Received Pronunciation (RP) is the accent traditionally regarded as the standard and most prestigious form of spoken British English. For over a century, there has been argument over such questions as the definition of RP, whether it is geographically neutral, how many speakers there are, whether sub-varieties exist, how appropriate a choice it is as a standard and how the accent has changed over time. The name itself is controversial. RP is an accent, so the study of RP is concerned only with matters of pronunciation; other areas relevant to the study of language standards such as vocabulary, grammar and style are not considered.
RP has most in common with the dialects of South East Midlands, namely London, Oxford and Cambridge. By the end of the 15th century, "Standard English" was established in the City of London, though it did not begin to resemble RP until the late 19th century.
The introduction of the term Received Pronunciation is usually credited to the British phonetician Daniel Jones. In the first edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary (1917) he named the accent "Public School Pronunciation", but for the second edition in 1926 he wrote: "In what follows I call it Received Pronunciation, for want of a better term." However, the term had been used much earlier by P. S. Du Ponceau in 1818 and the Oxford English Dictionary cites quotations back to about 1710. A similar term, received standard, was coined by Henry C. K. Wyld in 1927. The early phonetician Alexander John Ellis used both terms interchangeably, but with a much broader definition than Jones's, saying, "There is no such thing as a uniform educated pron. of English, and rp. and rs. is a variable quantity differing from individual to individual, although all its varieties are 'received', understood and mainly unnoticed".
According to Fowler's Modern English Usage (1965), "the correct term is 'the Received Pronunciation'. The word 'received' conveys its original meaning of 'accepted' or 'approved', as in 'received wisdom'."
Some linguists have used the term "RP" while expressing reservations about its suitability. The Cambridge-published English Pronouncing Dictionary (aimed at those learning English as a foreign language) uses the phrase "BBC Pronunciation" on the basis that the name "Received Pronunciation" is "archaic" and that BBC News presenters no longer suggest high social class and privilege to their listeners. Other writers have also used the name "BBC Pronunciation". The term The Queen's English has also been used by some writers, though the term is more appropriately used to cover grammar as well as pronunciation.
The phonetician Jack Windsor Lewis frequently criticised the name "Received Pronunciation" in his blog: he has called it "invidious", a "ridiculously archaic, parochial and question-begging term" and noted that American scholars find the term "quite curious". He used the term "General British" (to parallel "General American") in his 1970s publication of A Concise Pronouncing Dictionary of American and British English and in subsequent publications. The name "General British" is adopted in the latest revision of Gimson's Pronunciation of English. Beverley Collins and Inger Mees use the term "Non-Regional Pronunciation" for what is often otherwise called RP, and reserve the term "Received Pronunciation" for the "upper-class speech of the twentieth century". Received Pronunciation has sometimes been called "Oxford English", as it used to be the accent of most members of the University of Oxford. The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association uses the name "Standard Southern British". Page 4 reads:
Standard Southern British (where 'Standard' should not be taken as implying a value judgment of 'correctness') is the modern equivalent of what has been called 'Received Pronunciation' ('RP'). It is an accent of the south east of England which operates as a prestige norm there and (to varying degrees) in other parts of the British Isles and beyond.
In her book Kipling's English History (1974) Marghanita Laski refers to this accent as "gentry". "What the Producer and I tried to do was to have each poem spoken in the dialect that was, so far as we could tell, ringing in Kipling's ears when he wrote it. Sometimes the dialect is most appropriately, Gentry. More often, it isn't."
Faced with the difficulty of defining a single standard of RP, some researchers have tried to distinguish between sub-varieties:
Traditionally, Received Pronunciation has been associated with high social class. It was the "everyday speech in the families of Southern English persons whose men-folk [had] been educated at the great public boarding-schools" and which conveyed no information about that speaker's region of origin before attending the school. An 1891 teacher's handbook stated, “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”. Nevertheless, in the 19th century some British prime ministers, such as William Ewart Gladstone, still spoke with some regional features.
Opinions differ over the proportion of Britons who speak RP. Trudgill estimated 3% in 1974, but that rough estimate has been questioned by J. Windsor Lewis. Upton notes higher estimates of 5% (Romaine, 2000) and 10% (Wells, 1982) but refers to these as "guesstimates" not based on robust research.
The claim that RP is non-regional is disputed, since it is most commonly found in London and the southeast of England. It is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as "the standard accent of English as spoken in the South of England", and alternative names such as “Standard Southern British” have been used. Despite RP's historic high social prestige in Britain, being seen as the accent of those with power, money, and influence, it may be perceived negatively by some as being associated with undeserved, or accidental, privilege and as a symbol of the southeast's political power in Britain. Based on a 1997 survey, Jane Stuart-Smith wrote, "RP has little status in Glasgow, and is regarded with hostility in some quarters". A 2007 survey found that residents of Scotland and Northern Ireland tend to dislike RP. It is shunned by some with left-wing political views, who may be proud of having accents more typical of the working classes.
Since the Second World War, and increasingly since the 1960s, a wider acceptance of regional English varieties has taken hold in education and public life. Nonetheless, surveys from 1969 to 2022 consistently show that RP is perceived as the most prestigious accent of English in the United Kingdom. In 2022, 25% of British adults reported being mocked for their regional accent at work, and 46% in social situations.
In the early days of British broadcasting speakers of English origin almost universally used RP. The first director-general of the BBC, Lord Reith, encouraged the use of a 'BBC accent' because it was a "style or quality of English which would not be laughed at in any part of the country". He distinguished the BBC accent from the 'Oxford accent', to which he was "vehemently opposed". In 1926 the BBC established an Advisory Committee on Spoken English with distinguished experts, including Daniel Jones, to advise on the correct pronunciation and other aspects of broadcast language. The Committee proved unsuccessful and was dissolved after the Second World War. While the BBC did advise its speakers on pronunciation, there was never a formalised official BBC pronunciation standard. A notable departure from the use of pure RP came with the Yorkshire-born newsreader Wilfred Pickles during the Second World War; his accent allowing listeners to more clearly distinguish BBC broadcasts from German propaganda, though Pickles had modified his accent to be closer to RP. Since the Second World War RP has played a much smaller role in broadcast speech. RP remains the accent most often heard in the speech of announcers and newsreaders on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, and in some TV channels, but non-RP accents are now more widely encountered.
Most English dictionaries published in Britain (including the Oxford English Dictionary) now give phonetically transcribed RP pronunciations for all words. Pronunciation dictionaries represent a special class of dictionary giving a wide range of possible pronunciations: British pronunciation dictionaries are all based on RP, though not necessarily using that name. Daniel Jones transcribed RP pronunciations of words and names in the English Pronouncing Dictionary. Cambridge University Press continues to publish this title, as of 1997 edited by Peter Roach. Two other pronunciation dictionaries are in common use: the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, compiled by John C. Wells (using the name "Received Pronunciation"), and Clive Upton's Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English, (now republished as The Routledge Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English).
Pronunciation forms an essential component of language learning and teaching; a model accent is necessary for learners to aim at, and to act as a basis for description in textbooks and classroom materials. RP has been the traditional choice for teachers and learners of British English. However, the choice of pronunciation model is difficult, and the adoption of RP is in many ways problematic.
Nasals and liquids (/m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /r/, /l/) may be syllabic in unstressed syllables. The consonant /r/ in RP is generally a postalveolar approximant, which would normally be expressed with the sign [ɹ] in the International Phonetic Alphabet, but the sign /r/ is nonetheless traditionally used for RP in most of the literature on the topic.
Voiceless plosives (/p/, /t/, /k/, /tʃ/) are aspirated at the beginning of a syllable, unless a completely unstressed vowel follows. (For example, the /p/ is aspirated in "impasse", with primary stress on "-passe", but not "compass", where "-pass" has no stress.) Aspiration does not occur when /s/ precedes in the same syllable, as in "spot" or "stop". When a sonorant /l/, /r/, /w/, or /j/ follows, this aspiration is indicated by partial devoicing of the sonorant. /r/ is a fricative when devoiced.
Syllable final /p/, /t/, /tʃ/, and /k/ may be either preceded by a glottal stop (glottal reinforcement) or, in the case of /t/, fully replaced by a glottal stop, especially before a syllabic nasal (bitten [ˈbɪʔn̩]). The glottal stop may be realised as creaky voice; thus, an alternative phonetic transcription of attempt [əˈtʰemʔt] could be [əˈtʰemm̰t].
As in other varieties of English, voiced plosives (/b/, /d/, /ɡ/, /dʒ/) are partly or even fully devoiced at utterance boundaries or adjacent to voiceless consonants. The voicing distinction between voiced and voiceless sounds is reinforced by a number of other differences, with the result that the two of consonants can clearly be distinguished even in the presence of devoicing of voiced sounds:
As a result, some authors prefer to use the terms "fortis" and "lenis" in place of "voiceless" and "voiced". However, the latter are traditional and in more frequent usage.
The voiced dental fricative (/ð/) is more often a weak dental plosive; the sequence /nð/ is often realised as [n̪n̪] (a long dental nasal). /l/ has velarised allophone ([ɫ]) in the syllable rhyme. /h/ becomes voiced ([ɦ]) between voiced sounds.
Examples of short vowels: /ɪ/ in kit, mirror and rabbit, /ʊ/ in foot and cook, /e/ in dress and merry, /ʌ/ in strut and curry, /æ/ in trap and marry, /ɒ/ in lot and orange, /ə/ in ago and sofa.
Examples of long vowels: /iː/ in fleece, /uː/ in goose, /ɛː/ in bear, /ɜː/ in nurse and furry, /ɔː/ in north, force and thought, /ɑː/ in father and start.
The long mid front vowel /ɛː/ is elsewhere transcribed with the traditional symbol ⟨eə⟩. The predominant realisation in contemporary RP is monophthongal.
Many conventional descriptions of the RP vowel system group the non-diphthongal vowels into the categories "long" and "short". This should not be taken to mean that English has minimal pairs in which the only difference is vowel length. "Long" and "short" are convenient cover terms for a number of phonetic features. The long-short pairings shown above include also differences in vowel quality.
The vowels called "long" high vowels in RP /iː/ and /uː/ are slightly diphthongized, and are often narrowly transcribed in phonetic literature as diphthongs [ɪi] and [ʊu].
Vowels may be phonologically long or short (i.e. belong to the long or the short group of vowel phonemes) but their length is influenced by their context: in particular, they are shortened if a voiceless (fortis) consonant follows in the syllable, so that, for example, the vowel in 'bat' [bæʔt] is shorter than the vowel in 'bad' [bæd]. The process is known as pre-fortis clipping. Thus phonologically short vowels in one context can be phonetically longer than phonologically long vowels in another context. For example, the vowel called "long" /iː/ in 'reach' /riːtʃ/ (which ends with a voiceless consonant) may be shorter than the vowel called "short" /ɪ/ in the word 'ridge' /rɪdʒ/ (which ends with a voiced consonant). Wiik, cited in (Cruttenden 2014), published durations of English vowels with a mean value of 17.2 csec. for short vowels before voiced consonants but a mean value of 16.5 csec for long vowels preceding voiceless consonants.
In natural speech, the plosives /t/ and /d/ often have no audible release utterance-finally, and voiced consonants are partly or completely devoiced (as in [b̥æd̥]); thus the perceptual distinction between pairs of words such as 'bad' and 'bat', or 'seed' and 'seat' rests mostly on vowel length (though the presence or absence of glottal reinforcement provides an additional cue).
Unstressed vowels are both shorter and more centralised than stressed ones. In unstressed syllables occurring before vowels and in final position, contrasts between long and short high vowels are neutralised and short [i] and [u] occur (e.g. happy [ˈhæpi], throughout [θɹuˈaʊʔt]). The neutralisation is common throughout many English dialects, though the phonetic realisation of e.g. [i] rather than [ɪ] (a phenomenon called happy-tensing) is not as universal.
Unstressed vowels vary in quality:
The centring diphthongs are gradually being eliminated in RP. The vowel /ɔə/ (as in door, boar) had largely merged with /ɔː/ by the Second World War, and the vowel /ʊə/ (as in poor, tour) has more recently merged with /ɔː/ as well among most speakers, although the sound /ʊə/ is still found in conservative speakers, and in less common words such as boor. See CURE–FORCE merger. More recently /eə/ has become a pure long vowel /ɛː/, as explained above. /ɪə/ is increasingly pronounced as a monophthong [ɪː], although without merging with any existing vowels.
The diphthong /əʊ/ is pronounced by some RP speakers in a noticeably different way when it occurs before /l/, if that consonant is syllable-final and not followed by a vowel (the context in which /l/ is pronounced as a "dark l"). The realization of /əʊ/ in this case begins with a more back, rounded and sometimes more open vowel quality; it may be transcribed as [ɔʊ] or [ɒʊ]. It is likely that the backness of the diphthong onset is the result of allophonic variation caused by the raising of the back of the tongue for the /l/. If the speaker has "l-vocalization" the /l/ is realized as a back rounded vowel, which again is likely to cause backing and rounding in a preceding vowel as coarticulation effects. This phenomenon has been discussed in several blogs by John C. Wells. In the recording included in this article the phrase "fold his cloak" contains examples of the /əʊ/ diphthong in the two different contexts. The onset of the pre-/l/ diphthong in "fold" is slightly more back and rounded than that in "cloak".
RP also possesses the triphthongs /aɪə/ as in tire, /aʊə/ as in tower, /əʊə/ as in lower, /eɪə/ as in layer and /ɔɪə/ as in loyal. There are different possible realisations of these items: in slow, careful speech they may be pronounced as a two-syllable triphthong with three distinct vowel qualities in succession, or as a monosyllabic triphthong. In more casual speech the middle vowel may be considerably reduced, by a process known as smoothing, and in an extreme form of this process the triphthong may even be reduced to a single long vowel. In such a case the difference between /aʊə/, /aɪə/, and /ɑː/ in tower, tire, and tar may be neutralised with all three units realised as [ɑː] or [äː]. This type of smoothing is known as the tower–tire, tower–tar and tire–tar mergers.
|As two syllables||Triphthong||Loss of mid-element||Further simplified as||Example|
See also: Trap–bath split
There are differing opinions as to whether /æ/ in the BATH lexical set can be considered RP. The pronunciations with /ɑː/ are invariably accepted as RP. The English Pronouncing Dictionary does not admit /æ/ in BATH words and the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary lists them with a § marker of non-RP status. John Wells wrote in a blog entry on 16 March 2012 that when growing up in the north of England he used /ɑː/ in "bath" and "glass", and considers this the only acceptable phoneme in RP. Others have argued that /æ/ is too categorical in the north of England to be excluded. Clive Upton believes that /æ/ in these words must be considered within RP and has called the opposing view "south-centric". Upton's Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English gives both variants for BATH words. A. F. Gupta's survey of mostly middle-class students found that /æ/ was used by almost everyone who was from clearly north of the isogloss for BATH words. She wrote, "There is no justification for the claims by Wells and Mugglestone that this is a sociolinguistic variable in the north, though it is a sociolinguistic variable on the areas on the border [the isogloss between north and south]". In a study of speech in West Yorkshire, K. M. Petyt wrote that "the amount of /ɑː/ usage is too low to correlate meaningfully with the usual factors", having found only two speakers (both having attended boarding schools in the south) who consistently used /ɑː/.
Jack Windsor Lewis has noted that the Oxford Dictionary's position has changed several times on whether to include short /æ/ within its prescribed pronunciation. The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names uses only /ɑː/, but its author, Graham Pointon, has stated on his blog that he finds both variants to be acceptable in place names.
Some research has concluded that many people in the North of England have a dislike of the /ɑː/ vowel in BATH words. A. F. Gupta wrote, "Many of the northerners were noticeably hostile to /ɡrɑːs/, describing it as 'comical', 'snobbish', 'pompous' or even 'for morons'." On the subject, K. M. Petyt wrote that several respondents "positively said that they did not prefer the long-vowel form or that they really detested it or even that it was incorrect". Mark Newbrook has assigned this phenomenon the name "conscious rejection", and has cited the BATH vowel as "the main instance of conscious rejection of RP" in his research in West Wirral.
John Wells has argued that, as educated British speakers often attempt to pronounce French names in a French way, there is a case for including /ɒ̃/ (as in bon), and /æ̃/ and /ɜ̃:/ (as in vingt-et-un), as marginal members of the RP vowel system. He also argues against including other French vowels on the grounds that not many British speakers succeed in distinguishing the vowels in bon and banc, or in rue and roue. However, the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary draws a distinction between /ɒ̃/ (there rendered as /ɔː̃/) and the unrounded /ɑː̃/ of banc for a total of four nasal vowels.
Not all reference sources use the same system of transcription. Clive Upton devised a separate system for the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) and this is now used in many other Oxford University Press dictionaries.
The linguist Geoff Lindsey has argued that the system of transcription for RP has become outdated and has proposed a new system as a replacement, rather than RP.
Lindsey's system is as follows, differences between it and standard transcription are depicted with the usual transcription in brackets.
|Short||Long (triggering r-liaison)||+j diphthong||+w diphthong|
|/a/ (æ)||/ɑː/||/ɑj/ (aɪ)||/aw/ (aʊ)|
|/ɛ/ (e)||/ɛː/||/ɛj/ (eɪ)|
|/ɪ/||/ɪː/ (ɪə)||/ɪj/ (iː)|
|/ɔ/ (ɒ)||/oː/ (ɔː)||/oj/ (ɔɪ)|
|/ɵ/ (ʊ)||/ɵː/ (ʊə)||/ʉw/ (uː)|
|/ə/||/əː/ (ɜː)||/əw/ (əʊ)|
Like all accents, RP has changed with time. For example, sound recordings and films from the first half of the 20th century demonstrate that it was usual for speakers of RP to pronounce the /æ/ sound, as in land, with a vowel close to [ɛ], so that land would sound similar to a present-day pronunciation of lend. RP is sometimes known as the Queen's English, but recordings show that even Queen Elizabeth II had changed her pronunciation over the past 50 years, no longer using an [ɛ]-like vowel in words like land. The change in RP may be observed in the home of "BBC English". The BBC accent of the 1950s is distinctly different from today's: a news report from the 1950s is recognisable as such, and a mock-1950s BBC voice is used for comic effect in programmes wishing to satirise 1950s social attitudes such as the Harry Enfield Show and its "Mr. Cholmondley-Warner" sketches.
A few illustrative examples of changes in RP during the 20th century and early 21st are given below. A more comprehensive list (using the name 'General British' in place of 'RP') is given in Gimson's Pronunciation of English.
A number of cases can be identified where changes in the pronunciation of individual words, or small groups of words, have taken place.
The Journal of the International Phonetic Association regularly publishes "Illustrations of the IPA" which present an outline of the phonetics of a particular language or accent. It is usual to base the description on a recording of the traditional story of the North Wind and the Sun. There is an IPA illustration of British English (Received Pronunciation).
The female speaker is described as having been born in 1953, and educated at Oxford University. To accompany the recording there are three transcriptions: orthographic, phonemic and allophonic.
ðə ˈnɔːθ ˈwɪnd ən ðə ˈsʌn wə dɪˈspjuːtɪŋ ˈwɪtʃ wəz ðə ˈstrɒŋɡə, wen ə ˈtrævl̩ə ˌkeɪm əˌlɒŋ ˈræpt ɪn ə ˈwɔːm ˈkləʊk. ðeɪ əˈɡriːd ðət ðə ˈwʌn hu ˈfɜːst səkˈsiːdɪd ɪn ˈmeɪkɪŋ ðə ˈtrævlə ˌteɪk hɪz ˈkləʊk ɒf ʃʊd bi kənˌsɪdəd ˈstrɒŋɡə ðən ði ˈʌðə. ˈðen ðə ˌnɔːθ wɪnd ˈbluː əz ˈhɑːd əz i ˈkʊd, bət ðə ˈmɔː hi ˈbluː ðə ˌmɔː ˈkləʊsli dɪd ðə ˈtrævlə ˈfəʊld hɪz ˌkləʊk əˈraʊnd hɪm, ænd ət ˈlɑːst ðə ˈnɔːθ wɪnd ˌɡeɪv ˈʌp ði əˈtempt. ˈðen ðə ˈsʌn ˌʃɒn aʊt ˈwɔːmli, ænd əˈmiːdiətli ðə ˈtrævlə ˈtʊk ɒf ɪz ˈkləʊk. n̩ ˌsəʊ ðə ˈnɔːθ ˈwɪn wəz əˈblaɪdʒd tʊ kənˈfes ðət ðə ˈsʌn wəz ðə ˈstrɒŋɡr̩ əv ðə ˈtuː.
ðə ˈnɔːθ ˈw̥ɪnd ən̪n̪ə ˈsʌn wə dɪˈspj̊u̟ːtɪŋ ˈwɪʔtʃ wəz ðə ˈstɹ̥ɒŋɡə, wen ə ˈtɹ̥ævl̩ə ˌkʰeɪm əˌlɒŋ ˈɹæptʰ ɪn ə ˈwɔːm ˈkl̥əʊkˣ. ðeɪ əˈɡɹ̥iːd̥ ð̥əʔ ðə ˈwʌn ɦu ˈfɜːs səkˈsiːdɪd ɪmˈmeɪxɪŋ ðə ˈtɹ̥ævlə ˌtʰeɪk̟x̟ɪs ˈkl̥əʊk ɒf ʃʊbbi kʰənˌsɪdəd̥ ˈstɹɒŋɡə ð̥ən̪n̪i ˈʌðə. ˈðen̪n̪ə ˌnɔːθ w̥ɪnd ˈbluː əz̥ ˈhɑːd̥ əs i ˈkʊd, bət̬ ð̥ə ˈmɔː hi ˈblu̟ː ðə ˌmɔ ˈkl̥əʊsl̥i d̥ɨd ð̥ə ˈtɹ̥æv̥lə ˈfəʊld̥ hɪz̥ ˌkl̥əʊkʰ əˈɹaʊnd hɪm, ænd ət ˈl̥ɑːst ð̥ə ˈnɔːθ w̥ɪnd ˌɡ̊eɪv̥ ˈʌp ði̥ əˈtʰemʔt. ˈðen̪n̪ə ˈsʌn ˌʃɒn aʊt ˈwɔːmli, ænd əˈmiːdiətl̥i ð̥ə ˈtɹ̥ævlə ˈtʰʊk ɒf ɪz̥ ˈkl̥əʊkˣ. n̩ ˌsəʊ ðə ˈnɔːθ ˈw̥ɪn wəz̥ əˈblaɪdʒ̊ tʰɵ kʰənˈfes ð̥əʔ ð̥ə ˈsʌn wəz̥z̥ə ˈstɹ̥ɒŋɡɹ̩ əv̥ ð̥ə ˈtʰu̟ː.
The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveller came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveller take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveller fold his cloak around him, and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shone out warmly, and immediately the traveller took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.
The following people have been described as RP speakers:
As well as being a living accent, RP is also a theoretical linguistic concept. It is the accent on which phonemic transcriptions in dictionaries are based, and it is widely used (in competition with General American) for teaching English as a foreign language.
Examples of speakers of the more "conservative" type of RP are Stephen Fry and Dame Judi Dench.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg struggled with his "posh RP [received pronunciation] accent" when he was trying to get elected in Fife.
Emma speaks her lines with crystal-clear received pronunciation...
((citation)): CS1 maint: location (link)