Conservative Received Pronunciation: Lady Silvia recalls her childhood at Holkham House



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:

  1. 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
  2. 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)



Lady Silvia: The, the history of Holkham started with a Chief Justice in Queen Elizabeth's reign who was called Edward Coke, Sir Edward Coke. And he lived at Tittershall. And one of his many children, one of his sons married a Miss Wheatley who owned property at Holkham. I'm talking about the fifteen-hundreds. And the son eventually came to live in a small house called Hill Hall which was sited at Holkham and it was only when his descendant, the first Earl of Leicester, came into the property and went to Italy for the 'Grand Tour' that he was, became inerested in art and collecting pictures and he came back to England having been in Italy for four years from the age of sixteen to build Holkham, which he did. It took him thirty years to build and he was rather disappointed as his only son became a hopeless, dissolute man who married and had no children. It then went to his, to the original Lord Leiceser's great-nephew who became the famous Coke of Norfolk. And he did a lot for agriculture in Norfolk and was rather a famous man.

Alison: So who was Coke of Norfolk?

Lady Silvia: Coke of Norfolk was the nephew of the first Lord Leicester, so when he inherited the, he, he did not call himself Lord Leicester, because he had no right to it. He inherited it through his grandmother who was a niece of the original Earl of Leicester.

Alison: So he was your, your great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather?

Lady Silvia: Uh, Coke of Norfolk was my great-great-grandfather and eventually my father inherited; he was the direct successor to Coke of Norfolk.

Alison: So when would your father have inherited? What, what sort of year do you think that was?

Lady Silvia: Sorry?

Alison: Wh, when do you think, when was it that your father inherited?

Lady Silvia: My father in, inherited in nineteen-forty-three, because my grandfather lived to be ninety-three and so my father and mother still lived down in Hampshire, you know, at, at Sowley, near Lymington. And they only came to Holkham in nineteen-forty-three - as owners - although we had been there a lot to stay with the grandparents.

Alison: And what do you remember of Holkham when you came to stay as a child, what, what, for, with your grandfather?
Lady Silvia: All the children used to have the chapel wing which was quite apart and we had one big room downstairs which was the day nursery and my cousins, David, not my cousin, I'm sorry.

Alison: Sorry?

Lady Silvia: My, my cousin, Diana and Tony had one room at the top of the house and Tommy and I had the other. In the nineteen-twenties my little sister was only a baby; she was born in nineteen-twenty. And so the cousins were my brother and myself and David and Tony who used to have games and our great fun was playing 'robbers' in the corridors and running about in the dark.

Alison: So what about all the servants that were there at that time? What kind of, uhm, servants do you remember?

Lady Silvia: Oh, there was a housekeeper and a butler; two footmen; a pantry-boy and Crist, who was the wonderful odd-job man who did everything; as well as several housemaids, still-room maids, head cook and kitchen maid.

Alison: Did you, did you talk to them much? Did you have much to do with them?

Lady Silvia: We would, of course, we had our nannies and nursery maids and Ethel was a great favourite, because she was the still-room maid and used to give us cakes and s, and sweets when we called on her in the still-room. And we always went to prayers every morning; my grandfather used to read prayers at nine o'clock. I didn't understand them very well, because he used to gabble and we all thought that his mind was on his breakfast which was to come.

Alison: And what kind of breakfast did you sit down to at that time?

Lady Silvia: An enormous breakfast: grandpa used to have fish; there was either fish or eggs and cereal to begin with; scones, marmalade and jam. And my grandfather invariably ended his large meal with a boiled egg which he cooked himself on a plated egg-boiler exactly timed for three minutes. He then poured cream on top of the egg, after which he ended with some scones and fruit. There were at least eight baskets of different fruit on the table that the head gardener, Mister Patterson, was very famous for his vegetables and fruit, including melons and grapes etcetera.

Alison: So you must've been absolutely stuffed after breakfast: I'm surprised you could all move!

Lady Silvia: I don't think we ate as much as my grandfather did. Of course, we didn't have such grand meals in the nursery, but it was quite adequate. And it was only when we grew up, in other words eighteen, that we were allowed to eat with the grown-ups in the dining room. And that was rather a terrifor [sic], terrifying ordeal for a young girl when one had to make conversation to one's elderly neighbour during six courses. It was considered rude not to talk and grandpa occasionally made very cutting remarks to any young person sitting silent, such as, “Have you lost your tongue?"

Alison: And were you quite shy or were you very sociable, or?

Lady Silvia: I was quite shy to begin with, but I suppose one got used to it and one had to make conversation. I had

Alison: What did you talk about? Can you remember? What sort of things?

Lady Silvia: Uh.

Alison: What would you have said to them?

Lady Silvia: I suppose we talked about the weather as usual and, uhm, what we had done the day before. Grandpa's question used to be always, “What've you been up to?" And we had to invent something whether we had done anything or not, but it was usually just going down to the beach and, and getting cockles or swimming. Uhm.

Alison: Do, do you think the beach has changed much at Holkham, nowadays compared to how you remember it?

Lady Silvia: Uhm, no, it, it, the, the actual surroundings have changed a bit, because during the war there was a tank trap all round by the pine needles and that stopped the, uhm, wind encroaching on the sand dunes. And the sand dunes have gone further and further towards the sea and, except for the amount of people coming down the main road, which in those days was private, I think the beach is still a lovely place to play, with lots of, lots of space and, uh, beautiful surroundings.

Conservative Received Pronunciation: Lady Silvia recalls her childhood at Holkham House
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