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Received Pronunciation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Received Pronunciation (RP) is a form of pronunciation of the English language which has been long perceived as uniquely prestigious among British accents (see prestige dialect).

Note that RP is accent (a form of pronunciation), not a dialect (a form of vocabulary and grammar). A person using an RP accent will invariably (except for comic effect) speak Standard English although the reverse is not necessarily true.

RP is the "prestige accent" used by English speakers in the UK (or, at least, in England). It is often believed to be based on Southern accents, although it actually originated in the south-east Midlands: south Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire (now in Cambridgeshire) [1].

RP is the usual accent taught to non-native speakers learning British English. Non-RP Britons abroad may modify their pronunciation to something closer to Received Pronunciation, in order to be better understood by people who themselves learned RP in school. They may also modify their vocabulary and grammar to be closer to Standard English, for the same reason. RP is used as the standard for English in most books on general phonology and phonetics; and represented in the pronunciation schemes of most dictionaries.

According to Fowler's Modern English Usage (1965), the term is "the Received Pronunciation". Received Pronunciation was also sometimes referred to as the Queen's English, because it is spoken by the Queen, or BBC English because it was traditionally used by the BBC.

RP, except in the last bastions of "real" RP use, changes with time. For instance, foreigners learning their English accents from Royal speeches would find they are looked at very strangely in the streets of Britain, because the Queen's "speech voice" has changed little since the 1950's and now sounds archaic even to most people who would consider that they speak "correctly" (i.e. RP).

The change in RP may even be observed in the home of "BBC English". The BBC accent from the 1950s was distinctly different from today's: a news report from the '50s is instantly recognisable as such - and a mock 1950s BBC voice is often used to comic effect in TV or radio programmes wishing to show up outdated social attitudes such as the Harry Enfield Show and its "Mr. Cholmondley-Warner" sketches.

In recent decades many people have asserted the value of other regional and class accents, and many members (particularly young ones) of the groups which traditionally used Received Pronunciation have moved away from it to varying degrees. RP is not truly the accent of any particular locality, its home is the (UK) public school, and a strong RP accent usually indicates someone who went to public school or would like people to think so. Today, there are many completely non-RP voices heard on the BBC as continuity announcers and newsreaders. The term BBC English is therefore rather archaic, though the name is still used, perhaps by people who have not listened to Radio 4 (itself often held up as the epitome of the old-fashioned values of the BBC) lately.

RP may have a rival as the most common location-neutral British, or at least Southern English, accent. Today's elites are TV "personalities", football heroes, and pop singers, rather than royalty and public school alumni. There are signs that RP is losing its "normal English" status (but not its "posh English" one) to the "Estuary English" accent whose spread from Southern Essex is being fanned by TV exposure.

Changing status of Received Pronunciation

Traditionally, Received Pronunciation is the accent of English which is "the everyday speech of families of Southern English persons whose menfolk have been educated at the great public boarding schools" (Daniel Jones, English Pronouncing Dictionary, 1926—he had earlier called it "Public School Pronunciation"), and which conveys no information about that speaker's region of origin prior to attending the school.

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.
A. Burrell, Recitation. A Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary School, 1891.

For many years, the use of Received Pronunciation was considered to be a mark of education. It was a standard practice until around the 1950s for university students with regional accents to modify their speech to be closer to RP. As a result, at a time when only around five percent of the population attended universities, elitist notions sprang up around it and those who used it may have considered those who did not to be less educated than themselves. Historically the most prestigious British educational institutions (Oxford, Cambridge, many public schools) were located in England, so those who were educated there would pick up the accents of their peers. (There have always been exceptions: for example, Morningside, Edinburgh and Kelvinside in Glasgow had Scottish "pan loaf" accents aspiring to a similar prestige.)

From the 1970s onwards, attitudes towards Received Pronunciation have been slowly changing. One of the primary catalysts for this was the influence in the 1960s of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. Unusually for a recent prime minister, he spoke with a strong regional Yorkshire accent, exaggerated, some said, to appeal to the working classes his party represented. As a result of the trend begun by Wilson and others in the 1960s, the accents of the English regions and of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are today more likely to be considered to be on a par with Received Pronunciation, which by the turn of the century was only spoken by around three percent of the population. BBC reporters no longer need to, and often do not, use Received Pronunciation, which in some contexts may sound out of place, and be discouraged in favour of less "cultivated" accents.

The ongoing spread of Estuary English from the London metropolitan areas through the whole South-East leads some people to believe that this will take the place of Received Pronunciation as the standard English accent of the future. There are, however, important factors that militate against this, including the perceived inferior status and alleged lower intelligibility by some of Estuary English, which is characterised by the dropping of consonants, and use of the glottal stop. Speakers of Received Pronunciation do not all sound alike, and individuals modify their speech to varying degrees. The heightened "cut glass" form of the Received Pronunciation (sometimes called "Advanced RP") is very rare amongst younger Britons. Some older RP speakers have also modified their speech: it has been demonstrated that in some respects even the Queen no longer speaks the "Queen's English" of the mid 20th century.




A table containing the consonant phonemes is given below


The vowel phonemes of Received Pronunciation are shown in the following tables:

Examples: /ɪ/ in kit and mirror, /ʊ/ in foot and put, /ɛ/ in dress and merry, /ʌ/ in strut and curry, /æ/ in trap and marry, /ɒ/ in lot and orange, /ə/ in the first syllable of ago and in the second of sofa.

Examples: /iː/ in fleece, /uː/ in goose, /ɜː/ in nurse and bird, /ɔː/ in north and thought, /ɑː/ in father and start.

RP's long vowels are slightly diphthongized. Especially the vowels /iː/ and /uː/ which are often narrowly transcribed in phonetic literature as diphthongs [ɪj] and [ʊw].

Although these vowels are traditionally described as long vowels, whereby they have received the <ː> mark after their symbol, the length also varies according to the surrounding sounds. If a long vowel is preceded by a voiceless consonant sound (e.g. /p k s/) its length will be equivalent to that of the short vowels, with the exception of /ɑː/ which becomes halfway between long and short. e.g. Burt = [bɜt], seat = [sit], garth = [gɑˑθ].

The short vowel /æ/ becomes longer if it is followed by a voiced consonant sound. Thus, in narrow transcription bat = [bæt] and bad = [bæːd]. In natural speech, the plosives /t/ and /d/ may be unreleased utterance-finally, thus distinction between these words would rest mostly on vowel length.[2]

Examples: /ɪə/ in near and theatre, /eɪ/ in face, /ɛə/ in square and Mary, /əʊ/ in goat, /aɪ/ in price, /aʊ/ in mouth, /ɔɪ/ in choice, /ʊə/ in tour.

The off-glide of /eɪ/ (and also the off-glides of /ij/ and /uw/) can be predicted by a phonological rule and so are not represented in some underlying representations.

There are also the triphthongs /aɪə/ as in fire and /aʊə/ as in tower, the realisations sketched in the following table are not phonemically distinctive, though the difference between /aʊə/ /ɑɪə/ and /ɑ:/ may be neutralised under [ɑ:] or [ä:]

Not all reference sources use the same system of transcription. In particular

  • /æ/ as in trap is often written /a/.
  • /e/ as in dress is often written /ɛ/.
  • /ɜː/ as in nurse is sometimes written /əː/.
  • /aɪ/ as in price is sometimes written /ʌɪ/.
  • /aʊ/ as in mouse is sometimes written /ɑʊ/
  • /ɛə/ as in square is sometimes written /eə/, and is also sometimes treated as a long monophthong /ɛː/.

Most of these variants are used in the transcription devised by Clive Upton for the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) and now used in many other Oxford University Press dictionaries.


  • Unlike most forms of English English and American English, RP is a broad A accent, so words like bath and chance appear with /ɑː/ and not /æ/.
  • RP is a non-rhotic accent, meaning /r/ does not occur unless followed immediately by a vowel.
  • Like other accents of southern England, RP has undergone the wine-whine merger so the phoneme /ʍ/ is not present.
  • RP uses [ɫ], called dark l, when /l/ occurs at the end of a syllable, as in well, and also for syllabic l, like in little or apple. (whereas it has been reported[4] that "General American" speakers use the /ɫ/ both finally and initially.)
  • The /t/ phoneme in words like butter is pronounced as [tʰ] rather than flapped (as in most forms of American English) or [ʔ] as in Cockney and similar varieties of English).
  • The /t/ phoneme in words like bluntness is often pronounced as or realised as a glottal stop.
  • Unlike many other varieties of English English, there is no h-dropping in words like head.
  • RP does not have yod dropping after /n/, /t/ and /d/. Hence, for example, new, tune and dune are pronounced /njuː/, /tjuːn/ and /djuːn/ rather than /nuː/, /tuːn/ and /duːn/. This contrasts with many East Anglian and East Midland varieties of English English and with most forms of American English.

Historical variation

The form of RP has itself changed over the past decades. Sound recordings and films from the first half of the 20th century demonstrate that it was standard to pronounce the /æ/ sound, as in land, with a vowel close to [ɛ], so that land could sound similar to lend. RP is sometimes known as the Queen's English, but recordings show that even the Queen has changed her pronunciation over the past 50 years, no longer using an [ɛ]-like vowel in words like land. (It is partly due to this change that Upton's system uses the symbol /a/ for this phoneme.)

Before World War II, the vowel in words like putt and sun was an open-mid back unrounded vowel; this sound has since shifted to [ɐ], a near-open central vowel. The symbol <ʌ> is still used, possibly due to tradition or the fact that other dialects retain the older pronunciation.

Some old-fashioned forms of RP, still occasionally heard from older speakers, have other variations in their phonology.

  • Words like off, cloth, gone are pronounced with /ɔː/ instead of /ɒ/. See lot-cloth split.
  • The horse-hoarse merger does not occur, with an extra diphthong /ɔə/ appearing in words such as hoarse, force, pour.

See also

  • Accent (linguistics)
  • Prestige dialect
  • English English
  • Estuary English
  • General American
  • Prescription and description
  • Cockney


  1. ^ Simon Elmes, "Talking for Britain: A journey through the voices of our nation", p.114. Also
  2. ^ GIMSON, A. C. ‘An Introduction to the pronunciation of English,' London : Edward Arnold, 1970.
  3. ^ GIMSON, A. C. ‘An Introduction to the pronunciation of English,' London : Edward Arnold, 1970.
  4. ^ Merton, Claude Introduction to Phonetics

External links

  • Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation? - An article by the phonetician J. C. Wells about received pronunciation
  • Anthony Richardson - OverVoice A prominent English voice over artist specialising in Received Pronunciation - listen to samples.
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