If you’ve ever read about British English accents, you’ve probably come across the term Received Pronunciation, or RP. But what is Received Pronunciation, and is it the best term to use to describe this accent that we use as a reference for teaching? We explore.
What Is Received Pronunciation?
The term Received Pronunciation dates back almost 200 years but was popularized in the 1920s by linguist Daniel Jones when he used it in his English Pronouncing Dictionary. He used it to describe the regionally neutral accent that was generally considered “proper” English among the middle classes in Britain.
The accent itself actually comes from the East Midlands dialects (the area around Nottingham) in the early 15th century, which was the most populous and prosperous areas of England at the time. By the end of the same century, this variety of “Standard English” was established in London and became the default for spelling, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary use for the literate classes.
By the mid 20th century, RP was still generally regarded as the highest form of English spoken not only in Britain, but in many of its colonies. It’s no wonder then that it’s still strongly associated with a certain social and economic status of speakers.
How Is RP Different From Other British Accents?
Several important features of RP set it apart from other varieties of English spoken in Britain, which include, but are not limited to, the following:
- RP is non-rhotic, meaning the R-sound can only occur when followed by a vowel sound. This is in contrast with Scottish English and many accents from the southwest of England, where the R-sound can appear at any point in a syllable.
- RP has undergone the TRAP-BATH split, meaning that words like “cap” and “laugh” do not rhyme, unlike most varieties spoken in the North of England, Wales and Scotland.
- RP was subject to the process known as NG-coalescence, meaning that syllable-final /ng/ merged into just one sound: /ŋ/. This contrasts with English accents from the Midlands and Northwest of England, which preserve the two distinct sounds at the end of syllables.
What Other Names Does RP Go By?
There are several terms which are used interchangeably with Received Pronunciation. Some of them are deceiving as they aren’t truly synonymous with RP, while others are more or less specific in the accent they refer to. These other names are Queen’s English, BBC English, Estuary English and General British. Let’s look at these one by one.
The “Queen’s English” is often used to refer to Received Pronunciation, but actually evokes quite a different one. This name implies that this is the English accent that the Queen has, and by association, others in the upper and aristocratic classes.
In fact, the Queen speaks with quite a different accent from RP. If we want to reference lexical sets, the Queen’s English is noticeably different in the LOT vowel, which alternates with the THOUGHT vowel. It also completely lacks any glottal replacement of /t/ in all positions. So to use this term as a synonym is not only classist, but also inaccurate.
“BBC English” used to be a good descriptor of this accent, but that’s not the case anymore. Why? In the 20th century, it was common on the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation) that speakers would all speak with approximately the same standardized accent.
This isn’t the case anymore, since there are now many regional accents represented in the corporation’s everyday broadcasting. This means that again this term is an inaccurate descriptor of the accent in question.
“Estuary English” is a term that describes the English accent from around the Thames Estuary, encompassing speakers from the regions surrounding London, especially to the east.
It’s sometimes used interchangeably with Cockney, the regional London dialect, and as a result, has some potentially negative connotations as an “uneducated” accent. Its geographical specificity, though, makes it a good competitor with RP as the most useful terms to describe our reference accent.
“General British,” while the most general (duh) and arguably least likely to offend anyone, lacks specificity and a tie to a particular region of Britain. Because of this, it’s not very useful for defining the term. In case you haven’t noticed, we linguists like to be very specific!
Should We Keep Referring To This Accent As RP?
While I might not be in the majority, I argue that the term “Received Pronunciation” has become outdated. RP and all its associated features still exist — and there are many speakers who still have this accent — but those features together are now considered pretty old-fashioned.
What Term Could We Use Instead?
If we want to talk about a modern version of this British accent, we need a new term, and I suggest adopting the term SSBE: Standard Southern British English. This term has both the geographical specificity of Estuary English, without the associated stigma, as well as the generality of General British.
With this term, we can encompass speakers from the entire area of Southeast England spanning between Oxford, Southampton, Canterbury and Cambridge, as well as London. This makes a lot of sense linguistically because even native speakers from these places have a difficult time recognizing differences between their accents.
So in the end, should we continue using the term RP at all? Yes, but only to refer to the specific accent that is slowly dying out. Instead, let’s use SSBE to refer to the modern standard variety of British English.