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.)

Macaulay isn’t reporting the demise of Received Pronunciation (RP) in this quotation, but it is about changing attitudes. He insists a special status for this accent is no longer justified and more attention should be devoted to regional varieties. He questions two claims in particular. One is that RP is the standard pronunciation of  British English (believing that an accent with so few speakers can’t possibly represent the wide variety of British pronunciation). The other is 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. London, Routledge.
Milroy, J. and L. Milroy. 1985. Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English. London, Routledge.

Wyld (1906) referred to RP as Standard Spoken English, “received and recognised as the ‘correct’ form of speech in polite and cultivated society”, the speech “in vogue at the Court, in the Church, at the Bar, at the older Universities, and at the great Public Schools”. Note that Wyld mentions the public schools (exclusive English boarding schools) at the end of a list where the important word is vogue emphasising that accent preference is subject to fashion (RP was waning in all those institutions by 2000). Around the same time, Jones (1909) defined his own standard as the “usage of educated people in London and the neighbourhood”. Later, both Wyld (1914) and Jones (1917, 1918) identified this accent explicitly as the pronunciation of the public schools. Wyld (1914) also called it Received Standard, followed by Jones in 1926 in the 2nd edition of (1917) where he preferred Received Pronunciation, both reviving an obsolete 19th century usage of received. The supposed merits of this accent were most clearly presented by Wyld (for example 1906, 1914, 1920, 1934), “not confined to any locality”, “neither provincial nor vulgar”, “more distiguished, graceful, desirable”, “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 and later revisions), Gimson (1962), Wells (1982), and in dictionaries, especially Daniel Jones’ own English Pronouncing Dictionary published by Dent since 1917 and CUP since 1988. Earlier states 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 native British and foreign.

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. 1906. The Pronunciation of English. London, CUP.
Jones, Daniel. 1917. English Pronouncing Dictionary. London, Dent.
Jones, Daniel. 1918. An Outline of English Phonetics. Leipzig: Teubner. 3rd revised edition 1932.
Mugglestone, Lynda. 2003. Talking Proper. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
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.
Wells, John C. 1997. Whatever happened to RP? In Medina & Soto (eds.), II Jornadas de Estudios Ingleses, Universidad de Jaén, Spain 19-28.
Wyld, Henry C. 1906. The Historical Study of the Mother Tongue. London, Murray.
Wyld, Henry C. 1914. A Short History of English. London, Murray.
Wyld, Henry C. 1920. A History of Modern Colloquial English. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wyld, Henry 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.

Traditionally, RP used to be seen as the accent of authority and government, with a long line of RP-speaking prime ministers 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, pre-scouse Liverpool), Lloyd George (Welsh), MacDonald (Scottish), Heath (Kent), or Wilson (Yorkshire). On closer examination, the RP-speaking PMs were all Conservatives excepting Attlee who was Labour, while the regional speakers were all radical PMs (Liberal or Labour), excepting Heath, who was Conservative. So even at this level, your politics could have reflected your accent and attitude to regional speech, without actually defining it. 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), so the times are definitely changing, forty years without an RP-speaking prime minister. Postscript: the latest PM Johnson (in 2019) has an RP accent.

Traditionally, RP was also associated with class, aristocracy and wealth. Wyld (1906, 1920) found it “among the upper and middle classes of this country” spoken by “people of good breeding” who could afford expensive schools.  But an association is not a definition, and certainly not a watertight one. There are other 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 Lord Reith’s (1889-1971) advisory committee on spoken English for the BBC (Schwyter 2016) and his recruiting RP-speaking announcers and newsreaders (but he never gave up his own Scottish accent, and speakers invited by the BBC, like the frequent broadcaster H G Wells, kept their own regional accents). But that’s not a watertight definition either. There are many knowledgeable and learned people, including Nobel Prize winners, who continue to speak with their own regional accents.

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, described 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 Jones’ English Pronouncing Dictionary. Tench (1998) comments in his review that the BBC has become the repository of this accent, “But for how long?” he wonders. Unfortunately, the editors’ decision came a few decades too late as the BBC now broadcasts all the regional accents of the UK mingled with occasional RP, a situation already noticed thirty years ago by Abercrombie (1991) and additionally noted by Billen (1999) in a New Statesman 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 … it is the ‘Oxford Voice’, as D H Lawrence called it, that has become unacceptable”.

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.
Billen, A. 1999. Bad news. New Statesman 31 May 1999.
IPA. 1999. The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: CUP.
Matthews, William. 1938. Cockney Past and Present. London: Routledge Keggan Paul. 1972 reprint.
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 1967, 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, following Cooper (1687), today’s RP MOUTH has evolved from the “polite and educated” variant down the back series of vowels 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. Earlier RP had been rhotic (pronouncing every r). It’s estimated that non-rhotic RP appeared by 1800 (only r before a vowel is pronounced, “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 heard rhotic RP by the elderly, while Ellis or Sweet might have heard more. Rhotic RP had been abandoned before it could be recorded,  so we can only try to imagine what it sounded like.

The following RP sound changes have been reported since the 1950s. STRUT used to be [ʌ] but is now [a] or [ɑ]. 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 (including its new synonyms GB and SSBE)  continue to emphasize its non-regional character. But typologically, it’s an accent, or sociolect, of Southern British English (SBE). 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 distinguish SBE and differentiate it from its nearest neighbour Northern British English (NBE), spoken north of a line from the Wash to the Severn. Consequently, the vowel system of RP happens to be similar to those of regional SBE accents, especially standard sociolects of Home Counties SBE or London SBE. This is particularly so 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, the shibboleths that identified them to the RP ear as regional or cockney.

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 declining, not heard so much. Obviously, if you know any RP speakers you’d still hear RP spoken. Otherwise not. 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. 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 have now increasingly reached prominence and high office (described, for example, by Rosewarne 1984b, 1994).

Rosewarne, David. 1984b. Estuary English. Times Educational Supplement. 19 October.
Rosewarne, David. 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 (without defining or explaining what that meant). Strictly speaking, Estuary English refers to the sound changes that spread across Kent and Essex throughout the 19th century (Wood 1917 ) from the coastal industrial towns along the Thames Estuary. The legacy of those sound changes a century or more later is contemporary regional Home Counties SBE, and they are still spreading westwards having reached Gloucestershire-Dorsetshire, and possibly Bristol’s youngest generations. 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 UK accent than RP. For example GB LOT is [ɒ] like RP (and not regional SBE [ɔ]) and GB MOUTH is [au] like RP (and not regional SBE [ɛʉ], [æu] or [æɒ] etc.). Sometimes he refers readers to Cruttenden (2014 §7.6) where a similar description is presented. The recently published Carley et al. (2018) has the same definition.

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.

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/GB 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]. 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) introduce “New 21st century RP“, a “neutral” accent exemplified by named actors and recordings. This does indeed turn out to be regional Home Counties or London SBE when you check the phoneme system.

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 becoming 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.

See also:
RP SBE vowel formants
RP and Home Counties SBE MOUTH and GOAT diphthongs