Whither Received Pronunciation?

“It would be better for everyone if linguists, phoneticians and teachers over-
came their fascination with the accent of an elite minority and concerned
themselves more with the speech of the majority of the population
(Macaulay, Ronald. 1988. RP R.I.P. Applied Linguistics 9:115-124.)

Macauley isn’t reporting the demise of RP. He insists a special status for this accent is no longer justified. He argues that two aspects in particular should be discarded. One is the claim that RP is the standard pronunciation of  British English (he believes an accent with so few speakers can’t possibly represent the variety of British pronunciation). The other is the claim that RP is the best British model for EFL teaching (he prefers a rhotic model, pronouncing every r). That was written in the context of standardization (Milroy and Milroy 1985, Crowley 1989, Crowley 1991, Bex & Watts 1999 are a few contemporaries of Macauley’s article). Standard English usually refers to the syntax and lexicon of written English worldwide, irrespective of the writer’s regional pronunciation, while pronunciation models or standards are usually identified specifically (Abercrombie 1951).

-Abercrombie, D. 1951. The way people speak (BBC broadcast). The Listener 6 September. Reproduced as R.P. and Local Accent, in Abercrombie D., 1965, Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics, Oxford University Press.
-Bex, T. and R. Watts (eds). 1999. Standard English, the Widenening Debate. London, Routledge.
-Crowley, T. 1989. Standard English and the Politics of Language. London, MacMillan (2nd edn 2003).
-Crowley, T. (ed). 1991. Proper English? Readings in Language, History and Cultural Identity. Routledge.
-Milroy, J. and L. Milroy. 1985. Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English. London, Routledge.

The supposed merits of RP were most clearly presented by Wyld (for example 1934, 1936). He dubbed it Received Standard English, not confined to any locality, “neither provincial nor vulgar”, “intrinsically superior to every other type of English speech”, “superior from the character of its vowel sounds, to any other form of English, in beauty and clarity”, “heard in equal perfection in every part of the country”, “the most pleasing and sonorous form”, “spoken with an extraordinary uniformity all over the country … spoken among the same kind of people … spoken everywhere … in precisely the same way”. That uniformity of RP pronunciation underlines the strictness of it’s phonology, described in detail by Sweet (1877, 1894), Jones (1918, 1932), Gimson (1962), Wells (1982), and in dictionaries, especially Daniel Jones’ own English Pronouncing Dictionary published by Dent since 1917 and CUP since 1988. Earlier versions of RP can be reconstructed from 18th and 19th century prescriptive handbooks (Mugglestone 2003) while more recent sound changes in RP are reviewed by Wells (1997). Crowley (1989:Chapt 5) evaluates the respective contributions of Wyld and Jones in establishing RP as a pronunciation standard for teachers and students, both foreign and native British.

-Gimson, A. C. 1962. An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. London: Arnold.
-Jones, D. 1917. An English Pronouncing Dictionary. London, Dent. Since 1988, Cambridge University Press.
-Jones, D. 1918. An Outline of English Phonetics. Leipzig: Teubner. 3rd revised edition 1932.
-Mugglestone, L. 2003. Talking Proper. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
-Sweet, H. 1877. Handbook of Phonetics. London, Macmillan.
-Sweet, H. 1894. Primer of Phonetics. London, Frowde.
-Wells, J. C. 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge University Press. 3 vols.
-Wells, J. C. 1997. Whatever happened to RP? In Medina & Soto (eds.), II Jornadas de Estudios Ingleses, Universidad de Jaén, Spain 19-28.
-Wyld, H. C. 1934. The best English: a claim for the superiority of Received Standard English. The Proceedings of the Society for Pure English, Tract XXXIX. Reproduced in Crowley 1991.
-Wyld, H. C. 1936. A History of Modern Colloquial English. Oxford: Blackwell. 3rd edn (1st edn 1920).

Traditionally, RP used to be seen as the accent of authority and government, 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. Since then, they have spoken regional Home Counties or London SBE (apart from George Brown’s Scottish).

Traditionally, RP was also associated with aristocracy and wealth. Wyld (1936) characterized it as the “type which most well-bred people think of when they speak of ‘English'” and continued “the main factor in this singular degree of uniformity is the custom of sending youths from certain social strata to the great public schools” (that is, exclusive English boarding schools). But an association is not a definition, and certainly not a watertight one. There are aristocrats and wealthy people who speak with their regional accents.

Traditionally, RP was 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 speakers invited by the BBC 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 power, 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”. This was “an accent bar, a little like a colour bar” as Abercrombie (1951) put it. To avoid this negative aspect of RP, and for the sake of linguistic research and lexicography, two new synonyms have been proposed for the RP accent – General British English (GB) by Windsor Lewis (1972) and Standard Southern British English (SSBE) in the IPA Handbook (1999). Rosewarne (1984a), supported by Sturiale (2002), suggests replacing ‘Received‘ with ‘Reference‘, thereby retaining the abbreviation ‘RP‘. Roach & Hartman (1997) replace ‘RP’ with ‘BBC English’ in their new edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary. Tench (1998), comments in his review “The BBC has become the repository of this accent. But for how long?”. Unfortunately, the editors’ decision came a few decades too late as the BBC now broadcasts all the regional accents of the UK while the occasional RP-speaker is not identified as such, a situation already noticed thirty years ago by Abercrombie (1991) and additionally noted by a New Statesman (1999) review of changes to BBC news broadcasts: “folksy regionalism matches ideally the homely new vernacular of BBC News …. after all, these days, chirpy Cockneys even announce the continuity links on BBC2”.

-Abercrombie, D. 1991. RP today, its position and prospects. In Bammesberger, A. and T. Kirschner, Festschrift for Professor Hietsch, Frankfurt, Peter Lang. Reprinted in Abercrobie, D., 1991, Fifty Years in Phonetics, Edinburgh University Press.
-IPA. 1999. The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: CUP.
-Matthews, William. 1938. Cockney Past and Present. London: Routledge Keggan Paul. 1972 reprint.
New Statesman (1999).
-Roach, P. & J. Hartman (eds). 1997. English Pronouncing Dictionary. CUP.
-Rosewarne, D. 1984a. The term RP. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 14:91.
-Sturiale, M. 2002. RP: Received or Reference Pronunciation? Linguistica e Filologia 15:89-112.
-Tench, P. 1998. RP R.I.P? Journal of Sociolinguistics 2:107-109.
-Windsor Lewis, J. 1972. A Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of British and American English. London: OUP.

Only the phonology, the phoneme system at least, of the RP accent gives a watertight definition. 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 from 1918 to 1968, which continued the accent described by Sweet. In that world, STRUT was always [ʌ] and GOAT always [ou]. If anyone needs convincing that RP has changed between generations, like any other accent, just look at the standard solution for the Great Vowel shift since the 15th century (Luick 1896, Jespersen 1909, Chomsky & Halle 1968, Wolfe 1973). For example, RP MOUTH has evolved as “polite and educated” down the back series of vowels (Cooper 1687), to contemporary [aʊ], while the “provincial” version evolved down the front series of vowels to contemporary regional [ɛʉ] or [æɒ æː].

-Chomsky, N. & M. Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New York, Harper & Row.
-Cooper, C. 1687. The English Teacher. London. Reproduced by B. Sundby, 1953, Christopher Cooper’s English Teacher, Lund, Gleerup.
-Jespersen, O. 1909. A Modern English Grammar, Part 1. Heidelberg, Winter.
-Luick, K. 1896. Untersuchungen zur Englischen Lautgeschichte. Tübingen, Teubner.
-Wolfe, P. M. 1973. Linguistic Change and the Great Vowel Shift in English. University of California Press.

One early 19th century RP sound change has already dropped beyond the horizon. Earlierer RP had been rhotic. It’s estimated that non-rhotic RP appeared by 1800 (r is only pronounced before a vowel, “hearing, write” but not “card, painter”). The prescriptive debate for and against rhotic RP continued to about 1850 (Mugglestone 2003), confirming its final disappearance. Daniel Jones, born in 1881, possibly never heard rhotic RP, but Ellis or Sweet might have done. Rhotic RP had gone before it could be recorded,  so we can only try to imagine what it sounded like.

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, compressing 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 continue to emphasize its non-regional character. But typologically, it’s an accent, or sociolect, of Southern British English. For example, like all other varieties of SBE, from Cornwall to Norfolk, it has undergone the TRAP-BATH split and the FOOT-STRUT split, two sound changes that define SBE and distinguish it from its nearest neighbour Northern British English (roughly north of a line from the Wash to the Severn). The vowel system of RP 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 started in Kent and Essex (Wood 2017), but it still differs from them by at least LOT, THOUGHT, GOAT and MOUTH and some centring diphthongs.

-Wood, S. A. J. 2017. A spectrographic study of sound change in nineteenth century Kent. In Tsudzuki, M. & M. 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, rarely heard. Obviously, if you know any RP speakers you’d still hear RP spoken. 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 seem to speak speak RP today. It’s no longer necessary to adopt RP for a career, with the consequent loss of adopted RP speakers since the 1970s. 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 1984b, 1994.

-Rosewarne, D. 1984b. Estuary English. Times Educational Supplement. 19 October.
-Rosewarne, D. 1994. Estuary English, tomorrow’s RP. English Today 10:3-8.

Unfortunately, Rosewarne’s evidence was anecdotal. But he suggested Estuary English would become the New RP. Strictly speaking, Estuary English refers to the sound changes that occurred in Kent and Essex throughout the 19th century (Wood 1917 above), spreading inland from the coastal industrial towns. The legacy of those sound changes today, a century or more later, is regional Home Counties SBE. Those sound changes were stigmatized until the 1960s or 1970s, reflected in the earlier expectation to adopt RP, in Abercrombie’s reference to the “accent bar”, and in correspondence to the press following Rosewarne’s 1984b article.

The more neutral designation General British (GB) was introduced by Windsor Lewis to replace the term RP, compromised by its anachronistic associations of privilege and prejudice. From what he writes in various Phonetiblogs on his website, it’s clear that GB still refers to the accent hitherto known as RP – GB is non-regional and the vowel descriptions fit no other U.K. accent than RP. For example GB LOT is [ɒ] (and not regional SBE [ɔ]) and GB MOUTH is [au] (and not regional SBE [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? Search the web for variations on ‘speech coach’, ‘accent reduction’ etc., and you’ll find specialists and schools who refer to GB or RP, some even have RP vowel charts. But where they have sound clips or videos, whether describing their organizations or demonstrating their RP vowels, they mostly speak with a regional Home Counties SBE 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 independently from RP but now seem to be taking it’s place in the visible part of public life. Are regional Home Counties or London SBE the “new standard” that so many online speech coaches are offering? Trudgill (2001) dismisses Rosewarne’s predicted “New RP” as a myth. But two popular accent guides intended for actors and drama schools (Sharpe & Rowles 2007, 2012) suggest that “New 21st century RP“, a neutral accent exemplified by named actors and recordings, is indeed regional Home Counties or London SBE.

-Sharpe, E. & J. H. Rowles. 2007. How to do Accents. London, Oberon Books.
-Sharpe, E. & J. H. Rowles. 2012. How to do Standard English Accents. London, Oberon Books.
-Trudgill, P. 2001. The sociolinguistics of modern RP. Chapt 16 in Sociolinguistic Variation and Change, Edinburgh University Press.

So what is actually happening today is that regional Home Counties SBE and London SBE are overwhelmingly being heard in situations formerly dominated by RP. This necessarily means that the population at large has less opportunity to hear RP spoken, and is consequently growing unfamiliar with what RP sounds like, or sounded like. Above all, British English is increasingly like other languages, that have regionally defined accents rather than accents with fancy names.

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