What do London’s mayors sound like?


London has a new mayor – Sadiq Kahn, following on from Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. A lot has been written of all three mens’ backgrounds and values, but what do they sound like? Do their accents give any indication as to their different paths to City Hall? Let’s take a look (and a listen):

Sadiq Khan /səˈdiːk ˈkɑːn/ (2016-present)

Accent in a nutshell:
Sadiq speaks a modern GB English – it’s mainly neutral/RP, but with a sprinkling of London features, some of which feature consistently, others more randomly.

45 years old, from a working class London family in Tooting, he studied law at North London university – more info here. 

Distinctive Features:

1. /ŋ/ = /n/

Where ‘ng’ appears in the endings of words, Sadiq pronounces /n/, not /ŋ/:

“a burning ambition” “not just being safe, but feeling safe” “I’ve been thinking” “by making a promise”

2. /ʔ/

Sadiq uses the glottal stop a bit randomly (like many speakers) and sometimes before vowel sounds, a distinctive feature of a London accent:

“buy and rent” “can have homes built on it” “three hundred and eighty three” “quality apprenticeships”

3. /l/ – /w/
Occasionally but not always, he makes a syllable final /l/ more like a /w/ – another clear feature of London accents.

“every single Londoner” “to build a better future” “successive governments have failed London”

Boris Johnson /ˈbɒrɪs ˈdʒɒnsən/ (2008-16)

Accent in a nutshell:
Boris speaks with a traditional RP accent and a strong sprinkling of Upper RP (posh). All of his vowels tend to move to Upper RP positions, though the extent to which they do this depends on the scenario and audience. There is no hint of London or any other region in his accent.

51 years old, educated at Eton College and Oxford university, Johnson studied classics and dabbled in journalism before entering politics – more info here.

Distinctive Features:

1. /əʊ/
Boris often starts his NO vowel more towards the front.

“this is a long time ago” “work so hard” “are almost there”

2. /ʌ/ 
His monophthong /ʌ/ is often very back and open.

“of the cuts” “done under” “but, wonderful to see”

3. /aʊ/
Diphthong is started very far very back.

“to South West” “now” “bringing crime down”

Ken Livingstone /ˈken ˈlɪvɪŋstən/ (2000-2008)

Accent in a nutshell:
Livingstone’s accent has a clear London influence and a very distinctive nasal tone. Some of his public speeches are more RP, in particular his post 7/7 bombings speech has a Churchill air to it.

Livingstone was born in 1945 in Lambeth, London and grew up in a working class family, he left school at 16 – more info here. 

Distinctive Features:

1. /l/ – /w/
Ken changes his syllable final /l/ to /w/.

“in the world” “this small” “of super rich people” “well

2. /ʌ/
He does the opposite to Boris, /ʌ/ moves to the front towards /æ/.

“being just” “blood on his hands” “cutting edge” “other instances” “this should not be done”

3. /aɪ/
Livingstone starts this diphthong very far back, more like [ɑɪ].

“shocking crime” why” “denied them” “blind”

So three London mayors, all male, all in their 40s-50s when they took office. So much is made of their backgrounds, but there is not a huge difference between their accents. Ken has the strongest regional London influence, Boris has the strongest ‘posh’ influence, and Sadiq speaks a modern GB English with a hint of his London upbringing, But despite these influences, all three speak a more or less RP/neutral model, at least in public.[ssba]

For a more in depth comparison of Received Pronunciation and General British Englishsee this later blog post

This article uses English IPA symbols – learn each of them with pronunciation notesdiagrams and audio in Pronunciation Studio’s free Starter Pack.