The project

The Historical Enregisterment of London English

Fieldwork in London

The field work serves to collect oral and online survey data on aspects of meta-discourse about London varieties labelled, for example, Cockney, Estuary English, Essex English or Multicultural London English. I am interested in how London speakers experience and conceptualize their own way of speaking, which label(s) they give to it, who they consider prototypical dialect speakers, which linguistic shibboleths they consider typical of their and other speakers’ dialects, and which social meanings they associate with them. The study focusses on metalinguistic knowledge in individual speakers (PART 1) and on a community level (PART 2), as well as the linguistic identification and self-positioning of individual speakers.

The study is divided into two parts. PART 1 involves face-to-face interviews with Londoners about their own and other people’s dialect and will involve a more qualitative analysis. Since there is no comprehensive corpus of spoken London English, informants will be asked to read a word list and a short text in their own accent to enable phonological analysis in follow-up studies. PART 2 is a follow-up online survey with a larger, less restricted group of informants. The online questionnaire mirrors the questionnaire in the interviews but will contain a more restricted answer menu informed by the interviews to aid quantification.

Background and research questions

The term ‘enregisterment’ describes the process how a linguistic repertoire becomes noticeable and differentiable from the rest of language to speakers. A ‘register’ in this sense is ‘a way of speaking linked with a social situation, a set of linguistic forms linked with and constitutive of a context’ (Johnstone 2017:17). These links are created, maintained and (re-)negotiated by each member of a speech community through a variety of observable metadiscursive activities, such as the invention and use of register names (e.g. Cockney, Mockney, Jafaikan, slang etc.), phonetically motivated dialect spellings, dialect performances and the creation of stereotypical dialect speaker types (‘characterological figures’ or ‘social personae’ representing the social values of the register), or metapragmatic and -discursive comments by speakers/writers in pronunciation guides, newspapers, magazines or online forums (cf. Agha 2007:151).

Enregisterment can be understood as the social and cultural construction of a dialect and the attribution of values, such as ‘polite’, ‘incorrect’, or ‘cool’, and meanings, such as ‘place’, ‘authenticity’, ‘street-credibility’, to instances of its use. Speakers’ growing awareness of specific register shibboleths and indexical social meanings becomes observable in language-reflexive behaviour resulting in meta-discourse about a register. The most important data in the study of enregisterment, therefore, is evidence of speakers’ awareness of and attitudes towards a selection of linguistic features in the form of (explicit or implicit) metalinguistic comment. These typifications by language users provide the unit data points for the analysis of an enregisterment process.

The aim of this study is to trace the enregisterment processes of the three London varieties Cockney, Estuary English, and Multicultural London English, by addressing the following research questions and hypotheses:

RQ 1: Which linguistic features have become enregistered as register shibboleths, and by whom?

RQ2: Which social meanings, values, and contexts are indexically linked to the use of these features?

RQ3: Which (language) ideologies guide speakers in using, performing, and/or commenting on these registers?

H1: Enregisterment means that speakers recognise/are aware of metadiscursive labels of registers, (some) linguistic register shibboleths, and (some) social context/meaning.

H2: Varieties are enregistered differently for individual speakers.#The enregistered meanings form an indexical field with recourse to an ideological complex in which public and private meta-discourses align.

H3: Varieties are enregistered differently for individual speakers, but a community level (the level of the register) can be identified and quantified.

The field work in London is part of a larger study of the enregisterment of English, involving metadiscursive material from the beginning of the 19th century up to the present from publicly available media such as books and newspapers, and other more recent cultural products (TV shows, advertisements, memes etc.).

This project is funded by the DFG/Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) in the form of a scholarship for the principal investigator.