By PAUL KERSWILL, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University
Published: 21 Oct 2011
But what’s different from EastEnders, of course, is that the characters are real people… sort of.
It’s a strange show because you have these colourful characters who are effectively acting like themselves in a drama series.
All these people really talk about is their relationships, but they do it in glamorous locations. It is all quite empty-headed.
For me, as someone fascinated by linguistics, what is most interesting, though, is the way they speak.
For example, when Billi is talking to Kirk and his mate Joey she makes “you” plural by sticking an “s” on the end so it sounds like “yous”.
It’s like adding an “s” to “boy” — “boys”. Logical? Yes. And Kirk replies by addressing both girls together as “yous”. But Joey and Cara are just addressing each other so they use “you”.
This is similar to Americans using “y’all” if they were talking to a group of people, as in “Are y’all coming?” Did Billi and Kirk invent “yous”? No, they didn’t. It started in Ireland, migrated to Liverpool, then moved round the coast to Glasgow and Newcastle. Now you can hear it in London too.Billi and Joey are also fond of the word “was” where standard English would be “were”. Are they just ignorant? No, they’re following the old Cockney dialect of their forebears.
In Wednesday’s episode Joey was chatting to his cousin Chloe about how he met Cara the previous night.
Joey says she is “a sort” but Chloe doesn’t know this expression and he has to explain that it means good looking. I didn’t know this phrase either, but it’s actually been out there for a while and this mention probably means it has a good chance of catching on even more.
A word that older people love to hate is “like”. Joey and Chloe pepper their speech with it. Chloe uses it twice in rapid succession: “But like, I just, I don’t know like, how old is she?” Whether we approve or not, “like” is here to stay.
Chloe says “anyfink” for “anything”. The “f” bit has been around for 100 years and the “k” part even longer. It has a long history and Chloe and her friends are continuing a tradition.
The pair then go on to discuss Joey’s “pie and mash pool party”. The themes appear to belong to different worlds — glamour, Hollywood and everyday British working people’s fare!
This is the producer playing on the Essex man/woman stereotype — loadsamoney but no sophistication.
Joey also uses his catchphrase “reem” in this scene. TOWIE followers would recognise it and laugh knowingly. It’s a great strategy for giving the fans a warm feeling of being included.
“Reem” and also “jel” are words I had not heard before. That is just like in real life where an in-group of people, or a gang, will develop their own catchphrases and lingo. Teenagers are particularly prone to developing their own jargon.
“Shuuuuut uuup” has also become a TOWIE phrase. Catchphrases are the prime way television influences our language. Usually they are, well, catchy — just think of Bruce Forsyth’s “Nice to see you, to see you, nice!” and Only Fools And Horses’ “Lovely jubbly”.
But why “shut up” of all things? That elongated vowel certainly has something to do with it.
But most likely it’s the package of Essex voice and, with Harry, Essex camp that is so irresistible.
This is a lesson in linguistics — we hear an accent and, whether we like it or not, we associate the accent with a particular type of person.
As with any accent, an Essex voice evokes an image, or a stereotype, of a certain sort of person — you can fill in what sort.
The TOWIE producers know this and they complete the stereotype for us by giving us the jewellery, the orange faces and the fast cars.
And we are laughing with the producers and with the Essex people themselves, not at them. We are all in on the act and that takes the sting out of taking the mickey. In fact, it neutralises it.
It’s all so in your face that we end up asking, is this the real Essex?
Objectors complain that this isn’t how people from the county really are. And anyway, this isn’t even the genuine Essex accent. But if you pop into Brentwood, Basildon or Billericay, you will hear a Mark, Maria and Mick.
The old rural East Anglian dialect has almost disappeared from Essex. Why? London’s East End barrow boys upped sticks decades ago and found greener pastures there, bringing their treasured Cockney accent with them. Before that, Essex folk would have spoken with a rural accent.
Meanwhile, Essex men and women have now changed the sound of Cockney. Whereas an older native (maybe Mick or Debbie) might say “It’s nice and modern” and “You’re sleepin'”, Essex girl Chloe says “It’s nice and modeerrrrn” and “You’re sleepinnnn'”, putting a heavy stress on the last syllable.
Back in London, where Joey or Arg’s parents or grandparents probably moved from, there is now a multicultural East End with a new, vibrant accent.
Some people have called it Jafaican. It’s not a word I particularly like. It may be a bit of a mouthful but I prefer Multicultural London English.
This is a home-grown accent, born in London, which is made up of all sorts of ethnic influences, including Jamaican and Asian.
People ask how fake TOWIE is. Despite the shiny teeth, breast implants and spray-on tans, one thing remains real — the accent.
TOWIE gives us the genuine, new Essex accent. It’s not put on like the make-up, it’s the real McCoy.
Accents in rest of the UK
That is because local identities are very strong there and are defined by loyalty to an accent, as well as to football teams.
Bristol and Norwich both still have strong local accents too.
In Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds the local accent is being influenced by immigrants. There is a Manchester Afro-Caribbean accent and a Manchester Asian accent.
Scottish accents are, if anything, getting stronger. There is no sign of the Scots starting to speak like the English.
The linguistic border between the two countries is very sharp. If you go into a pub on one side of the border then walk to the other side you will hear different accents straight away.