RP: a social accent of English
Received Pronunciation, or RP for short, is the instantly recognisable accent often described as ‘typically British’. Popular terms for this accent, such as ‘the Queen’s English’, ‘Oxford English’ or ‘BBC English’ are all a little misleading. The Queen, for instance, speaks an almost unique form of English, while the English we hear at Oxford University or on the BBC is no longer restricted to one type of accent. RP is an accent, not a dialect, since all RP speakers speak Standard English. In other words, they avoid non-standard grammatical constructions and localised vocabulary characteristic of regional dialects. RP is also regionally non-specific, that is it does not contain any clues about a speaker’s geographic background. But it does reveal a great deal about their social and/or educational background.
Well-known but not widely used
RP is probably the most widely studied and most frequently described variety of spoken English in the world, yet recent estimates suggest only 3% of the UK population speak it. It has a negligible presence in Scotland and Northern Ireland and is arguably losing its prestige status in Wales. It should properly, therefore, be described as an English, rather than a British accent. As well as being a living accent, RP is also a theoretical linguistic concept. It is the accent on which phonemic transcriptions in dictionaries are based, and it is widely used (in competition with General American) for teaching English as a foreign language. RP is included here as a useful reference, not to imply it has greater merit than any other English accent, but because it provides us with an extremely familiar model against which comparisons with other accents may be made.
What’s in the name?
RP is a young accent in linguistic terms. It was not around, for example, when Dr Johnson wrote A Dictionary of the English Language in 1757. He chose not to include pronunciation suggestions as he felt there was little agreement even within educated society regarding ‘recommended’ forms. The phrase Received Pronunciation was coined in 1869 by the linguist, A J Ellis, but it only became a widely used term to describe the accent of the social elite after the phonetician, Daniel Jones, adopted it for the second edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary (1924). The definition of ‘received’ conveys its original meaning of ‘accepted’ or ‘approved’ – as in ‘received wisdom’. We can trace the origins of RP back to the public schools and universities of 19th-century Britain – indeed Daniel Jones initially used the term Public School Pronunciation to describe this emerging, socially exclusive accent. Over the course of that century, members of the ruling and privileged classes increasingly attended boarding schools such as Winchester, Eton, Harrow and Rugby and graduated from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Their speech patterns – based loosely on the local accent of the south-east Midlands (roughly London, Oxford and Cambridge) – soon came to be associated with ‘the Establishment’ and therefore gained a unique status, particularly within the middle classes in London.
RP probably received its greatest impetus, however, when it was selected in 1922 by the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English as a broadcasting standard – hence the origins of the term BBC English. The Committee believed Standard English, spoken with an RP accent, would be the most widely understood variety of English, both here in the UK and overseas. Members of the committee were also conscious that choosing a regional accent might run the risk of alienating some listeners. To a certain extent their decision was understandable, and their attitude only reflected the social climate at the time. But since RP was the preserve of the aristocracy and expensive public schools, it represented only a very small social minority. This policy prevailed at the BBC for a considerable time and probably contributed to the sometimes negative perception of regional varieties of English.
There’s more than one RP
A speaker who uses numerous very localised pronunciations is often described as having a ‘broad’ or ‘strong’ regional accent, while terms such as ‘mild’ or ‘soft’ are applied to speakers whose speech patterns are only subtly different from RP speakers. So, we might describe one speaker as having a broad Glaswegian accent and another as having a mild Scottish accent. Such terms are inadequate when applied to Received Pronunciation, although as with any variety of English, RP encompasses a wide variety of speakers and should not be confused with the notion of ‘posh’ speech. The various forms of RP can be roughly divided into three categories. Conservative RP refers to a very traditional variety particularly associated with older speakers and the aristocracy. Mainstream RP describes an accent that we might consider extremely neutral in terms of signals regarding age, occupation or lifestyle of the speaker. Contemporary RP refers to speakers using features typical of younger RP speakers. All, however, are united by the fact they do not use any pronunciation patterns that allow us to make assumptions about where they are from in the UK.
This recording is an example of a Received Pronunciation accent.
Lady Silvia speaks with a very distinctive accent, which sounds rather old-fashioned. It has features we still hear among older RP speakers, perhaps particularly in the upper classes and aristocracy, and so we have chosen to categorise it conservative RP. This is characterised by a number of very traditional pronunciations no longer widely used among younger RP speakers.
Typical of conservative RP
Listen to the way Lady Silvia uses a <v> sound for the medial consonant in nephew, where most of us tend to use a <f> sound. The <v> is the traditional pronunciation of the word for speakers of all accents, but is now rarely heard among younger speakers. Listen also to the way she pronounces during and dunes in the statements one had to make conversation to one's elderly neighbour during six courses and the sand dunes have gone further and further towards the sea. Like many older speakers, she pronounces a <y> sound between the initial consonant and vowel of a word like tune or dune – so that they sound something like 'tyoon' and 'dyoon'. Younger speakers are far more likely to blend the consonant and <y> sounds into a <ch> and <j> sound respectively. So the word tune might sound like 'choon' and the word dune might be pronounced identically to the word June.
Conservative RP vowels
These are both subtle changes of pronunciation that are common to speakers of most British English accents. There are, however, a number of vowel sounds used by Lady Silvia that are typical only of conservative RP. Listen, for instance, to the vowel sounds she uses for words in the following two sets:
- married, Grand Tour, man, had, agriculture, grandmother, grandfather, Hampshire, chapel, pantry boy, nannies, understand, grandpa, jam, exactly, Mr Patterson, grand, adequate, tank trap, that and sand dunes
- history, Miss Wheatley, property, eventually, Italy, thirty, only, sorry, nursery, Tony, baby, nineteen-twenty, pantry boy, invariably, exactly, usually and lovely
In the first set, she uses a vowel sound halfway between an <e> sound and an <a> sound. The phonetic symbol for this is /æ/. Younger RP speakers generally use an <a> sound, a rare example of RP speech moving closer to northern English pronunciation. Many accents in South East England, particularly in London, retain the older <æ> sound, while speakers in the north have been using an <a> sound for some time. Her pronunciation of words in the second set – nouns and adjectives ending with the suffix <y> – is, on the other hand, an example of an older pronunciation retained in many northern accents, but changed in RP and in most accents in the South and Midlands of England. Here, older RP speakers and many speakers in the north use a vowel sound similar to the <i> sound in bit, while younger RP speakers use a very brief version of the <ee> sound in beat.
Two distinctive features
Lady Silvia uses two distinctive features associated with conservative RP. Listen to the way she pronounces the <r> sound between vowels in words such as married, inherited, grandparents, corridors, invariably and during. Unlike most consonants in English, the pronunciation of <r> can vary quite dramatically. The most common pronunciation involves producing a continuous sound with the tip of the tongue raised to the roof of the mouth and the sides of the tongue curled upwards and inwards. Here, however, Lady Silvia uses a tapped 'r' – a sound produced by flicking (tapping) the tip of her tongue against the roof of her mouth - thus making only very brief and rapid contact.
Listen also to the vowel sound she uses in lost and gone. She rhymes lost with exhaust and gone with dawn, where most speakers would pronounce them to rhyme with glossed and don respectively. Lady Silvia's pronunciation, which would include words like off, cloth and Australia, is a fascinating example of a vowel change that took place in an earlier period, but did not establish itself completely and has ultimately been reversed. Speakers in the seventeenth century began to use it, but it did not spread into many regional accents and thus after only 300 years the original pronunciation has been restored – at least in RP. Interestingly, many speakers in Ireland and parts of the South East of England still use a pronunciation based on the 17th-century innovation.
About the speaker
Lady Silvia Holcombe (1909–2005; female; housewife)
Like any other accent, RP has also changed over the course of time. The voices we associate with early BBC broadcasts, for instance, now sound extremely old-fashioned to most. Just as RP is constantly evolving, so our attitudes towards the accent are changing. For much of the 20th century, RP represented the voice of education, authority, social status and economic power. The period immediately after the Second World War was a time when educational and social advancement suddenly became a possibility for many more people. Those who were able to take advantage of these opportunities – be it in terms of education or career – often felt under considerable pressure to conform linguistically and thus adopt the accent of the establishment or at least modify their speech towards RP norms. In recent years, however, as a result of continued social change, virtually every accent is represented in all walks of life to which people aspire – sport, the arts, the media, business, even former strongholds of RP England, such as the City, Civil Service and academia. As a result, fewer younger speakers with regional accents consider it necessary to adapt their speech to the same extent. Indeed many commentators even suggest that younger RP speakers often go to great lengths to disguise their middle-class accent by incorporating regional features into their speech.
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