Traditionally, Received Pronunciation is seen as the accent of authority, with a long line of RP-speaking prime ministers through much of the 20th century such as Baldwin, Chamberlain, Churchill, Attlee, Eden, MacMillan. But that’s not a watertight definition, there have been prime ministers who spoke their regional accents such as Gladstone (Lancashire), Lloyd George (Welsh), MacDonald (Scottish), Heath (Kent), or Wilson (Yorkshire). The most recent prime minister who spoke with an RP accent was Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and that was adopted RP (she grew up speaking her local Midlands accent of Grantham). Since then, prime ministers have spoken regional Home Counties or London SBE (apart from George Brown’s Scottish).
Traditionally, RP is the accent of aristocracy and wealth. This aspect of RP includes Daniel Jones’ observation that it’s the speech of the major English private boarding schools. But that’s not a watertight definition either. There are aristocrats and wealthy people who speak with their regional accents.
Traditionally, RP is the accent of knowledge and learning, reflected in the popular perception of “Oxford English”. And in Lord Reith’s (1889-1971) preference for RP for the BBC’s own broadcasters (but he never gave up his own Scottish accent, and invited speakers kept their own accents). But that’s not a watertight definition either. There are many knowledgeable and learned people, Nobel Prize winners even, who speak with their own regional accent.
Traditionally, RP is also the accent of privilege, and there the coin flips over to show the reverse side. Up to the 1950s at least, the more conservative professions and institutions expected speakers of regional accents to adopt RP for careers. William Matthews (1938), later Professor of English in California, describes his experience from the 1930s: “Cockney, we had been taught by teachers and society, was vulgar, something to discard in favour of Standard Speech, and all of us who had professional ambitions took the warning very seriously”. To avoid this negative aspect of RP, and for the sake of linguistic research and lexicography, two new synonyms have been proposed for this accent – General British English by Windsor Lewis (1972) and Standard Southern British English in the IPA Handbook (1999).
IPA. 1999. The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: CUP.
Windsor Lewis, J. 1972. A Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of British and American English. London: OUP.
Matthews, William. 1938. Cockney Past and Present. London: Routledge Keggan Paul. 1972 reprint.
Only the phonology, the phoneme system at least, of the RP accent gives a watertight definition. Standard descriptions of RP are given by Jones (1918, 1932), revised and updated by Gimson (1962) and Wells (1982), and dictionaries, especially Daniel Jones’ own English Pronouncing Dictionary published by Dent since 1917 and CUP since 1988. And the phonology of RP reveals that this accent is also subject to change. Any idea of constancy in RP pronunciation is possibly due to the long publication sequence of Daniel Jones’ Outline of English Phonetics (1918-1968), which continues the accent described by Sweet (1877, 1897). In that world, STRUT is always [ʌ] and GOAT always [ou]. If anyone needs convincing that RP changes, just look at the course of the Great Vowel shift since the 15th century (and why not before that, for good measure).
Gimson, A. C. 1962. An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. London: Arnold.
Jones, Daniel. 1917. An English Pronouncing Dictionary. London, Dent. Since 1988, Cambridge University Press.
Jones, Daniel. 1918. An Outline of English Phonetics. Leipzig: Teubner. 3rd revised edition 1932.
Sweet, Henry. 1877. Handbook of Phonetics. London, Macmillan.
Sweet, Henry. 1894. Primer of Phonetics. London, Frowde.
Wells, John C. 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge University Press. 3 vols.
One 19th century RP sound change is already beyond the horizon. Earlier RP had been rhotic (every r was pronounced). Non-rhotic RP appeared by 1800 (only r before a vowel is pronounced, “hearing, write” but not “heard writer”), the prescriptive debate for and against it continuing to about 1850 (Mugglestone 2003). Daniel Jones possibly never heard rhotic RP, but Ellis and Sweet probably did. Rhotic RP had disappeared before it could be recorded, so we can only try to imagine what it sounded like.
Mugglestone, Lynda. 2003. Talking Proper. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
The following RP sound changes have been reported in recent decades. STRUT used to be [ʌ] but is now [a]. TRAP used to be closer [æ] (near DRESS, pushing DRESS and KIT towards FLEECE) but is now open [æ] (without compression of DRESS and KIT towards FLEECE). GOAT used to be [ou], but now it’s [əʊ]. FACE used to be [eː] or [eɪ], now it’s [ɛɪ, ɛi]. These changes are examined in subsequent pages in order to date when they first occurred.
Descriptions of RP have always emphasized its non-regional character. But typologically, it’s an accent, or sociolect, of Southern British English (SBE). For example, it has undergone the TRAP-BATH split and the STRUT-FOOT split, two sound changes that distinguish SBE from its nearest neighbour Northern British English (roughly north of a line from the Wash to the Severn). It’s vowel system happens to be very close to that of standard sociolects of regional Home Counties SBE or London SBE, especially since about 1900 following a series of 19th century sound changes that spread to rural areas from industrial towns along the seaward reaches of the Thames and its estuary (Wood 2017), but it still differs from them by at least LOT, THOUGHT, GOAT and MOUTH.
Wood, Sidney. 2017. A spectrographic study of sound change in nineteenth century Kent. In Tsudzuki, Masaki & Masaki Taniguchi (eds), A Festschrift for Jack Windsor Lewis on the occasion of his 90th Birthday, 215-246, Journal of the English Phonetic Society of Japan 21.
Above all, RP seems to be disappearing, or at least dwindling, hardly heard. Obviously, if you have RP speakers in your circle you’ll still hear RP as much as before. It was still possible not long ago to collect frequent examples of RP from speeches and interviews by politicians on the BBC. But politicians rarely speak RP today, and you now regularly hear every regional accent of English on the BBC. It’s no longer necessary to adopt RP for a career, with the consequent loss of potential RP speakers for several decades. Searching the web today for truly contemporary RP mostly finds examples of theatre RP. Educational reform and university expansion since the 1950s has produced many more graduates or similarly qualified professionals who continue to speak their regional accents and who are now increasingly reaching prominence and high office (described, for example, by Rosewarne 1984, 1994).
Rosewarne, David. 1984. Estuary English. Times Educational Supplement. 19 October.
Rosewarne, David. 1994. Estuary English, tomorrow’s RP. English Today 10:3-8.
Rosewarne suggested Estuary English would become the new RP. But that’s an illogical prediction. ‘Estuary English’ refers to the sound changes that occurred in Kent and Essex throughout the 19th century. The legacy of those sound changes today is regional Home Counties SBE. Those sound changes were stigmatized until the 1960s or 1970s, reflected in the earlier expectation to adopt RP, and in correspondence to the press following Rosewarne’s 1984 article.
The more neutral designation General British was introduced by Windsor Lewis to replace the term RP , compromised by its associations of prejudice. From what he writes in various Phonetiblogs on his website, it is clear that GB still refers to the accent formerly known as RP – it’s non-regional and the vowel descriptions fit no other accent than RP in the UK. For example LOT is [ɒ] (and not regional [ɔ]) and MOUTH is [au] (and not regional [æu] or [æɒ]). Sometimes he refers readers to Cruttenden (2014 §7.6) where a similar description is presented. The recently published Carley et al. (2018) does the same.
Carley, P., I. M. Mees & B. Collins. 2018. English Phonetics and Pronunciation Practice. London, Routledge.
Cruttenden, A. 2014. Gimson’s Pronunciation of English. London, Routledge. 8th edn.
Windsor Lewis, J. Phonetiblog. http://www.yek.me.uk/index.html.
But what do speech coaches say? Google for variations on ‘speech coach’, ‘accent reduction’ etc., and you’ll find specialists and schools who say they offer the “new standard”, whatever that is. Some refer to GB, some to RP, some have RP vowel charts. But where they have sound clips or videos, whether describing their practice or pronouncing their RP vowel charts, they speak with a regional Home Counties or London SBE accent, with LOT at [ɔ], THOUGHT at [oː], GOAT at [ao] and MOUTH at [æɒ], the one-time stigmatized shibboleths that evolved separately from RP but now seem to be replacing it.
So what is actually happening today is that regional Home Counties and London SBE is overwhelmingly being heard in situations formerly dominated by RP, while remaining speakers of RP are getting on with their lives without being caught by microphones and cameras. Above all, the UK is increasingly like other countries, where regionally defined accents have their own sociolect scales, rather than accents with fancy names.