Illustrations of Victorian women

Vowel sounds of Received Pronunciation

Vowel sounds are one of the most useful ways to analyse and compare English accents. A typical RP accent contains between 20 and 22 vowel sounds but not all RP speakers are alike. Listen to the range of vowel sounds that exist in present-day Received Pronunciation.

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. You can use the links below to hear recordings of speakers who use different vowels in certain sets.

(All sound files © BBC. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.) 

Lexical set (key word): KIT

Spelling alternatives

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

IPA symbol

 /ɪ/

Sound file

inherited position, inherited privilege

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): conservative RP DRESS

Spelling alternatives

pen, bread, any

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

IPA symbol

/e/

Sound file

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


Lexical set (key word): DRESS

Spelling alternatives

pen, bread, any

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

IPA symbol

/ɛ/

Sound file

think Chernenko was on his death-bed

Recordings where pronunciation differs

Lexical set (key word): conservative RP TRAP

Spelling alternatives 

glad

note also timbre, plait

IPA symbol

/æ/

Sound file

scones, marmalade and jam


Lexical set (key word): TRAP

Spelling alternatives 

glad

note also timbre, plait

/a/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): STRUT

Spelling alternatives

cup, brother, double, blood

note also does

IPA symbol

/ʌ/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): LOT

Spelling alternatives 

dog, want, laurel

note also knowledge, bureaucracy

IPA symbol

/ɒ/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): conservative RP CLOTH

Spelling alternatives

off, salt, cough, austere

IPA symbol

IPA symbol

/ɔ:/

Sound file

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


Lexical set (key word): CLOTH

Spelling alternatives 

off, salt, cough, austere

/ɒ/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): FOOT

Spelling alternatives 

cushion, book, woman, should

note also Worcester

IPA symbol

/ʊ/

Sound file

and we’re surrounded with leather-bound books

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): contemporary female RP FOOT

Spelling alternatives 

cushion, book, woman, should

note also Worcester

IPA symbol

/ɵ/

Sound file

I think it's quite good at the moment


Lexical set (key word): FLEECE

Spelling alternatives 

keep, bead, scene, machine, piece, receive

note also key, quay, people, phoenix

IPA symbol

/i:/

Sound file

Greenham Common women’s peace camp

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): BATH

Spelling alternatives 

glass

note also laugh

IPA symbol

/ɑ:/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): PALM

Spelling alternatives 

rather, half

note also aunt

IPA symbol

/ɑ:/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): START

Spelling alternatives 

barn, heart, clerk

note also French loan words such as reservoir and memoir

IPA symbol

/ɑ:/

Sound file

the architecture’s only part of it

Recordings where pronunciation differs

rhoticity


Lexical set (key word): NORTH

Spelling alternatives 

cork, door, board, war

IPA symbol

/ɔ:/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs

rhoticity


Lexical set (key word): THOUGHT

Spelling alternatives 

brought, caught, talk, draw

note also broad, water

IPA symbol

/ɔ:/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): NURSE

Spelling alternatives 

serve, bird, hurt, learn, work, journey

note also colonel and myrtle

IPA symbol

/ə:/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs

rhoticity


Lexical set (key word): GOOSE

Spelling alternatives 

moon, super, move, glue, fruit, brew

note also shoe and beauty

IPA symbol

/ʋ:/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): contemporary RP GOOSE

Spelling alternatives 

moon, super, move, glue, fruit, brew

note also shoe and beauty

IPA symbol

/ʉ:/

Sound file

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


Lexical set (key word): conservative RP FACE

Spelling alternatives 

game, tray, plain, reign, they, great

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

IPA symbol

/eɪ/

Sound file

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


Lexical set (key word): FACE

Spelling alternatives 

game, tray, plain, reign, they, great

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

IPA symbol

/ɛɪ/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): GOAT

Spelling alternatives 

home, show, boat, toe

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

IPA symbol

/əʊ/

Sound file

most of the chapels in Wales will close down

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): conservative RP GOAL

Spelling alternatives 

hole, roll, bowl, shoulder

IPA symbol

/əʊ/

Sound file

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


Lexical set (key word): GOAL

Spelling alternatives 

hole, roll, bowl, shoulder

IPA symbol

/ɔʊ/

Sound file

cool old people who drive round on a motorbike

Recordings where pronunciation differs

Burnham Thorpe

Lexical set (key word): PRICE

Spelling alternatives 

mind, lie, shy, night

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

IPA symbol

/ʌɪ/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): MOUTH

Spelling alternatives 

shout, down

IPA symbol

/ɑʊ/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): CHOICE

Spelling alternatives 

coin, toy

note also buoy

IPA symbol

/ɔɪ/

Sound file

the world was my oyster

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): NEAR

Spelling alternatives 

beer, clear, here

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

IPA symbol

/ɪə/

Sound file

the judge was pretty severe


Lexical set (key word): contemporary RP NEAR

Spelling alternatives 

beer, clear, here

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

IPA symbol

/ɪ:/

Sound file

and it’ s quite a weird choice

Recordings where pronunciation differs

rhoticity


Lexical set (key word): conservative RP SQUARE

Spelling alternatives 

stare, chair, where, bear, heir

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

IPA symbol

/ɛə/

Sound file

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


Lexical set (key word): SQUARE

Spelling alternatives 

stare, chair, where, bear, heir

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

IPA symbol

/ɛ:/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs

rhoticity


Lexical set (key word): CURE

Spelling alternatives 

poor, tour, sure, during

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

IPA symbol

/ʊə/

Sound file

and went to Italy for the Grand Tour


Lexical set (key word): contemporary RP CURE

Spelling alternatives 

poor, tour, sure, during

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

IPA symbol

/ɔ:/

Sound file

I’m not sure that that's a good thing

Recordings where pronunciation differs

rhoticity


The pronunciation of weak syllables in RP

Lexical set (key word): conservative RP happY

Spelling alternatives

happy, beautiful, valley, coffee, bodies

note also yesterday and days of the week such as Monday

IPA symbol

/ɪ/

Sound file

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


Lexical set (key word): happY

Spelling alternatives

happy, beautiful, valley, coffee, bodies

note also yesterday and days of the week such as Monday

IPA symbol

/i/

Sound file

scotch, gin and brandy

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): lettER~commA

Spelling alternatives 

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

IPA symbol

/ə/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): horsES

Spelling alternatives 

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

IPA symbol

/ɪ/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): wastED

Spelling alternatives 

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

IPA symbol

/ɪ/

Sound file

everything that we build now is imported

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): longEST, chickEN, servICE, mallET, villAGE, massIVE etc

Spelling alternatives 

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/

Sound files

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): conservative RP privATE, problEM, toilET, countLESS, kindNESS etc

Spelling alternatives 

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

IPA symbol

/ɪ/

Sound files

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


Lexical set (key word): privATE, problEM, toilET, countLESS, kindNESS etc

Spelling alternatives 

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

IPA symbol

/ə/

Sound files

and so then they decided to try and solve this problem

through what was known as the Club System

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Lexical set (key word): CONtinue, COMputer etc

Spelling alternatives 

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

IPA symbol

/ə/

Sound file

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Examples of lexical variation in RP

Key word: one etc

Other examples

the words one, once, none and nothing

IPA symbol

/ʌ/

although one can also be /ɒ/

Sound files

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

Recordings where pronunciation differs


Key word: directory etc

Other examples

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

IPA symbol

short vowel vs.long vowel

Sound files

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


Key word: TRANSplant etc.

Other examples 

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

IPA symbol

/a/ vs /ɑ/

Sound files

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


Key word: circumSTANCE, subSTANtial, etc

Other examples 

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

IPA symbol

/a/ vs /ɑ/

although circumstance can also be /ə/

Sound files

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


Key word: room etc

Other examples 

words such as bridegroom, broom and room

IPA symbol

/ʊ/ Vs /u:/

Sound files

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

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.