Received Pronunciation

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 and that was adopted RP (she grew up speaking her local Midlands accent of Grantham). Since then, prime ministers have spoken regional Home Counties SBE. Traditionally, RP is the accent of the aristocracy and the wealthy. 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, but that’s not a watertight definition either. There are many knowledgeable and learned people, Nobel Prize winners even, who speak with their regional accents. 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, for the sake of linguistic research and lexicography, two new names have recently been proposed for this accent – General British English by Lewis (1972) and Standard Southern British English in the IPA Handbook (1999).

Gimson, A. C. 1962. An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. London: Arnold.
IPA. 1999. The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: CUP.
Jones, Daniel. 1932. An Outline of English Phonetics. Leipzig: Teubner. 3rd edition or later.
Lewis, J Windsor. 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 of the RP accent gives a watertight definition. Standard descriptions of RP are given by Jones (1932), revised and updated by Gimson (1962) and Wells (1982), and dictionaries, especially Daniel Jones’ English Pronouncing Dictionary published by Dent since 1917 and CUP since 1988 (currently with Peter Roach and Jane Setter as British editors). And the phonology of RP reveals changes in the way RP is pronounced. For example, RP was rhotic before 1800 (every r was pronounced), since then only r before a vowel (“hearing, write” but not “heard writer”). 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]. GOAT used to be [ou], but now it’s [əʊ]. FACE used to be [eː] or [eɪ], now its [ɛi].

Above all, RP seems to be disappearing, or at least dwindling. 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. Searching the web today for contemporary RP usually only finds examples of theatre RP. An additional factor is educational reform and university expansion that has produced many more graduates or similarly qualified professionals who continue to speak their regional accents without adopting RP and who are now increasingly reaching prominence and high office.

Descriptions of RP have always emphasized its non-regional character. But typologically, it is an accent, or sociolect, of Southern British English. For example, it has undergone the TRAP-BATH split and the STRUT-FOOT split that distinguish SBE from its nearest neighbour Northern British English (roughly north of a line from the Wash to the Severn). It happens to be very close to the 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 (Wood 2017), and still differs from them by at least LOT, THOUGHT, GOAT and MOUTH. One possibility is that RP is now gradually disappearing into regional Home Counties SBE.

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.

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