I once had the job of proof reading an abridged, junior version of a Dickens novel. I forget which one it was now, but it was before I’d actually read much Dickens myself and when I came across a piece of dialogue where a word beginning with W started with a V, I assumed it was a typo and corrected it. It was only as these ‘mistakes’ began to mount up that it dawned on me that the problem might be with me, not the proofs.
I couldn’t, and still can’t, understand how or why Londoners should pronounce W words with a V in a sort of Germanic way (and vice versa), and I’m pretty sure it’s not a feature of even the thickest modern cockney accent. I think I read somewhere that there is even some doubt as to whether cockneys really did talk like that or whether it was an invention of Dickens’s.
But now I’ve come across confirmation from a contemporary source. I’m currently researching a book about the Battle of Waterloo, and trawling through an account by a British lady who happened to be in Belgium at the time of the battle and who saw and met a lot of the wounded soldiers afterwards. This is one of her observations:
It is remarkable that every village in this part of the country has a French name, except Waterloo, which is pronounced by the natives according to the fashion of the London Cockneys Vaterloo; the letter W being the exclusive property of the British people with the exception of the aforesaid Cockneys, who resign all claim to it.
It still seems odd, but at least I now have confirmation that it was both true and widespread. In the words of Sam Weller, ‘That’s a wery different thing!’