Received Pronunciation Phonology

The Vowel Sounds of RP

The table below lists all the vowel sounds in an RP accent according to lexical set. The phonetician John Wells introduced in his book, Accents of English (1982), the concept of using a single word to refer to the pronunciation of a particular group of English words. He calls these word-groups lexical sets and uses a key word, such as KIT, to identify them.

The second column lists possible spellings for words in each group, while the third gives the symbol used in the International Phonetic Alphabet ( IPA) to represent the vowel sound. You will find the IPA symbols in a dictionary where pronunciations of words are included.

Click on a sound file to hear an RP speaker using the target vowel. As with any accent of English, RP encompasses a wide variety of speakers and should not be confused with the notion of ‘posh’ speech. The table includes examples of lexical sets where pronunciation differs. Conservative RP refers to pronunciations associated with older RP speakers and contemporary RP refers to newer, innovative pronunciations common among younger RP speakers, but not yet accepted as ‘the definitive’ RP vowel.

Vowel variations

Vowels are far more useful than consonants when comparing regional accents. Every English accent can be compared to RP, or indeed to any other accent, by establishing the type of vowel used for any given set. For example, people from outside the North East find it difficult to distinguish between speakers on Teesside and speakers on Tyneside, but there are a number of crucial differences, most noticeably perhaps the pronunciation of words in the NURSE set - words such as bird, work, herd, church and earn, and START and PALM sets - words such as car, sharp and large or half, father and drama. It is easier to distinguish between someone from Tyneside and an RP speaker, because the number of lexical sets for which different vowel sounds are used by each group is far greater. Use the right-hand column and return to the home map to hear recordings of speakers who use different vowels in certain sets.

lexical set (key word)spelling alternativesIPA symbolSound FileRecordings where pronunciation differs
KIT

king, symphony, village, kitchen

note also minute, women, enthusiasm, England and conservative pronunciations of words with a weak vowel such as hopeless, fitness, private, problem, toilet

/ɪ/

inherited position, inherited privilege

conservative RP

DRESS

pen, bread, any

note also friend, bury, leisure, Geoffrey, says, said and unstressed forms of ate & again

/e/

and it was only when his descendant, the first Earl of Leicester

DRESS

pen, bread, any

note also friend, bury, leisure, Geoffrey, says, said and unstressed forms of ate & again

/ɛ/

think Chernenko was on his death-bed

conservative RP

TRAP

glad

note also timbre, plait

/æ/

scones, marmalade and jam

TRAP

glad

note also timbre, plait

/a/

granite-faced officials standing on the platform above, uh, Lenin’s tomb

STRUT

cup, brother, double, blood

note also does

/ʌ/

Greenham was an extraordinary thing, you know, it wasn’t just people sitting in the mud and eating lentils

LOT

dog, want, laurel

note also knowledge, bureaucracy

/ɒ/

I got involved with a, a sort of spin-off of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

conservative RP

CLOTH

off, salt, cough, austere

/ɔ:/

and grandpa occasionally made very cutting remarks to any young person sitting silent, such as ‘Have you lost your tongue?’

CLOTH

off, salt, cough, austere

/ɒ/

we’ve lost that, uh, with the social change

FOOT

cushion, book, woman, should

note also Worcester

/ʊ/

and we’re surrounded with leather-bound books

contemporary female RP

FOOT

cushion, book, woman, should

note also Worcester

/ɵ/

I think it's quite good at the moment

FLEECE

keep, bead, scene, machine, piece, receive

note also key, quay, people, phoenix

/i:/

Greenham Common women’s peace camp

BATH

glass

note also laugh

/ɑ:/

for example in France, Germany, Italy and particularly places like Spain and Portugal

PALM

rather, half

note also aunt

/ɑ:/

I remember my aunt from later years, when I met her

START

barn, heart, clerk

note also French loan words such as reservoir & memoir

/ɑ:/

the architecture’s only part of it

NORTH

cork, door, board, war

/ɔ:/

uhm, but, uh, we were ordained in the May of nineteen-ninety-four

THOUGHT

brought, caught, talk, draw

note also broad, water

/ɔ:/

ten of the most exhausting days I've ever spent in my life

NURSE

serve, bird, hurt, learn, work, journey

note also colonel & myrtle

/ə:/

and I think in turn that was more diverse than it was a generation before that

GOOSE

moon, super, move, glue, fruit, brew

note also shoe and beauty

/ʋ:/

we’d still be junior to the new steward two, who had just joined a year ago

contemporary RP

GOOSE

moon, super, move, glue, fruit, brew

note also shoe and beauty

/ʉ:/

my, uh, grandparents, uh, moved down to, uhm, the Sussex coast

conservative RP

FACE

game, tray, plain, reign, they, great

note also gauge, gaol and French loan words such as café, ballet & foyer

/eɪ/

I think the beach is still a lovely place to play, with lots of, lots of space and, uh, beautiful surroundings

FACE

game, tray, plain, reign, they, great

note also gauge, gaol and French loan words such as café, ballet & foyer

/ɛɪ/

Cardiff looks a great deal better now than it did when I first came to Wales

GOAT

home, show, boat, toe

note also sew, brooch, mauve and French loan words such as plateau

/əʊ/

most of the chapels in Wales will close down

conservative RP

GOAL

hole, roll, bowl, shoulder

/əʊ/

and one of his sons married a Miss Wheatley who owned property at Holkham

GOAL

hole, roll, bowl, shoulder

/ɔʊ/

cool old people who drive round on a motorbike

Burnham Thorpe
PRICE

mind, lie, shy, night

note also I, eye, buy, either, height, aisle, maestro and German loan words such as zeitgeist

/ʌɪ/

uhm, and that is because I think they have been quite rightly criticised

MOUTH

shout, down

/ɑʊ/

my dad trained as an accountant and is now self-employed

CHOICE

coin, toy

note also buoy

/ɔɪ/

the world was my oyster

NEAR

beer, clear, here

note also weird and words such as brilliant, idea, area, stadium, spaniel, creosote, onion and lascivious

/ɪə/

the judge was pretty severe

contemporary RP

NEAR

beer, clear, here

note also weird and words such as brilliant, idea, area, stadium, spaniel, creosote, onion and lascivious

/ɪ:/

and it’ s quite a weird choice

conservative RP

SQUARE

stare, chair, where, bear, heir

note also <<em class="speech">span>aeroplane, mayor, prayer and French loan words such as premiere

/ɛə/

years ago it was very rare for a judge to be chosen from anywhere other than the senior barrister’s profession

SQUARE

stare, chair, where, bear, heir

note also aeroplane, mayor, prayer and French loan words such as premiere

/ɛ:/

the children could grow up together; we could share child-care, share gardening

CURE

poor, tour, sure, during

note also words such as fuel, casual, incongruous and jewel

/ʊə/

and went to Italy for the Grand Tour

contemporary RP

CURE

poor, tour, sure, during

note also words such as fuel, casual, incongruous and jewel

/ɔ:/

I’m not sure that that's a good thing

The Pronunciation of Weak Syllables in RP

lexical set (key word)spelling alternativesIPA symbolSound FileRecordings where pronunciation differs

conservative RP

happY

happy, beautiful, valley, coffee, bodies

note also yesterday and days of the week such as Monday

/ɪ/

and he liked it very much and he decided to spend some money on doing it up, particularly the front part of the house which was then unoccupied

happY

happy, beautiful, valley, coffee, bodies

note also yesterday and days of the week such as Monday

/i/

scotch, gin and brandy

lettER~commA

paper, centre, leisure, colour, doctor, sugar, martyr, zebra

/ə/

and then that summer I went to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize

horsES

3rd person suffix in verbs such as pushes and plural suffix in nouns such as foxes and daisies

/ɪ/

on the seven-o-seven there were six of us: three stewards and three stewardesses

wastED

past tense marker in verbs such as landed and participial adjectives such as excited

/ɪ/

everything that we build now is imported

North Elmham
longEST, chickEN, servICE, mallET, villAGE, massIVE etc.

the suffix in superlatives such as biggest and adjectives such as active and the final syllable of nouns such as surface, office, pocket, college, sausage, forest and biscuit

/ɪ/

head cook and kitchen-maid

but I don't think that means it's a global village

when the time came for the meal service, all the trays went out by hand

conservative RP

privATE, problEM, toilET, countLESS, kindNESS etc.

the suffix in adjectives such as useless and fairness and the final syllable of nouns such as system, purchase, business and place-names such as Hampstead and Athens

/ɪ/

I wouldn't like to say how many times I'd been into that chapel, but I must've heard countless sermons

which in those days was private

privATE, problEM, toilET, countLESS, kindNESS etc.

the suffix in adjectives such as useless and fairness and the final syllable of nouns such as <<em class="speech">strong>system, purchase, business and place-names such as Hampstead and Athens

/ə/

and so then they decided to try and solve this problem

through what was known as the Club System

Hilton
CONtinue, COMputer etc.

the prefix in verbs such as complain and confirm, adjectives such as complete and contented and nouns such as component and container

/ə/

oh, it's just we're jolly lucky, that's really, it's a marvellous part of the world, I'm very lucky to, to live here and continue to do so

Byker

Examples of Lexical Variation in RP

key wordother examplesIPA symbolSound FileRecordings where pronunciation differs
one etc.

the words one, once, none and nothing

/ʌ/

although one can also be

/ɒ/

I was quite shy to begin with, but I suppose one got used to it

if one looked at it from completely the other side

earning money and I just did two jobs at once

what we have now is nothing

directory etc

adjectives such as direct, economical and financial and nouns such as digestive, direction, directory, finance and economics

short vowel vs.long vowel

my father inherited; he was the direct successor to Coke of Norfolk

I mean, first of all there's the, sort of, straightforward economic thing

probably economic circumstances and, and less good education in previous generations

that one and threepence per fortnight for the family was a financial barrier

TRANSplant etc.

the prefix in verbs such as transfer and transform and nouns such as transport

/a/ vs /ɑ/

at the time I was just, kind of, drinking it all up; I was just transfixed by it

Information Technology and Communications have completely transformed the nature of society

circumSTANCE, subSTANTIAL, etc

the suffix stance and derivatives in words such as circumstance, circumstantial and substantial

/a/ vs /ɑ/

although circumstance can also be

/ə/

and there were particular personal circumstances why, why one woman was not ordained at that time

probably economic circumstances and, and less good education in previous generations

room etc

words such as bridegroom, broom and room

/ʊ/ Vs /u:/

in the next-door room here we have the most up-to-date equipment and IT

uh, my third year, I've got my own room now