November 24, 2006


In response to our discussion of Lawrence Henry's discourse on accents ("A linguist's Thanksgiving" and "Why Americans can't learn foreign languages", 11/22/2006), Martyn Cornell writes:

... and what is this "slurry" accent Mr Henry claims some Londoners have? Does he mean Estuary?

I wondered about that myself. What Mr. Henry wrote (in "To Accent or No", The American Spectator, 11/22/2006) was this:

To the Pygmalion audience, a glottal "t" indicated a yob. Today's Brits have adopted it as part of a kind of commercial London speech known as "slurry."

The context and the quotation marks show that he thinks of slurry as a name for a type of speech, not a description. I've never heard any such term for a London-area dialect -- or any other variety of English -- though I certainly have heard of "Estuary English", and have even blogged about it ("Estuary English", 8/28/2004). The UCL Department of Phonetics and Linguistics has a web site devoted to Estuary English, which they define as "a name given to the form(s) of English widely spoken in and around London and, more generally, in the southeast of England — along the river Thames and its estuary".

Overall, what Mr. Henry has to say about "slurry" fits "Estuary English" pretty well, so I suspect that we're looking at a slip of the ear: Mr. Henry heard someone talk about "Estuary", and heard (or remembered) it as "slurry". I'm no kind of expert in the modern sociolinguistics of the British Isles, so I admit that I might be missing something here (though Google seems to be missing it too, as far as I can tell.) If anyone can provide evidence that slurry has wider use as a term for London-area speech, please let me know.

The reason for Henry to bring up "slurry" in the first place was his unhappiness with the speech of a TV sports personality:

MY BUGABOO, HOWEVER, IS THE GLOTTAL "T." Around here, you hear it especially in the phrase "at home," which becomes "a' home." A certain class of English speaker, heard especially on the BBC, employs glottal "t's" in a self-conscious way, as a cultural signal of knowingness or savvy or in-crowdism. Listen to a BBC reporter. He will not always use the glottal "t," but will suddenly begin to employ it the more insinuating becomes his tone.

Newly anointed CBS golf anchor Nick Faldo uses more glottals the more clever he becomes, a shame, because he is in fact clever, but the glottals render him almost incomprehensible to an American audience. You're a broadcaster now, Nick. Time for some speech lessons.

To the Pygmalion audience, a glottal "t" indicated a yob. Today's Brits have adopted it as part of a kind of commercial London speech known as "slurry."

Henry's sociolinguistic observations about "a certain class of English speaker" may well be correct -- in an earlier post, I quoted Kate Joester's opinion that

I think there's probably another dimension in prejudice against Estuary English in particular. It's associated with "youth culture" and with being a fake accent acquired by speakers who are "really" something else in order to be youthful and cool.

However, Martyn Cornell goes on to argue that Henry has misconstrued Nick Faldo's accent:

Nick Faldo, who comes in for a kicking from Mr Henry over his alleged glottal stops, grew up in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, about 10 miles from where I grew up and where I once worked as a reporter on the local paper - I interviewed Nick just after his first victory in a major, and to me, naturally, he has a perfectly fine lower middle class Northern Home Counties accent not that different from my own.

There's something interestingly typical going on here. Henry's article displays an intense interest in matters of pronunciation and an obviously acute faculty of observation; but it also displays an almost complete ignorance of the concepts, skills and background knowledge that are relevant to the kinds of linguistic description that interest him. This combination of intense interest and spectacular ignorance is, I think, unique to the area of speech and language. You don't find birders obsessively compiling a life list that includes insects and bats under the misapprehension that these are also members of the taxonomic class Aves. You don't find photography enthusiasts who think that f-number is a measure of film speed, or that nikon is a noble gas used to prevent condensation inside lens assemblies.

This point has come up before, of course -- and as always, I blame the linguists.

If you're familiar with its history, you might argue that The American Spectator is a special case. (If you're not familiar with its history, read the Wikipedia entry or Byron York's Atlantic article from November, 2001.) But I don't think so. There's no particular political connection here.

[Update -- Stephen Jones wrote that "Where the guy got the word [slurry] from is beyond me. Slurry and Estuary don't even sound alike". I agree -- though some pronunciations of "estuary" do have all but one of the phonetic segments in "slurry" -- but what else could it be? The Cupertino effect seems even less likely than a mis-hearing, unless there is a possible typo that hasn't occurred to me.]

[John Cowan has another idea:

I shouldn't be surprised if the confusion is semantic. Googling for "slurry estuary" (no quotes) shows that what's at the bottom of most estuaries (probably including the Thames) is in fact a slurry.


[Update 11/27/2006 -- Paul Farrington-Douglas has some useful information to offer:

I hadn't encountered the term, but suspected an eye-pun (as 'twere) on the slurring of sounds, plus a play on the assonance of slurry (the manure-derived fertilizer) and the county Surrey. Searching for Slurrey as an alternative spelling consistent with this hypothesis initially threw up lots of derogative references to Surrey, BC, but some narrowing of the search terms threw up some more appropriate references. Inevitably, there were several other references to the English Surrey as Slurrey, such as one to 'Slutton in Surrey' (a reference to the Surrey town of Sutton). On a talkboard I saw something suggesting a cultural reference, too, which may be indirectly relevant:

everyone knows about the slurrey sluts. ... that was the mid-19th century, when Surrey had different prostitution laws than London proper. Nowadays it's a pretty nice place.

There's also a couple called the Slurreys on the British TV comedy 'Stella Street'; it wouldn't take much to find out if they have an appropriate accent, but I can't play YouTube videos on this computer so I can't check myself. Most illuminating of all, though, was this note on the schedule for a pub crawl on

Green Dragon (near the top of Surrey Street market, opposite something called "The Ship"), Croydon, South London/Surrey (or "Slurrey").

Though I can't claim to have found much to suggest the term is exactly dominant, there's enough to say that it was probably more than merely a mishearing of 'Estuary' (a somewhat unlikely explanation anyway). The link to Surrey is more likely still if 'he has a perfectly fine lower middle class Northern Home Counties accent', of course -- this hypothesis would suggest the 'Slurrey accent' is not Estuary English at all.

When it comes to Martyn Cornell's objection to Lawrence Henry's analysis, it's worth bearing in mind that snobbishness is where you find it -- a 'lower middle class' accent is quite enough to qualify for derision among many, especially in the context of Middle England stereotypes: this is precisely the demographic stereotyped, for example, in the Dursley family in Harry Potter.

This is helpful background. But I don't think it's likely that Mr. Henry meant slurry to describe a traditional lower-middle-class accent different from Estuary English, since he describes it as "a kind of commercial London speech" that "today's Brits have adopted", as an artificial "cultural signal of knowingness or savvy or in-crowdism".

And John Wells, who ought to know if anyone does, wrote that he has "never hear of an accent called 'slurry'".

My conclusion? Mr. Henry might be referring to a clear and well-thought-through concept, precisely named by a term that the rest of us haven't learned yet; and then again, he might just be venting a few incoherent and ill-informed prejudices, and "slurry" might just be a careless blend of half-remembered words like estuary, Surrey and slang. We report, you decide.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 24, 2006 12:10 PM