions to the Study of its Causes. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Andersen, G. 2001. Pragmatic markers and sociolinguistic variation: a relevance-theoretic approach to the language of adolescents. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Androutsopoulos, J.K. 1998. Forschungsperspektiven auf Jugendsprache: Ein integrativer Überblick. In J K. Androutsopoulos & A Scholz eds. Jugendsprache. Langue des jeunes. Youth language. Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 1-34.

Baker, P. & Eversley, J. eds. 2000. Multilingual capital. The languages of London’s schoolchildren and their relevance to economic, social and educational policies. London: Battlebridge.

Baker, P. & Mohieldeen, Y. 2000. The languages of London’s school-children. In Baker/Eversley eds.:5-60.

Bauer, L. 1985. Tracing change in the received pronunciation of British English. Journal of Phonetics 13:61-81.

Beaken, M. 1971. A study of phonological development in a primary school population in East London. PhD dissertation, University College London.

Britain, D. 2002a. Space and spatial diffusion. In J.K. Chambers, P. Trudgill and N. Schilling-Estes eds. The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell:603-637.

Britain, D. 2002b. Phoenix from the ashes?: The death, contact, and birth of dialects in England. Essex Research Reports in Linguistics 41:42-73.

Britain, D. 2002c. Diffusion, levelling, simplification, and reallocation in past tense BE in the English Fens. Journal of Sociolinguistics 6:16-43.

Buchstaller, I. 2004. Quantitative analysis of the functions of the quotative verbs go and be like in large corpora of British and US English. University of Edinburgh PhD dissertation.

Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P. & Williams, A. 2004 fc. Co-variation between convergence in phonology, grammar and discourse features In Auer, Hinskens & Kerswill eds. Dialect change: The convergence and divergence of dialects in contemporary societies. Cambridge: CUP.

Cheshire, J. 1982. Variation in an English Dialect: a Sociolinguistic Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cheshire, J., Edwards, V. & Whittle, P. 1989. Urban British dialect grammar: the question of dialect levelling. English World Wide 10:185-225. Also in J. Milroy & L. Milroy 1993: Real English: The grammar of English dialects in the British Isles. London: Longman, 54-96.

Cheshire, J., Gillett, A., Kerswill, P. & Williams, A. 1999. The role of adolescents in dialect levelling. Ref. R000236180. Final report submitted to Economic and Social Research Council, June 1999.

Corrigan, K.P. & Beal, J. 2000. Comparing the present with the past to predict the future for Tyneside British English. Newcastle and Durham Working Papers in Linguistics 6:13-30.

Croft, W. 2000. Explaining language change: an evolutionary approach. Harlow: Longman.

Eckert, P. 2000. Linguistic variation as social practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Erman, B. 1998. ‘Just wear a wig innit!’ From identifying and proposition-oriented to intensifying and speaker-oriented: grammaticalization in progress. In T. Haukioja (ed.) Papers from the 16th Scandinavian Conference of linguistics. University of Turku: Department of Finnish and General Linguistics.

Foulkes, P. & Docherty, G. eds. 1999. Urban voices: Accent studies in the British Isles. London: Arnold.

Guy, G. & Lim, L.T.C. 2003. The limits of linguistic community: speech styles and variable constraint effects. Paper presented at NWAVE 32, University of Pennsylvania, October 2003.

Harris, J. 1990. Derived phonological contrasts. In S. Ramsaran ed. Studies in the pronunciation of English. London: Routledge:87-105

Harris, J. 1984. Syntactic variation and dialect divergence. Journal of Linguistics 20:303-327.

Hewitt, R. 1986. White talk black talk. Inter-racial friendship and communication amongst adolescents. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Hudson, R. & Holloway, A. 1977. Variation in London English. Final report to SSRC.

Hurford, J. 1967. The speech of one family: a phonetic comparison of the speech of three generations in a family of East Londoners. PhD dissertation, University College London.

Kerswill, P. 1996. Children, adolescents and language change. Language Variation and Change 8:177-202.

Kerswill, P. 2003. Dialect levelling and geographical diffusion in British English. In D. Britain & J. Cheshire eds. Social dialectology. In honour of Peter Trudgill. Amsterdam: Benjamins:223-243.

Kerswill, P. & Williams, A. 1997. Investigating social and linguistic identity in three British schools. In U.-B. Kotsinas, A.-B. Stenström & A.-M. Malin eds. Ungdomsspråk i Norden. Föredrag från ett forskarsymposium. Stockholm: University of Stockholm, Department of Nordic Languages and Literature:159-176.

Kerswill, P. & Williams, A. 1999. Mobility versus social class in dialect levelling: evidence from new and old towns in England. Cuadernos de Filología Inglesa 8:47-57.

Kerswill, P. & Williams, A. 2000a. Creating a new town koine: children and language change in Milton Keynes. Language in Society 29:65-115.

Kerswill, P. & Williams, A. 2000b. Mobility and social class in dialect levelling: evidence from new and old towns in England. In K. Mattheier ed. Dialect and migration in a changing Europe. Frankfurt: Peter Lang:1-13.

Kerswill, P. & Williams, A. 2004 fc. New towns and koineisation: linguistic and social correlates. Linguistics.

Khan, A. 2003. Reading revisited: dialect levelling within a multi-ethnic British community. Reading University MA dissertation.

Kirk, J. 2000. ed. Corpora galore. Analyses and Techniques in Describing English. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Kotsinas, Ulla-Britt 1998. Language contact in Rinkeby, an immigrant suburb. In Jannis K. Androutsopoulos & Arno Scholz (eds.) Jugendsprache. Langue des jeunes. Youth language. Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang:125-148.

Labov, W. 1966. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for applied Linguistics.

Labov, W. 2001. Principles of linguistic change Vol. 2. Social factors. Blackwell.

Levey, S. fc. Variation in grammatical and discourse features in London pre-adolescents, PhD dissertation, Queen Mary, University of London.

Lippi-Green, R. 1989. Social network integration and language change in progress in a rural alpine village. Language in Society 18:213-234.

Macaulay, R.K.S. 1991. Locating dialect in discourse: The language of honest men and bonnie lasses in Ayr. New York: Oxford University Press.

Macaulay, R.K.S. 2001. ‘You’re like “Why not?”’ The quotative expressions of Glasgow adolescents. Journal of Sociolinguistics 5:3-21.

Mæhlum, B. 1996 Semi-migration in the Arctic – a theoretical perspective on the dialect strategies of children on Spitsbergen. In S. Ureland & I. Clarkson (eds.) Language contact across the North Atlantic. Tübingen: Niemeyer:313-331.

Marshall, J. 2003. Language change and sociolinguistics: rethinking social networks. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Miller, J. and Weinert, R. 1998. Spontaneous Spoken Language. Syntax and Discourse. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Miller, J. 2000. The perfect in spoken and written English. Transactions of the Philological Society 98:323-352.

Milroy, J. 1992. Linguistic variation and change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Milroy, L. & Gordon, M. 2003. Sociolinguistics. Method and interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Milroy, L. & Milroy, J.1992. Social network and social class: Toward an integrated sociolinguistic model. Language in Society 21:1‑26.

Milroy, L. 1980. Language and social networks. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mukadam, A. 2003. Indobrits: the shaping of a new linguistic and cultural identity. Reading University PhD.

Paradis, C. 2000. ‘It's well weird’. Degree modifiers of adjectives revisited: the nineties. In J. Kirk ed.:147-160.

Pietsch, L. fc .Subject-Verb Agreement in Dialects of Northern British English. PhD thesis, University of Freiburg.

Porter, R. 1994. London: A social history. London:Penguin.

Rampton, B. 1995. Crossing. Language and ethnicity among adolescents. Longman.

Roberts, J. 2002. Child language variation. In Chambers, Trudgill, & Schilling-Estes eds. The Handbook of Language Variation & Change. Oxford: Blackwell:333-348.

Røyneland, U. 1999. Språkleg regionalisering på Røros og Tynset? Akselberg G. (ed) Målbryting 2:98-120.

Schreier, D. 2003. Convergence and language shift in New Zealand: Consonant cluster reduction in 19th Century Maori English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 7:378-391.

Sebba, M. 1993. London Jamaican. London: Arnold.

Sivertsen, E. 1960. Cockney phonology. Oslo: Oslo UP.

Smith, J. 2001. Negative concord in the Old and New world: Evidence from Scotland. Language Variation and Change 13:109-134.

Stenström, A-B. 1997. Can I have a chips please? - Just tell me what one you want: Nonstandard grammatical features in London teenage talk. In J. Aarts et al eds. Studies in English Language and Teaching. Amsterdam: Rodopi:141-152.

Stenström, A-B., Andersen, G. and Hasund, I. K. 2002. Trends in Teenage Talk. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Straume, A. 1998. The variable (t) in London adolescent speech. A sociolinguistic study of a phonological variable. Unpublished MA thesis, Department of English, University of Bergen.

Sutcliffe, D. 1984. Black British English and West Indian Creoles. In P. Trudgill ed.:219-237.

Tagliamonte, S. 1998. Was/were variation across the generations: view from the city of York. Language Variation and Change 10:153-192.

Tagliamonte, S. 2000. The grammaticalization of the present perfect in English: Tracks of change and continuity in an English enclave. In O. Fischer et al (eds.) Pathways of Change; Grammaticalization in English. Amsterdam: Benjamins:329-354.

Tagliamonte, S. and Ito, R. 2002. Think really different: Continuity and specialization in the English dual form adverbs. Journal of Sociolinguistics 6:236-266.

Tagliamonte., S. and Hudson, R. 1999. Be like et al beyond America: The quotative system in British and Canadian youth. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3:147-172.

Thompson, P. nd. The Edwardians: Family Life and Work Experience before 1918. Colchester, Essex: Qualitative Data Service, Q197 / 07/95 - QDD/Thompson1/FLWE.

Tollfree, L. 1996. Modelling phonological variation and change: evidence from English consonants. PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge.

Tollfree, L. 1999. South East London English: discrete versus continuous modelling of consonantal reduction. In Foulkes & Docherty eds:163-184.

Torgersen, E. & Kerswill, P. 2004. Internal and external motivation in phonetic change: dialect levelling outcomes for an English vowel shift. Journal of Sociolinguistics 8:23-53.

Trudgill, P. 1999. Norwich: endogenous and exogenous linguistic change. In Foulkes/Docherty eds.:124-140.

Trudgill, P. 1984. Standard English in England. In P. Trudgill ed.:32-44.

Trudgill. P. 1984. ed. Language in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watt, D, & Milroy, L. 1999. Patterns of variation in three Newcastle vowels: is this dialect levelling? In Foulkes/Docherty eds.:25-46.

Watt, D. & Tillotson, J. 2001. A spectrographic analysis of vowel fronting in Bradford English. English World-Wide 22:269-303.

Watt, D. 2002. ‘I don’t speak with a Geordie accent, I speak, like, the Northern accent’: contact-induced levelling in the Tyneside vowel system. Journal of Sociolinguistics 6:44-63.

Wells, J. 1982. Accents of English, Vol. 3. Cambridge: CUP.

Williams, A. & Kerswill, P. 1999 Dialect levelling: change and continuity in Milton Keynes, Reading and Hull. In Foulkes/Docherty eds.:141-162.

| Home | Overview | People | Output | Internal (pswd required) |