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 2% 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 case study, 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 used 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 nineteenth-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 Lord Reith, the first General Manager of the BBC, adopted it in 1922 as a broadcasting standard – hence the origins of the term BBC English. Reith believed Standard English, spoken with an RP accent, would be the most widely understood variety of English, both here in the UK and overseas. He was also conscious that choosing a regional accent might run the risk of alienating some listeners. To a certain extent Reith’s decision was understandable, and his 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
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 twentieth 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.