Q: I’ve read that Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers is supposed to be a cockney. But the main peculiarities of his speech (using “v” where there should be a “w,” and “w” where there should be a “v”) doesn’t sound like any cockney accent I’ve heard.
A: You’re right. The dialect spoken by Sam Weller in the novel, which Charles Dickens originally published as a serial in 1836-37, is different from the cockney spoken in London now.
In fact, it’s different from the cockney spoken 40 years later, when George Bernard Shaw arrived in London. But as Shaw came to learn, Sam Weller’s dialect was indeed cockney.
In an explanatory note about the cockney used by Frederick Drinkwater, a character in his 1900 stage comedy Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Shaw writes:
“When I came to London in 1876, the Sam Weller dialect had passed away so completely that I should have given it up as a literary fiction if I had not discovered it surviving in a Middlesex village, and heard of it from an Essex one.”
Shaw adds that he used the Drinkwater character to educate people about how cockney was really spoken at the turn of the century.
“So I have taken the liberty of making a special example of him, as far as that can be done without a phonetic alphabet, for the benefit of the mass of readers outside London who still form their notions of cockney dialect on Sam Weller.”
In Shaw’s play, Drinkwater pronounces “v” and “w” normally, and speaks with many of the characteristics of modern cockney, such as pronouncing “lady” as LIE-dy, “ever hear” as HEV-er EAR, and “likely” as LOI-kly.
Shaw uses an “aw” instead of “oi” to render the cockney “likely” in his script, but he’s apparently referring to the same sound. “This aw for i, which I have made Drinkwater use, is the latest stage of the old diphthongal oi,” Shaw writes.
In Cockney Past and Present (2015), which traces the evolution of the dialect from the 16th century to modern times, William Matthews indicates that the use of “v” for “w” and “w” for “v” were features of cockney at least as far back as the 1700s.
He notes that the educator James Elphinston, who translated the odes of Martial into English in 1782, used one of the Roman writer’s odes to illustrate the cockney speech of Elphinston’s time. Here are the opening lines:
Ve have at length resoom’d our place,
And can, vith doo distinction, set;
Nor ve, the great and wulgar met.
Ve dooly can behould the play,
Sence ve in no confusion lay.
Matthews points out several other literary examples of “v” and “w” swapping from the 1700s and 1800s.
In The Waterman, a 1774 opera by the British composer and dramatist Charles Dibdin, the cockney character Tom Tugg pronounces “w” in the usual way, but “v” comes out as “w” when he says “you’ll never catch me at your Cupids and Wenisses.”
And in Fanny Burney’s 1796 novel Camilla, the cockney actor playing Othello pronounces “w” as “v,” and “v” as “w,” but not every “v” is transformed: “I vil a round unwarnish’d tale deliver.”
As we’ve written many times on the blog, the English of yesterday isn’t the English of today, and today’s English won’t be tomorrow’s. The same is true of English dialects.
However, literary cockney isn’t necessarily the same as the cockney spoken on the streets. Writers pick and choose whichever sounds of speech serve their fiction best.
In Dickens’s Pickwick, for example, Sam is much more likely to use “w” for “v” than “v” for “w,” and sometimes both letters are pronounced the usual way. Here are a few examples of Sam’s speech (minus the interpolations):
“Wy, that’s just the wery point as nobody never know’d” … “They von’t be long, Sir, I des-say” … “Yes every man slept vere he fell down” … “Vell all I can say is, that I vish you may get it.”
And here’s an example written around the same time, from Renton Nicholson’s Cockney Adventures (1837-38): “We went in a wan cowered all over with bows, and I vos dressed as smart as a new pin.”
It’s clear that cockney speakers did once pronounce “v” as “w,” and “w” as “v,” but not necessarily in the precise way Sam Weller renders them. Dickens was a novelist, after all, not a phonologist.