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Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 16 Aug 2013, 12:44
by Elliott
I really like Received Pronunciation. This is the accent that has traditionally been associated with educated and upper-class people in Britain. It is not specific to any geographical area, and up until a few decades ago private schools trained their pupils to speak it precisely so as to disguise their provincial origins. Up until about 1980, the vast majority of actors spoke RP in their performances and were trained at drama school to adopt it as their natural accent. (This is why older British actors today are so much easier to understand than younger British actors.)

Over time, however, as Britain has lost its prestige and its confidence, and as liberal socialism has taken over the West, RP has lost its popularity. It was never "popular" in the sense that "most people spoke it" (Wikipedia says that in 1974 a linguist estimated that only 3% of Britons spoke it) but it was undoubtedly a sign that the speaker was educated and cultured, and people accepted it for that. Now class envy and resentment have taken over. Private schools no longer train their pupils to speak RP, so as to disguise their privileged origins. Drama schools now teach a (very diluted) form of it, and insist that students retain their native accents as natural and not adopt RP. Even the Royal Family no longer speak it; the difference between the speech of Prince Charles and Prince William is pretty astounding, and I expect that Prince George will speak like a South London chav.

I don't know how this kind of thing will seem to non-Brits. I have a feeling that, even for people from countries that supposedly don't have a class system like Britain's, there is an instinctual awareness of class. I also suspect that class is largely a matter of eliminating the unpleasant and accentuating the pleasant, even if what we find pleasant and unpleasant is largely based on class. What I mean is, we might find X unpleasant because we associate it with lower-class culture, even if X is not inherently unpleasant. Still, its association is enough.

Of course, associations are not always true. You could have a scoundrel who spoke RP and a decent person who spoke dreadfully. An RP-speaking aristocrat might be woefully ignorant, while a glottal-stopping commoner might be educated, knowledgeable and sensitive. These things are not inextricably linked.

Even so, it seems wiser to associate oneself with the upper than the lower. And, if by doing so we make ourselves more cosmetically pleasant, then it is not only wiser but more polite.

Now for the other side.

The woman in this video is a dialogue coach who trains foreigners to speak English. She is dead against RP, and here's her reasoning:


She lives in London and clearly has more contact with everyday (and present day) London folk than I have. I cannot say whether her claim that "people don't like RP" is true or false. I suspect she is over-stating it somewhat. Of course, if you're going to work on a building site in Peckham, it probably is a good idea not to speak like John Nettleton. But I still think that RP has the following things going for it:

  • it is clear and very easy to understand
  • it suggest a willingness to make oneself easy to understand (good manners)
  • it is universal, without taking away individuality
  • it suggests a commitment to civilisation
  • it is pleasant to listen to

But, once we bring class into it, things spiral. The key bit in the video above is:
People don't like the RP accent. It's almost as if you're trying to be more posh or better than other people.


The real issue here is not cosmetics, but class. She is correct that, if people don't like RP, it is because they object to its connotations, not to its sound. People today are part of a failing culture, a dysfunctional society and an aimless civilisation: they don't want to be reminded of a successful culture, a functional society and a confident civilisation. They would prefer to go along with the decay. After all, it means you can speak like you're still living on that council estate (even if you never lived on one in the first place). It means that you believe we're all equal. Which we're not.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 16 Aug 2013, 15:55
by Yessica
Very interesting thoughts, Elliott.

As you know, I am not a native speaker. I attended english classes in school... and RP was one of the two English accents we were supposed to master (in fact I never did and neither did my English teacher, but that is another story). The other one was the American mid-atlantic accent.

It is sad that while people around the world still learn RP as the epitome of an English accent it has become out of fashion in England... and not only the accent but also the things it probably stood for such as civilizedness, manners and improving yourself.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 16 Aug 2013, 18:59
by Gavin
I tried looking at and listening to that young woman but it became increasingly difficult, and when I reached 45 seconds through and she said to me "It is not a nice accent", in lecturing manner, with her own very unpleasant accent, I had to stop. I just didn't want to "give" her any more of my life.

Her own accent and manner, then, put me off. Even her facial expressions did too, truth be told. A "dialogue coach", did you say? Self-appointed as such, I presume. Perfectly ghastly! I love the sound of RP. At its best it sounds refined, gentle and it is often the sound of someone making effort, I think, someone caring about the way they speak.

I am reminded of functionality and aesthetics in web sites, even. I sometimes think "Why do they go to all that trouble of making it work well if it still looks rubbish? They ought to have put some time into the aesthetics too" - and vice versa. The same for song lyrics vs. music. If you have something worth saying, it is worth trying to say it well.

If that young woman (a socialist and feminist, I'd wager) can indeed speak well, then she's a traitor of the same kind that multiculturalists are when they make out that Islamic culture is superior to Western culture.

Today on the radio they were speaking asking "Is Oxford elitist?", or something like that. I nearly phoned in to say I certainly hope so!

I would just finish by distinguishing again between the "drawl" or the nouveau-riche and pampered and the "kind"-sounding RP of the best Radio 4 newsreaders. I like their speech in particular. It does not always indicate wealth, either - it just indicates people taking the trouble to speak well. It's a pleasure to hear and I hope the BBC is not so cowardly that it sacks them all in its continued pursuit of the lowest standards (and thereby the highest ratings).

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 16 Aug 2013, 20:25
by Yessica
Gavin wrote:Even her facial expressions did too, truth be told. A "dialogue coach", did you say? Self-appointed as such, I presume. Perfectly ghastly! I love the sound of RP. At its best it sounds refined, gentle and it is often the sound of someone making effort, I think, someone caring about the way they speak..


I agree. Her facial expressions... she comes across snobby? bored? annoyed that she has to talk to us idiots who are interested in RP? I do not really know what it is...

I like the sound of RP too and agree that it sounds refined... even to somebody like me who is not a native speaker and did not grow up with that connotations.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 16 Aug 2013, 21:24
by Gavin
I like the sound of RP too and agree that it sounds refined... even to somebody like me who is not a native speaker and did not grow up with that connotations.


That's very interesting - and seems to be very significant, Yessica.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 17 Aug 2013, 09:57
by Charlie
I broadly agree with everything that has been written here, so I'll just add a few more things.

I may receive some flak for this, but I don't find the lady's voice particularly unpleasant. Although the occasional glottal stops seem rather affected, as other people have mentioned, it's her attitude which is really off-putting.

For all of her comments about RP and given that she seems like a middle class lefty, I wondered what she would make of Stephen Fry's accent. It turned out that she wrote this in the Youtube comments section on another video:

"Stephen Fry is around 50 years old (I think without checking). He does speak with a kind of R.P. though it is different to the accent I use in the video. It is a bit softened. He definitely has a VERY POSH accent´╗┐ and manner of speaking, however"


Make of that what you will.

I think I read in a Bill Bryson book that roughly 70% of accents in the English language come from the UK and Ireland. That's pretty impressive, but it creates a linguistic minefield for an English teacher. With such diversity on these shores, why on earth would you knock RP? Well, as Elliott said it comes down to class, doesn't it?

I'm sorry if this makes me sound like a bit of a traitor, but if I taught English to foreign students again, I'd tell them to focus on US English. The US has a whole range of accents too, of course, but it's much easier for a foreign speaker to sound "neutral" with a vaguely US accent. Someone like this Italian guy is a good example. He's never lived in the US, and I can tell he's foreign, but he speaks English extremely well and his American accent is pleasant to listen to. However, given that most foreigners learning English are not lucky enough to sound as authentic as he does, I'm not really sure why this teacher is insisting on teaching students about curios like the South London accent - there are many other things which she should focus on when it comes to pronunciation.

Curiously, I've seen a similar phenomenon in other countries. I know a Dutch teacher from Flanders who hates the fact that language schools throughout the Low Countries always teach Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands/A.B.N (General Cultured Dutch) to foreigners. That's the standardised form of the language which one will hear on TV in both Belgium and The Netherlands, and it ensures that someone from Amsterdam can understand someone from the west coast of Flanders. If everyone spoke in dialect, they would have communication difficulties, ergo, A.B.N. So why wouldn't you want to teach that to foreigners who are learning Dutch? After all, in a way it fulfils the same role as RP; that is to say:

Elliott wrote:
  • it is clear and very easy to understand
  • it suggest a willingness to make oneself easy to understand (good manners)
  • it is universal, without taking away individuality
  • it suggests a commitment to civilisation
  • it is pleasant to listen to


Perhaps when the student is at a suitably advanced level you can then teach them about the particularities of speech from Oostende to Groningen. Anyway, it's interesting to see this teacher's attitude, given that both Belgium and The Netherlands are made up of a large middle class without the class complexities of the UK.

Back in the UK, I can't help but feel that as far as language is concerned, we get everything wrong. I'll just give one more example. Apparently, after the latest Wimbledon tournament, lots of people complained about Boris Becker's English. I rarely watch the TV, but on the few occasions I've heard him speak on the TV and on the radio, I thought that he spoke English very well indeed. In fact, I'd say he spoke more eloquently than most native speakers. He has a light German accent, but that doesn't bother me at all. What then were these clueless people complaining about? I'd love to hear their attempts at German, a language which is grammatically far more complex and challenging than English!

Like I say, when it comes to language, we get it all wrong in this country.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 21 Aug 2013, 05:16
by Caleb
The woman is clearly an idiot, especially when talking about foreigners wanting to learn R.P. Glottal stops and the dropping of vowels all over the place just utterly confuse non-native speakers. This is because they may lack the linguistic understanding or contextual awareness to fill in the gaps and understand that a bo'le is in fact a bottle as opposed to a bowl, a ball or some other variation where there's a b sound at the beginning and an l sound at the end with a confusing vowel sound in the middle. Why would they think to insert a t sound into that word? Language is about communication (amongst other things) and if it fails at that basic level, then it is useless.

I don't have a Steve Irwin type of Australian accent anyway, but I still try to speak slowly and clearly and "flatten" my accent as much as possible when I speak with non-native speakers. I pity anyone who steps straight off the plane and gets his with a wall of heavy Australian English.

I find this coming from the other side as a language learner (of sorts). Mandarin has distinct sounds between retroflexive consonants and normally pronounced consonants. Northern Chinese Chinese contains all of those sounds, and although they sound ugly to me, they're easier to understand. That is why newsreaders in Taiwan also employ them (though they pronounce them more softly), despite the fact that most Taiwanese (particularly in the south) do not do so. In fact, many Taiwanese do not even distinguish similar non-retroflexive consonants from one another. Often, an old person like my mother-in-law will break out into fluent country bumpkin Taiwanese Chinese and I will have no idea what is being said to me. My wife will then say the exact same sentence "correctly" and I will understand every single word.

The other thing that confuses me about that woman's argument is about R.P. being a class marker. Of course it is to a large extent. In its absence though, there are still class markers in British English, just as there are class markers in American English, Australian English and probably in most languages. I can't "unhear" someone saying "aks" or "I should of went". As soon as those words come out of people's mouths I already start building a profile at an unconscious level. Everyone can sniff out a politician trying to change his accent to appeal to a different demographic a mile off. That is why it is so jarring and incongruous when someone who appears middle class in every other sense masters the art of speaking badly in any other situation than as a thespian. The people on the wealthy side of town speak differently to the people on the poor side of town. That's true everywhere in the world, R.P. or not. They also use different words, talk about different things, move differently, have different hobbies and wear different clothes. You could probably arrive anywhere in the world and figure out who the local chavs were within five minutes. Who does this woman think she is fooling? It may be the case (to misappropriate Voltaire) that if R.P. did not exist people would need to invent it. That's because people need to distinguish themselves from one another because that's what people do. The irony is that although it is a class marker in a sense, R.P. actually goes some way to obscuring one's origins (within that group, at least).

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 21 Aug 2013, 07:56
by Yessica
In Germany the equivalant of RP is High German which is also taught at the upper schools and divides the educated from the uneducated.
So I think that is a class marker on the one hand... but on the other hand it serves to overcome class differences... because everybody who has a good education is able to speak High German no matter how humble his origins.
The same is true for table manners and so on too my mind.

There are things that cannot be changed that easily. Such as bodylanguage. That is why I think manners and proper language help overcome class differences.

They help to make people more similar - no matter where their starting point on the social continuum was.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 21 Aug 2013, 17:37
by Jonathan
Thank you for that very lucid explanation, Elliott. I'd read about RP in the past but never quite understood what it was all about - I'm afraid the name just threw me into confusion. Can you explain in what sense it is 'Received'? If it's an accent which is native to no particular area, then in a sense most of its speakers are consciously affecting it, as they have not received it with their mother's milk, as it were. Do you know for how long the name "Received Pronunciation" has been in use?

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 21 Aug 2013, 19:27
by Elliott
Caleb wrote:The irony is that although it is a class marker in a sense, R.P. actually goes some way to obscuring one's origins


Yessica wrote:There are things that cannot be changed that easily. Such as bodylanguage. That is why I think manners and proper language help overcome class differences.

They help to make people more similar - no matter where their starting point on the social continuum was.


Adopting RP does indeed help to hide a working/middle-class person's origins and make us all more "similar" cosmetically. This is the other side of the argument and it makes everything more complicated. After all, if the most plebeian person can adopt RP, it surely ceases to be a reliable indicator of refinement and cultivation.

I guess the resolution to this is that, if people are going to "level" themselves to some common standard, it is better that the standard chosen is higher (RP) than lower (Estuary English). And people are going to do it. Nowadays we talk about changing one's accent as if it is a terrible assault on one's identity, but it's a fact that people choose to do it all the time. Surely we all know people who have done it; people we haven't met in a few years, and they speak differently from how we recall them speaking before. It can seem like they are playing some surreal game, or being dishonest, or "putting on airs and graces". Maybe so, but they are also building their identity and choosing to associate themselves with the higher rather than the lower. RP - or whatever indicator of cultivation is being discussed - does not lose its symbolic meaning by being co-opted by lower-class people; in a sense, this process merely confirms that people are not stuck in the social station into which they born. "Fake it till you make it" is better than never making it, or, even worse, over-turning the hierarchy of behaviours (which is what champagne Socialists advocate we do).

I think it is also healthy for society if people are aspiring towards the higher aspects of its culture. It is certainly much more than if they are aspiring towards the lower aspects. (TD has written about champagne Socialist politicians claiming to have only one interest: football.) That signals a general psychological collapse in the society, I think. But maybe that is hyperbole; I know liberals would say the world keeps turning whether or not politicians choose to drop a few Ts. It just seems to me that confident societies prize the higher and declining societies prize the lower, and moreover that the adjective and the noun play off each other, bad cosmetics encouraging bad actions which encourage bad cosmetics ad infinitum.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 21 Aug 2013, 19:27
by Elliott
Jonathan wrote:I'd read about RP in the past but never quite understood what it was all about - I'm afraid the name just threw me into confusion. Can you explain in what sense it is 'Received'?

The word is being used in the same sense as in "received wisdom". RP was considered "the way" to speak. It is, admittedly, an unusual way of using the word "received".

If it's an accent which is native to no particular area, then in a sense most of its speakers are consciously affecting it, as they have not received it with their mother's milk, as it were.

No, you've misunderstood. In the beginning it would have been affected - we're talking about the early 19th century - but thereafter it would indeed have been passed like mother's milk among the upper-classes, wherever they lived.

Here is an example of how it would have happened. In an average town, there is a fairly wealthy man. He speaks RP, unlike the rest of the townspeople. He raises his children to speak the same, and though they might have friends in the community their RP diction is not allowed to become diluted. It would be reinforced by the nurse that the man employed to coddle them, by the governess he employed to educate them in early childhood, by the private school to which he sent them, and maybe even by elocution lessons to which he sent them before enrolling them at the school. That sounds like a lot of work, and perhaps in many cases it was. In other cases, the children simply wouldn't need all that reinforcing because RP would be all that they heard around them.

One interesting real-life example, for anyone who is familiar with Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, is that the "narrator" of that album, Vivian Stanshall, sounds positively aristocratic but actually came from a very working-class background. His father raised him to speak RP. An interesting fact is that Wikipedia stated this in a previous version of the article, but now states merely that Stanshall's father was "pretentious"; this seems to back up the claim that left-wingers believe that improving oneself is nothing more than pretension and, unless we can be perfect, we should be nihilists. (Here is a better account of how Stanshall acquired RP.)

Do you know for how long the name "Received Pronunciation" has been in use?

Well, according to the Wikipedia page, the name goes back to 1818.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 22 Aug 2013, 00:25
by Gavin
I would just like to say in response to Caleb that he of course ought not to be ashamed in any way of having an Australian accent. I imagine there is a form of well-spoken Australian, which he might well have, but RP is English.

I love RP (I think I said that!). Anybody of any "class" might have it, but even by cultivating it one arguable changes one's class. Class, for me, is simply about being cultured. It is not about money, it is not about privilege. It's just about sensitivity, and aspiring upwards rather than downwards.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 23 Aug 2013, 01:57
by Caleb
Elliott: I think I read somewhere that the most reliable predictor of a whole lot of behaviours and attitudes, including accent, is a person's peer group, not the person's family. A large part of sending kids to private school is so that they will have the right friends. R.P. probably sticks because everyone in a particular environment during formative years (i.e. boarding school) has it.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, language is largely acquired, not learnt, though it can be learnt too.

I'll give you a couple of anecdotes relating to this. The first is that I have a friend who was born in Canada. His father is Hungarian and his mother is French. For the first few years of his life, he was mainly raised by a Hungarian friend of the family. His parents spoke Hungarian or French to him at home. Interestingly, he picked up a Canadian accent with no hint of his origins. Presumably, that came from his peers at school. When he was about twelve, his parents divorced, and he moved to France with his mother. He said he struggled with French at first (which presumably means that prior to living in France, he did not speak French fluently) and he hated the grammar side of it (he said he always confused his articles, conjugated verbs incorrectly, etc.). After a short while, he said he distinctly remembered both trying to learn the speech of his peers, but also acquiring it naturally in order to fit in.

The second example involves myself. When I was six months old, my family moved to England (Hertfordshire). We returned to Australia when I was five and a half years old. I went to kindergarten and about half of one school year in England. My parents never really lost their Australian accents in the five years we were in England, but I had apparently acquired an English accent, so much so that I was teased when I first started school in Australia. Fast forward a few years and I had lost it completely. Fast forward another few years though and I had a very different accent to my parents because of the school I went to.

Studies of language immersion (e.g. French in non-French speaking Canada) suggest that it is not really fully effective if it's only used in the classroom and not in the playground. I have noticed this in so-called immersion environments in Taiwan too. People still end up speaking fluent Chinglish, not English. I suspect that R.P. was transmitted more in that way (i.e. outside the classroom) too.

Gavin: There are different regional and class accents in Australia also, though they're nowhere near as marked as in the U.K. There are several reasons for that, the most obvious being that Australia simply hasn't had as much time to develop as many variations as the U.K. has, and also that a lot of Australia's history has occurred after the advent of mass communication and movements of people.

I really dislike strong Australian accents for the same reasons I really dislike strong regional accents in any country. Firstly, they do hamper communication greatly. Imagine if we wrote in our accents! Secondly, they just sound so parochial to me, for reasons that relate to the first point. For me, it's a matter of whether I consider myself part of a tribe or a civilisation. It is interesting to me that well-educated and cultured people from any particular English speaking nation seem to have accents that converge upon one another in many ways and this suggests that at some level at least, they consider themselves part of a civilisation, not a tribe, at least linguistically. This is all changing now because there has been a deliberate attempt to destroy culture by valuing everything equally. It's interesting to listen to news reels from the mid-century or before or to actors from that time. Everyone used either R.P. or Mid-Atlantic English. They all seemed much more similar to one another than they do now. I still enjoy the fact that I have friends from different English speaking countries and we can communicate quite easily because our backgrounds have knocked a lot of the rough edges off how we would have otherwise spoken. Yet I have travelled in several English speaking countries and had real difficulties understanding many people who were obviously not well-educated. I imagine that over enough time and under the right circumstances, English would evolve into actual separate languages that were only somewhat mutually comprehensible. I think that would be a shame. That is why, in Europe, certain people spoke Latin, or later French. They couldn't understand one another otherwise. Indeed, part way through War and Peace many of the protagonists have to begin learning Russian because they don't speak it in daily life.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 23 Aug 2013, 06:39
by Yessica
Caleb wrote:Elliott: I think I read somewhere that the most reliable predictor of a whole lot of behaviours and attitudes, including accent, is a person's peer group, not the person's family. A large part of sending kids to private school is so that they will have the right friends. R.P. probably sticks because everyone in a particular environment during formative years (i.e. boarding school) has it.


I think that this statistics might be somewhat flawed. It may be the other way around - not the peer group influencing the behaviour but the behaviour influencing the choice of peers.

Birds of a feather flock together.

Do not get me wrong I do think that peers do have an influence, but I do not think that my peers could make me do things that are against the way my parents brought me up.

Children of the gentry for example have non-gentry nannies, non-gentry teachers and in many cases most of their peers are not gentry - and still they do behave like gentry... because the example that the parent sets for the child does matter - even if he sees his nanny or his friend Joe more often than his parent. A child does know who his parent is and will look for him as a role model.

I do not mean to say that a child who did not have a parent who is a good role model is doomed to failure. He may still seek better role models. It is just more complicated.

I think that this is the easy way out for every lazy parent - to say "but it was not me. It was the child's peers". As parents we do have the influence to teach the child who he is and which peers are appropriate and which are most unfortunately not good role models...
Now if we teach that there is nothing like the high and the low, that there are no values that count or if we as parents engage in low-life behaviour thus setting a bad example for our kid - then we brought it on ourselves and should not complain.

Back to language: Just my personal experience: I can speak very ghetto (I had peers who were middle-class but loved talking like they were from the ghetto) but also perfect high language and I can also speak with a strong low German local accent.
So I can speak a) like my parents, but also b) like my peers and c) like unrelated low-German-speakers who are neither my parents nor my peers but I picked up their way of talking somewhere.
I can also "switch" without even noticing it.... like when I talk High German and a Low German speaker asks me a questions - I will answer in perfect low German.

In fact I have no idea how I aquired Low German and why I do speak it so well. My parents do not speak it (unless they talk to a Low German speaker). My peers do not speak it.
It has always puzzled me. May be someone can come up with an explanation.

Re: Received Pronunciation

PostPosted: 23 Aug 2013, 07:44
by Grant
Elliott, your description of class is correct. It is not about privilege but a respect one has for oneself and others. It is not a self-centred preoccupation but an understanding we are always capable of better; appreciating and acquiring those traits that separate us from animals along with a desire to improve the lot of those who want to contribute. Such a mindset is not the exclusive property of those connected with private education. After 35 years of teaching in public education I can assure you this philosophy has its adherents in my line of work. I have always been surprised the right has not pushed this line of thinking and strongly supported public education to ensure the best and brightest individuals were able to serve their society. If the strength and capacity of each individual is the prime determinant of whether societies flourish or flounder, we must do everything possible to maximise the best from each of us.