The evolution of Received Pronunciation.


What is Received Pronunciation? 

Received Pronunciation, usually abbreviated to R.P. and sometimes known as Received Standard, is the one accent of British English which is not regional. Instead of geographic associations, it carries associations of respectable social standing and a good education. It is the sort of pronunciation that is - or at any rate used to be - sometimes called "the Queen's English", "BBC English", or just "talking posh". It is not completely homogeneous: it ranges from the "marked" R.P. used by the Queen and some other royals to the speech of Prime Minister Blair, taking in variants along the way. Nor is it cast in concrete: it has modified over the years, as anyone familiar with British films of the 1940s will readily testify. 

It is estimated that only 2-3% of native British English speakers use a pure form of R.P., although many educated speakers converge towards it. However, since it is the accent taught to foreigners learning British English, it is at present more common abroad than in England, although the increasing Americanisation of World English is likely to change that. 

Certain features of R.P., such as the long a before an unvoiced fricative in such words as path, grass and graph, point to an origin in Southern England. 

How did R.P. evolve? 

This is not an easy question to answer, because it is only in the last hundred years or so that we have actual recordings of speech. For anything earlier, we have only what people wrote about speech, which may be partial or inaccurate. However, certain facts do seem to be generally agreed. 

 After the unification of England under Knut and increasingly after the Norman Conquest, the main power base was in the South, where the king held court and, later, Parliament sat. The main centres of education, Oxford and Cambridge, likewise were set up in the Southern half of the country. (Just how Southern they seem to you will, of course, depend on your personal geography; but from the dialect point of view they can be described as Southern.) Geoffrey Chaucer, writing the Canterbury Tales in the fourteenth century, seems in The Reeve's Tale to hint at a perceived superiority in London English, and not much later the Second Shepherd's Play from the Towneley cycle of mystery plays (from Wakefield) might be held to suggest that a royal official would be expected to use the English of the South. 

Before the sixteenth century, we can find little more than straws in the wind; but then explicit references start to appear in writing to a preferred pronunciation for people of high social status, together with the notion that it should be fostered. A writer called Elyot, in his 1531 book Governour, writes that women who look after a nobleman's son in infancy should "speak no English but that which is clean, polite, perfectly and articulately pronounced, omitting no letter or syllable, as foolish women oftentimes do of a wantonness, whereby divers noble men and gentlemen's children (as I do at this day know) have attained corrupt and foul pronunciation.[i] Other such references make it clear that this was a fairly commonly-held view by the reign of Henry VIII. 

References from later in the sixteenth century start to suggest what this preferred pronunciation was. Hart's Methode (1570) expresses the view that in London and at the royal court "the flower of the English tongue is used" (although he acknowledges that people living far to the North and West will speak differently, and sees nothing in this to ridicule).  Puttenham, in The Arte of English Poesy (1589), believes the best English to be "the usual speech of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles and not much above". Like Hart, Puttenham makes an exception for those in the far North and West, and moreover writes, explaining why he limits his range to about sixty miles from London, "In every shire of England there be gentlemen and others that speak, but especially write, as good Southern as we of Middlesex or Surrey do, but not the common people of every shire, to whom the gentlemen, and also their learned clerks, do for the most part condescend." 

In the seventeenth century we find confirmation of these views:

      "I have not been guided by our vulgar pronunciation, but by that of London and our Universities, where the language is purely spoken." (Vocal Organ, 1665) 

These quotations make it fairly clear that there was by the sixteenth century a pronunciation, based on that of London, Oxford and Cambridge (and let's not go into the differences that would have existed between the accents of those three places at that date!), which was regarded as prestigious and which was linked with power (the court) and education (Oxford and Cambridge universities). In some ways, not so different from the picture today, but a situation still able to accommodate a Sir Walter Raleigh who notoriously spoke with a broad Devon accent. 

Those anxious for power and/or education would have migrated to the places where those things were to be found, and would presumably have converged into conformity of speech. During the nineteenth century, public schools such as Eton and Harrow both used it and propagated its use, and as time went on what we now call R.P. became indicative of status. Nineteenth century fiction offers us some vignettes of this: Becky Sharp surprised at the rustic Hampshire speech of Sir Pitt Crawley in Thackeray's Vanity Fair,  Dickens making his low-life convict character Magwich in Great Expectations pronounce victuals as "wittles", Kipling's Indian stories contrasting the accents of the soldiery with that of the officers and their ladies. R.P. had become the language of power not only at court, but also in Parliament, the judiciary, education and the upper echelons of the army. 

During the twentieth century, broadcasting emerged  as a hugely important new medium. In the fledgeling days of the BBC in the 1920s it seemed only sensible to use the non-regional accent R.P., and this continued for a long time, giving rise to the notion of "BBC pronunciation". However, as the century drew to its close things were changing rapidly. Social mobility, the expansion of higher education, the proliferation of the mass media, changes in attitudes and American influence are all factors which have led to the dilution of R.P. and its status in the opening years of the twenty-first century. Hollywood seems happy to cast villainous or ridiculous characters with R.P. accents in movies as diverse as Titanic and Maid in Manhatten, and in Britain regional speech, far from being stigmatised, is heard nightly on soaps. "Estuary English" in the 1990s offered a new sort of  South-eastern model; time will tell if its influence will prove lasting. 

In spite of all this, R.P. still has status, and has a habit of popping up when least expected: in the second Gulf War, the voice of British Army officers, as heard from spokesmen in news interviews, was generally R.P.  It will be fascinating to see in what form R.P. survives, if at all, in the twenty-first century.

[i] Here and elsewhere spelling has been modernised.

CD Selwyn-Jones 2003