Received pronunciation – what it means

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Received pronunciation – definition

received pronunciation Received Pronunciation [or RP] refers to the accent used by such people as the Royal Family, BBC newsreaders, and members of the upper class.

redbtn It refers entirely to accent and not to content.

redbtn RP is a speech style which is based on social class and not on geographical region.


redbtn Some characteristic features of pronunciation in RP are as follows:

The long vowel in words such as ‘bath’, ‘path’, ‘ask’

Diphthongs in words such as ‘so’, ‘go’, ‘no’, ‘flow’


redbtn Less than six per cent of the population of the UK speaks RP.

redbtn Although this speech style still carries notions of prestige, regional varieties of English are acquiring status equal to RP.

redbtn NB! Remember, RP is not the same thing as Standard English.

redbtn Received pronunciation (RP) is an accent of English which is based on social class rather than on region. Its origins are rooted in notions of prestige and status and impulses of exclusivity.

redbtn However, RP was itself once a regional variety of English. It originated in the East Midlands among the merchants who migrated towards London and the source of trade and wealth.

redbtn RP is therefore not the native London accent (as many people imagine). It is one which acquired strong connotations of prestige, because of its close connections with wealth and power.

redbtn The Cockney accent is the indigenous speech style of the London area. The two styles have existed alongside each other for hundreds of years.

redbtn Because many RP speakers happen to work in the capital city, the accent is falsely perceived as being regional and as belonging to London. On the contrary, RP speakers are scattered throughout the country and throughout the world. For instance, it is quite common for upper class people in Scotland to speak RP – without any trace of a Scottish accent.

redbtn The expansion of the mass broadcast media (radio and television) has meant that a huge variety of speech styles are heard by listeners and viewers every day. It seems as though this is gradually eroding the idea that RP is somehow superior to all other English accents.

redbtn RP is an approximate description of speech style, rather than being an exact specification. This applies to the classification of other accents too. Because speech varies subtly between individuals and between groups and areas, a broad description is all that can be achieved.

redbtn RP itself has changed slightly even over the past fifty years or so. This can be observed by watching films made during the nineteen-thirties and forties. The most obvious development has been the vowel sound in words such as ‘Harry’ which has become much more open. This feature is now used in parodies of that period.

redbtn Even the Queen, as head of state, speaks with a different accent than she had fifty years ago. In 1952 she would have been heard referring to thet men in the bleck het. Now it would be that man in the black hat. Similarly, she would have spoken of hame rather than home. In the 1950s she would have been lorst, but by the 1970s lost.

redbtn Many regional speakers feel embarrassed by their accents. It seems that much social pressure is felt generally because of the long-standing prestige given to RP. Certainly to linguists, RP is only one of many accents, although its special identity as a class accent is interesting.

redbtn Attitudes to RP. The new National Curriculum requires school students to be competent in using Standard English. Many teachers (and parents) wrongly take this to refer to accent. What it actually requires pupils to understand is the use of standard grammatical constructions, together with a comprehensive standard vocabulary.

redbtn There are a number of possible options available regarding one’s own attitude to speech-style:

  • be comfortable with a regional accent
  • be uncomfortable with a regional accent
  • change a regional accent in favour of RP
  • adapt speech-style to the social context

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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