Cockney for Beginners

Christopher White grew up in the East End of London and learned Cockney on the streets – a stroke of luck for Turnage’s GREEK, because the répétiteur was the perfect tutor for our American singers.

Greek / Open-Air auf dem Parkdeck
Oper in zwei Akten Mark-Anthony Turnage; Libretto von Mark-Anthony Turnage und Jonathan Moore nach Steven Berkoffs gleichnamiger Verstragöde aus dem Jahr 1980, basierend auf der Tragödie des Sophocles OEDIPUS REX
Musikalische Leitung: Yi-Chen Lin
Inszenierung: Pınar Karabulut
Mit Dean Murphy, Irene Roberts, Seth Carico, Heidi Stober
Premiere am 27. August 2021

London lore states that only those born within the sound of Bow bells (the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church in the East End) are entitled to call themselves Cockney. People like my grandmother, for example. As for me, I’m not a hardcore speaker of Cockney, which is a dialect that sprang from local working-class slang in the mid-19th century. Middle-class people using the jargon as an affectation are labelled »Mockney«, an aptly awesome wordplay.

The thing I find most riveting about the jargon is Cockney rhyming slang, a kind of secret linguistic code that arose – perhaps not coincidentally – around the time that the London police force was established. A word gets replaced with a composite term that rhymes with the original word; then, once the term has caught on, the rhyming part of the composite is dropped, leaving a code word that is not understood by non-initiates like the police. Got it? In Turnage’s libretto for GREEK there is an example of it at the end of Act 1, when the protagonist says to a waitress »Let’s have a butcher’s«. What he actually means is »Let’s have a look« and »look« rhymes with »butcher’s hook«. Then »hook« is deleted and we’re left with »butchers« instead of »look«. My gran sometimes spoke in code, although for her it wasn’t a way of thwarting the police but just her having fun with language. And that’s continued to the present day.

At rehearsals we had to work on the singers getting the pronunciation right. There’s the glottal stop, which is when a letter is left out of a word, so »bottle« becomes »bo’e«. Cockney doesn’t have lengthened vowels, so »No« morphs into the diphthong »Nau«. We figured out that the way to sound authentic was to chew something while speaking and relax the jaw. Otherwise they’d end up with an Australian accent. As a native speaker, it comes naturally to me, but I still had to get my head around the actual phonetics. English dialects – and social class - are all about the pronunciation of vowels.

One might assume that Cockney, with its swallowed syllables, hardly lends itself to being sung. In fact the slang has its own musicality, with the words flowing into one another, like in the legato style. I can’t wait to hear the language of the East End of London being spoken on a Berlin stage.

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