Received Pronunciation: Michelle talks about taking a gap year before going to university



This recording is an example of a Received Pronunciation accent.

Michelle speaks with an accent most of us would immediately associate with a middle-class background. Many of the vowel sounds she uses have a traditional RP ring, but she also uses a number of pronunciations characteristic of contemporary RP. In other words she uses certain features we only encounter among younger speakers.

The vowels of youth

Listen first to the vowel sound she uses in the words air, there, their, where, somewhere and parents. In traditional forms of RP, they would be pronounced with a diphthong – that is two vowel sounds. Older RP speakers would start with an <e> sound – as in bed – before drifting into a weak vowel rather like the initial sound in about. This type of pronunciation, also applied to words such as darehair and bear, was until relatively recently common in many English accents. The diphthong emerged once speakers began to omit the <r> sound at the end. Speakers throughout the UK once pronounced this <r> sound, but it is increasingly restricted to speakers in the West Country and far South West of England, a small area of Lancashire and most of Scotland and Ireland. It is also present in most US English accents. The <r> sound was initially replaced by the weak vowel at the end of the diphthong, but nowadays most younger RP speakers omit this final part of the diphthong and simply use a long <e> sound – thus shared is pronounced with exactly the same vowel as in shed, only the vowel is noticeably longer. This demonstrates perfectly how successive sound changes can radically alter the pronunciation of a set of words. Most RP speakers, like Michelle, now only distinguish between pairs such as fairs and fez or flared and fled simply by vowel length. Older speakers tend to use a diphthong for the first word in each pair.

A tapped t

Listen to the way Michelle pronounces the consonant <t>. She generally uses a ‘normal’ <t> sound, produced when the tip of the tongue makes solid contact with the roof of the mouth. Although she frequently also uses a tapped ‘t’ – 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. This can occur when <t> appears between vowels or before <t> and has the effect of producing a consonant that sounds a little closer to a <d> sound. Listen, for instance, to the way she pronounces little, bottles and whatever and the way she says a lot of friends; my place at Oxford; total freedom; get out of bed; get into tune; get on the plane; sort of; quite a lot of people and a lot of places. This tapped ‘t’ is a traditional feature of a number of English accents, including RP, and is a very frequent feature in US English.

Another type of <t>

Michelle can occasionally be heard T-glottaling – substituting a glottal stop for a <t> sound between vowels or at the end of a word. Listen to the way she pronounces got a summer free; go and see what happens; but I actually bought a single ticket; worked in the pub at night and then again on the weekend; I’ve also quite often travelled with one or two other people; you actually start anticipating each other’s moods quite a lot and forming quite a strong bond; I don’t even know what that expression means; you can get a discounted flight and but I don’t think that means it’s a global village. T-glottaling is an age-specific feature, rather than characteristic of a particular accent, and can be heard among younger speakers the length and breadth of the country. Intriguingly it causes disapproval in some circles, but is a distinctively British innovation. It is not, for instance, a feature of any US accent and thus one of many examples that British English and American English, in terms of pronunciation at least, are diverging rather than converging.

Rising intonation

Finally, listen to the following statements: uh, I guess the first time I kind of went abroad really by myself was straight after ‘A’ Levels and I went to Paris; so that October, in nineteen-ninety-five I went to Nepal with an organisation called ‘GAP’ which arranged for me to teach in a school for Tibetan kids; you really can let your whims rule; I wouldn’t say the world is smaller, the world is certainly more accessible for me than my parents, I think also I have more curiosity. In each case listen carefully to the intonation pattern she uses and focus particularly on the highlighted word and the underlined syllable. In all these statements she raises her pitch – a technique usually used in RP to signal a question, but not in this case. This tendency to use a rising intonation on ordinary declarative statements is on the increase among young speakers across the UK, and is especially common among young females in the south of England. Linguists refer to the phenomenon as high rising terminals, although it is often also referred to as ‘Australian Question Intonation’, ‘upspeak’ or ‘uptalk’.

Not liked by all

Like T-glottaling, the use of high rising terminals seems to provoke intense disapproval in some quarters. They are often attributed to the popularity of Australian soaps, as high rising terminals are a feature of an Australian accent, but they have also been present for a considerable time in a number of UK accents – in the West Country, the North East, South Wales and Northern Ireland, for instance. Most serious research suggests television has very little influence at all on the way people pronounce English, although it has arguably had much greater impact on our vocabulary. There is, however, no consensus on why high rising terminals have become so common among young female speakers. Using a rising pitch to ask a question is a signal a speaker wants the listener to respond with an answer – to join in the conversation. Some commentators have suggested young female speakers use a high rising terminal on a declarative sentence to signal they want some form of contribution – even if only a nod of agreement, a sympathetic hmm or a sign that their audience has understood or is following their train of thought. In that case, high rising terminals are actually a symbol of a willingness to share the floor and thus a supportive, inclusive conversational tool and, as such, do not deserve to be viewed negatively.

About the speaker

Michelle Levene (b.1973/09/14; female, management consultant)



Michelle: Uh, I guess the first time I, kind of, went abroad really by myself was straight after 'A' Levels and I went to Paris, so that was the summer of ninety-one and I stayed two-and-a-half months in Paris and lived in a little studio with my friend and tried to get work.

Eliane: Why did you decide to go away?

Michelle: That was kind of random. I hadn't fixed anything up for that summer and this friend of mine had this studio apartment at very low rent and I thought, “Well, what the heck? Got a summer free; go and learn French; go and see what happens!" Very kind of head-up-in-the-air; just headed out there.

Eliane: And were your friends travelling at that time?

Michelle: Uhm, yeah, I think so. In fact a lot of friends actually were beginning to inter-rail[1] that summer, straight after finishing school, so a lot of them actually came and stayed with us. So they came over with their duty-free, their bottles of gin and vodka and we got about ten people lined up like sardines on the floor of this little studio flat and, kind of, had a nice time. So yeah, I think people were travelling in Europe and then quite a few of my friends took a year off between school and university and went further afield, which I also did. So that October in nineteen-ninety-five I went to Nepal with an organisation called Gap[2] which arranged for me to teach in a school for Tibetan kids.

Eliane: And why did you decide to go away in your Gap year?[2]

Michelle: Uhm, I just thought it was this amazing opportunity: I had fifteen months between school and university, like, the world was my oyster; I didn't have any responsibilities; I literally could just fill these fifteen months with whatever would be fun, whatever I enjoyed - I just had to finance it. But, given that I didn't have especially expensive living habits or, kind of, needs. I mean, it was just an incredible opportunity. You've got something very secure to come back to: I had my place at Oxford. And it was this incredible luxury: just take fifteen months and see the world and do as many, kind of, wild and whacky things as you can.

Eliane: What was it like being away for that long?

Michelle: Uhm, I kind of broke it up, cause I went to Paris for two-and-a-half months first of all over the summer and then I went to Nepal and that was meant to just be October to December - three months - but I actually bought a single ticket, cause again I just, kind of, wandered into it and I didn't really know if I'd want to stay on or what would happen. And so I ended up going to India afterwards till about the end of March/beginning of April and then I came back to Nepal and flew home. And then I spent about four months in London, kind of, earning money and I just did two jobs at once: I worked in a telephone, kind of, cellular communications place in the day and I worked, like, eight till six and then I came home and worked in the pub at night and then again on the weekend. And I just basically worked and worked and worked to try and go away again. And then that summer I went to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize before starting university.

Eliane: And what is the attraction of travelling for you? What's the wanderlust about?

Michelle: I think there's several components to why I love travelling so much: one is the, the, sort of, the freedom; there's just this total freedom, you just wake up in the morning and you say, “What do I want to do today, which is going to make me happy? What do I feel like doing?" And it starts with, “When do I want to wake up, when do I want to get out of bed, do I want to eat, do I want not to eat, do I want to sight-see, do I want to travel to somewhere else, do I like these people I've just met, shall I be with them, shall I spend the day with them?" And you, you really can let your whims rule. But on the other hand I've also quite often travelled with one or two other people and then you actually, it's very interesting, you get quite close to them, you form quite close relationships and you actually start anticipating each other's moods quite a lot and forming quite a strong bond. So in a way you are, kind of, compromising what you really want to do, but you, kind of, get into tune with each other's rhythms. So that's the first thing and the second thing is, uhm, the first time I travelled and left Europe, which was when I went to Nepal I was just amazed; I was just completely blown away; I'd, like, never imagined that people lived in such a different way from us; that, kind of, religions could be so different, colours, smells, landscapes, buildings; everything was just another universe and it was just amazing; it was this hu eye j, this huge eye-opener. And at the time I was just, kind of, drinking it all up; I was just transfixed by it. And I only think I began to assimilate it when I got back to the UK and started challenging things that I was so used to seeing. Uhm, and why else do I like travelling so much? I guess the third reason is just it's easy, it's just easy to do, I mean, people kind of make out that, oh, they're conquering the world or whatever - it's a really easy lifestyle: you just get on a plane and you go to places where, essentially, the cost of living is quite low and you can have a fun time; you have very few constraints on you and, I don't know, it's, it can't really go wrong, I mean, unless you, kind of, get sick or something really bad happens to you, but essentially you're, it's hassle-free fun.

Eliane: Do you think there's such a thing as a global village?

Michelle: I don't even know what that expression means.


Eliane: Do you think

Michelle: You'll have to, what do you think it is?

Eliane: Do you think the world is smaller for you than, than it was for your parents?

Michelle: I wouldn't say the world is smaller; the world is certainly more accessible for me than my parents. I think also I have more curiosity. I mean, first of all, there's the, sort of, straightforward economic thing that flights - international flights - are very cheap nowadays, I mean, you can get a discounted flight, let's say to India, for three hundred quid and that just didn't exist in my parents' day. Also I think attitudes have changed, like, my parents just wouldn't have got on a plane to India or Nepal aged eighteen; they just wouldn't have done it. Uhm, so, in a sense, yes, there are quite a lot of people, I think, like me who have seen a lot of places and who have, sort of, travelled in developing countries as well as developed countries. But I don't think that means it's a global village; I just, I just think that perhaps almost culture's become more intermingled.


[1] An inter-rail pass is a train ticket that allows unlimited 2nd class travel across most of Europe and parts of North Africa. The ticket first became available in 1972 and remains a popular choice among young school-leavers.

[2] GAP refers to a charitable organisation specialising in organising voluntary work placements overseas for young people prior to going on to further education, training or employment. Taking a gap year might be interpreted as the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour.

Received Pronunciation: Michelle talks about taking a gap year before going to university
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