The Queen’s English? BBC English? The English of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady? For many learners of English, standard British English is synonymous with one of the three. However, the accent that most people think of as ‘quintessentially British’ is actually known as RP – Received Pronunciation. It is widely recognised and often used as a model for teaching English as a second language, as well as serving as the basis for pronunciation guides of British English in dictionaries. We look at Received Pronunciation – the characteristically British accent.
Only an estimated 3% of the population speak with an RP accent, mostly in England. Unlike other varieties of English, such as Scouse in Liverpool, Geordie in Newcastle and MLE (Multicultural London English), RP is not identified with a particular region of the UK, although it is broadly similar to the English spoken in the South East. It is widely considered to be ‘standard’ English and tends to be thought of as ‘educated speech’.
There are actually three varieties of RP: Contemporary, Mainstream and Conservative RP, the last of which is very traditional indeed – the kind you might hear in old black and white films or by the upper classes in Downton Abbey. These days it is associated with the aristocracy and for many people has connotations of privilege and snobbery. Mainstream RP is a kind of neutral accent that gives no clues as to where in the UK the speaker is from, while Contemporary RP is spoken by younger people.
Some features of Received Pronunciation are:
- The long [ɑː] sound in words such as bath, palm and start.
- RP speakers never drop the letter ‘h’ at the beginning of words, which is common in many other varieties of English.
- Words such as news, due, stupid, Tuesday are enthusiasm are pronounced with a /j/ sound: /nju:z/, /dju:/, /ˈstju:pɪd/, /ˈtju:zdeɪ/, /ɪnˈθjuːziæzəm/. Many other accents, including American English, have lost this sound in a process known as ‘yod-dropping’: /nu:z/, /du:/, /ɪnˈθuːziæzəm/ etc. However, not all words behave like this; cute, fuse and music are pronounced with the /j/ sound by RP speakers and others alike.
Received Pronunciation has a fairly short history as an accent. When Dr Johnson wrote his famous dictionary in 1757, he decided not to include pronunciation guides, as even amongst the educated classes there was no agreement about which forms were to be used as models. A later lexicographer, Daniel Jones, used it in his English Pronouncing Dictionary of 1916, by which time it had become established as the accent of the establishment, whose sons throughout the 19th and early 20th century had increasingly attended exclusive, privately-run schools such as Eton and Harrow and had graduated from Cambridge and Oxford Universities.
In 1922 the BBC adopted it as the ‘broadcasting standard’. The ‘received’ of RP means ‘accepted’ or ‘approved’ – as in ‘received wisdom’. As the century wore on, RP soon came to overshadow regional accents in prestige, although these days the BBC no longer insists on RP, and you will hear a wide variety of regional accents if you watch their programmes.
RP is not a static accent. It has changed over time and continues to change. The same, as it happens, can be said of the Queen’s English. Early on in her days as monarch, Elizabeth spoke with an accent very close to Conservative RP, but over time her vowels have shifted so that these days she speaks quite differently. Her particular variety of English is very idiosyncratic and unlike either modern-day Mainstream or Contemporary RP.
For a taste of how her English has changed, take a look at these two Christmas message broadcasts. The first is from 1957:
This one is from 2014:
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