RIP RP – RP RIP?

The expression RP RIP appeared occasionally during a period of 40 years across the turn of the 20th-21st centuries. It’s simple and clear but the message conveyed follows various threads:

  1. Please, no more RP in schools (Tony Harrison, Chumbawamba, Scouse teenagers)
  2. Discard some aspects of RP – Macauley
  3. RP’s in decline – Abercrombie, Crystal, BBC English, Bragg
  4. RP’s gone – A letter to the Times

1. Please, no more RP in schools

The first instance of RIP RP appears to have been the poem “Them and [uz]” by Tony Harrison that was first published in 1974 in Planet magazine, appearing in anthologies of his work from the 1980s onwards. The poem refers to an incident from his boyhood when, addressed as TW, he was scorned by his English master at Leeds Grammar School for  reciting Keats in his own native Leeds accent, and told to speak RP. Finally, he rejects that imposed identity and recovers his own homely accent:

(I …) spoke the language that I spoke at home.
RIP RP, RIP T.W.
I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!

Harrison reads the poem himself here, the full text and commentary is here.

Why would anyone object to Keats, a Cockney, being recited with a Yorkshire accent? Wyld (1934) has the answer (RS is Wyld’s name for RP):

“No unbiased listener would hesitate in preferring RS as the most pleasing and sonorous form,
and the best suited to be the medium of poetry and oratory ….. To introduce provincial sounds
into what is intended to be Standard English, addressed to educated people, is distressing and
distracting”.

A second example on the same theme, this time from Lancashire, is a song “RIP RP” on the CD The Boy Bands Have Won (2008, Free Dirt Records, Washington DC) by Chumbawamba. The lyrics are tamer than Harrison’s text, but the theme is the same: it starts in Home Counties SBE (not RP, listen to MOUTH in howl and vowels), followed by a transition to Northern English culminating in the last line. Listen here.

Goodbye RP, Let our words go free, Coo and howl,
Lay flat your vowels Ah ay ee, Goodbye RP

Listen to their MOUTH, starting with open [æ]
(RP MOUTH would start between [a] and [ɑ])
“howl, vowels”

The booklet accompanying the CD adds:

“For all the untutored British accents, for the un-queen’s English, for the inexorable drift
away from the trad BBC voice, RP is Received Pronunciation. ‘It is the business of educated
people to speak so that no-one may be able to tell in what county their childhood was passed’
(A. Burrell, A Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary Schools, 1891).”

A similar document from the same period, Report of the Conference on the Teaching of English in London Elementary Schools (1909, London County Council) was quoted frequently throughout the 20th century. The report complained that:

“most dialects have their own distinctive charm and historical interest, but Cockneyism
seems to have no redeeming features, and only needs to be heard to be condemned”.

Conversations with northerners over the years suggest there was hardly any general attempt to have children adopt RP. It was more likely shifting along the local sociolect scale. For example, a southern diphthong for GOAT rather than [oː], or introducing the TRAP-BATH split by darkening BATH to [ɑː].

Listen to Harrison’s GOAT (regional Home Counties SBE [ao] rather than RP [əʊ]):
“bones, dozing, Jones, own, spoke, Tony”

Listen to this teenager from Liverpool, recorded from a BBC program, and notice how she pronounces marks with dark [ɑː] rather than the expected [aː]:
“Don’t talk like that, don’t talk like you’re fumblin’ wi’ pills, she said, because we’ll lose marks; say, she was saying don’t talk like that, or, well, pronounce them, pronounce all your A’s, an’ talk, like you’re from somewhere else, an’ all that, she was sayin’ to us, so we’d win gold, an’ all that”

I’ve always been amazed that anyone should even think it possible to change the accent of all schoolchildren throughout the whole country, or even just in London, or even just the student teachers already in training college. Ellis (1889) rejected two student teachers as informants, while collecting surviving evidence of the earlier state of the Kentish dialect, because their usage was “London” and “quite Cockney”. Born around 1850, they were students at the esteemed Whitelands College (now Roehampton University) but they were clearly speaking their local Estuary English (as far as it had progressed by 1850-70) rather than RP.

-Ellis, Alexander. 1889. On Early English Pronunciation. Teubner, Vol. 5.

2. Time to discard some aspects of RP

The second instance appears to be an article by the Scottish sociolinguist Ronald Macaulay published in Applied Linguistics in 1988, where he argues it’s time to discard RP’s status as the standard pronunciation for British English (an accent spoken by such a small minority cannot possibly be representative of all varieties of British English) and to discard RP as the standard model for foreign learners of English (he prefers a rhotic model).

-Macaulay, Ronald. 1988. RP R.I.P. Applied Linguistics 9:116-124.

3. RP’s in decline

In (1991), David Abercrombie, cited the teacher’s rebuke in Tony Harrison’s “Them ‘n uz” (§1 above) as an example of  what he called “an accent bar”, “something like a colour bar”, and he saw Harrison’s reaction as a first sign of a change of attitude towards RP. He noted, writing around 1990, that many regular BBC speakers had a local accent and not RP, so that the public were quite used to no longer hearing a “male RP-speaking voice”. He concluded that the prospects of RP are not very bright, it’s “slowly but surely on its way out”. Collins & Mees (2003) include this article in an anthology of readings intended for EFL teachers, introducing it with the heading “RP RIP?

In (1995, p. 365), David Crystal spelt out the expression, REQUIESCAT IN PACE, highlighting RP in bold type. This was the heading for a page describing the rise and decline of RP, overtaken today by regional accents.

-Abercrombie, D. 1991. RP today, its position and prospects. In A. Bammesberger & T. Kirschner (eds), Festschrift for Professor Otto Hietsch, Peter Lang. Reprinted in Fifty Years in Phonetics, 1991, Edinburgh University Press, and again in Collins & Mees (2003).
-Crystal, D. 1995. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge, CUP.
Collins, B. & I. M. Mees (eds). 2003. Practical Phonetics and Phonology. London: Routledge.

Tench (1998) used the title “RP: RIP?” for his review of the 15th (1997) edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary. The editors claimed “the time has come to abandon the archaic name Received Pronunciation“, replacing it with BBC English. Tench foresees the new designation will prove controversial, expecting a new edition soon since “the BBC’s practice of engaging its newsreaders and announcers from a wider circle than it used to will actually encourage a wider range of pronunciations”. However, the latest edition, the 18th (2011), is still based on BBC English. Now, 20 years since 1998, the BBC broadcasts even more regional English and even less RP (see §4 below). The dictionary’s transcriptions are still RP (following Gimson).

-Tench, P. 1998. RP: RIP? Journal of Sociolinguistics 2:107-109.

In 2011, Melvyn Bragg had a 60-minute BBC programme, “RP RIP?“, on the same theme, that RP is giving way to regional accents. The programme apparently comes and goes on the BBC website, but it was summarized on Kraut’s blog here and here. The programme was also critically reviewed by Jack Windsor Lewis in his blogposts 357, 360, and 363.

4. RP’s gone – A letter to the Times

On a lighter note, this letter to the Times from 2015, headed RP RIP, complained about a mishearing due to regional speech:

“Sir, I was alarmed to hear on the news about the rapidly growing
number of psychopaths in London. Halfway through the story I
realised that they were reporting an increase in cycle paths. I miss
Received Pronunciation.”

The pronunciation of psychopath in SBE, including RP, is [ˈsaikəˌpæθ]. The point of the story must be that cycle path was not uttered with dark [ɬ], but with the vocalized L that is typical of Home Counties or London SBE: [ˈsaikwˌpɑθ] or [ˈsaikoˌpɑθ], that is, both words psychopath and cycle path differ at two locations in these formerly stigmatized accents. To bring the last vowels together, a Northern British accent would be necessary, with [a] as the last vowel for both words, but a vocalized L is not usual in Northern British English, so the two words would still not be pronounced similarly: [ˈsaikəˌpaθ] and [ˈsaiklˌpaθ]. This mondegreen, confusing psychopath and cycle path might be a pun for RP speakers to enjoy, based perhaps on some RP stereotype for estuary English or cockney, leaving the rest of us mystified by the story but not confusing the two words as homophones or even near-homophones. It’s a reminder that mondegreens not only depend on the phonology of the speaker but also the listener.

The story does at least provide evidence that RP has disappeared (the author misses it) and that BBC newsreaders are not always RP speakers.

Top
This entry was posted in Accents, Dialects, English, Home Counties SBE, Northern English, Pronunciation, RP and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.