On-Line Phonology course

Received Pronunciation

Why should anyone want to learn the speech sounds for a British accent that is spoken by less than 3% of the population of that country? And, Britain itself provides only a minority of the English speaking peoples of this world.

The reason is mainly to do with a legacy of history. Throughout the last century and throughout the early part of this century, Received Pronunciation (RP) was very much the language of the ruling and educated classes. A vicious circle was then instituted: those who could afford an education went to the private schools and to university where they learnt RP; the teachers for the next generation were then drawn from this class of people to teach the next generation of the ruling elite. Thus, the educators were instructed in RP to teach RP. Therefore, most of the early phonetics work was carried out by RP speakers using their own accent as the 'standard' from which all other varieties were measured.

RP does have the advantage of being a regionless accent although many of these speakers are concentrated in the southeast of England. This is partly to do with its circulation amongst the educated and elite, but it was also the variety that was exported through the colonies during the time of the British Empire. Consequently, the ruling elites of many of these countries also adopted RP as their 'standard'.

One of the problems of RP is that its association with the ruling elite has meant that it is regarded as being a classist accent. Aloofness and snobbishness are characteristics often associated with RP speakers.

The legacy of history has meant that RP is the closest that British English has towards a standard variety. It has been subjected to a great deal of academic scrutiny, it is the choice of many broadcasters and it is an accent that many parents aspire for their children to emulate. The main advantage of learning and using RP is that it is an accent that all English speakers can understand, wherever they are in the world. It may have many problems attached to it, but it is still the most widely understood and respected of the British English varities.

A very strong case could be put forward on behalf of General American English (GAE). It just so happens that I am a British English speaker and it is the field that I am happiest to lay before you in these pages. I make no value judgements on the advantage of learning one over the other.

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Centre for English Language Teaching
Stirling University