The Rise, Reign, and (declining?) Reputation of Received Pronunciation

© Melanie East 2008

General Introduction

But however indifferent we are to language as a whole, most of us are far from indifferent to our own speech. On the contrary, it is nowadays considered essential that those who aspire to be regarded as cultured and educated should pay a due regard to the conventions that govern cultured and educated speech. It would appear that this interest in the niceties of our language is more alive now than ever before, and it has been suggested that broadcasting is in some way responsible for this quickening.  (James 36)

This meditation on the standards of speech was offered by Arthur Lloyd James in an essay written for the BBC during the first half of the twentieth century. In his observations, James connects culture, education, and broadcasting with what has long been considered the standard British accent: “Received Pronunciation”. Received Pronunciation (RP) was codified by Daniel Jones in his 1917 English Pronouncing Dictionary and is the accent most commonly associated with the British “upper crust.” It has also been variously labeled Received Standard English, Public School Pronunciation, General British, the King’s English, the Queen’s English, BBC English, and Oxford English; though as Marnie Holborow notes, Received Pronunciation is the most conveniently “agentless” term (156). More colloquially, RP has been referred to as “talking proper,” “talking posh,” or, to indicate affectation, as la-di-dah or cut-glass (“Received Pronunciation,” Oxford Companion 768). Traditionally, RP has been the speech of the officer corps, the civil service, the church, and the public schools (not to mention a major broadcasting network), all of whose members constitute less than five percent of the population (Ducat 186). Thus, for nearly a century, RP has enjoyed fairly exclusive status as the “correct” British pronunciation, inspiring the adoption of its characteristics by those seeking to climb the social and economic ladder.

Characteristics of RP

Essentially, RP is based on a sixteenth-century, upper-class London accent (Altendorf 28). Some of its prominent characteristics are clipped consonants and elongated vowels (Rundle): familiar examples are its non-rhoticity (“r”-dropping) and its pronunciation of words such as glass and dance with the long back vowel /a:/ (Svartvik 125). Also, a traditional RP speaker would pronounce handle as hen-dl (Law). Most importantly, RP is defined as “non-regional”, and thus, in its ideal form, does not tolerate regional variation (Altendorf 28). One journalist has humorously remarked that asking an upper-class English citizen where he or she comes from is a very awkward question because of the myth that RP speakers do not come from anywhere—only speakers with accents come from places (Altendorf 29). Fundamentally then, RP indicates social and educational background, and obscures the location of the speaker’s birth (Crystal 365).

The Father of RP

Because of its “regionless” nature, the social and educational background of RP’s creator, Daniel Jones, is significant to understanding the ideological roots of the accent. Jones was born in 1881 in central London into “an oasis of calm, secluded privilege” (Collins 1). Educated in the upper-middle-class, fee-paying public school system (Collins 6, 8) Jones eventually received a B.A. from Cambridge and went on to study in France under Paul Passy: the originator of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Ultimately, Jones became Reader in Phonetics at London University (Crowley 139). Much like today, Jones and other early phoneticians considered themselves scientists who studied pronunciation from a neutral point of view (Crowley 172). Yet Jones’ upper-middle class, London background situates him in the centre of economic and political power, which would have influenced his speech and subsequent theories considerably. Consequently, Tony Crowley argues that Jones, like his academic peers, constructed theories with the similar preferences and prejudices of the nineteenth century (173). Such prejudices may be seen in The Pronunciation of English, which Jones published in 1905 twelve years before the publication of the English Pronouncing Dictionary. Jones explains in this early text that the contents are intended for “students . . . whose aim is to correct cockneyisms or other undesirable pronunciations . . . The dialectical peculiarities, indistinctiveness and artificialities which are unfortunately so common in the pronunciation of public speakers may be avoided by the application of the elementary principles of phonetics” (qtd. in Crowley 139). From these introductory remarks it is clear that Jones deems Cockney and other regional accents inferior. Later, in 1912, Jones wrote Phonetic Readings in English, which claimed to be a text designed for those foreign learners wishing to learn the “correct pronunciation of the English language” (Crowley 139). Again, Jones’ tendency towards prescriptivism is clearly marked.

Despite these earlier remarks, it would be unfair to assert Jones’ prescriptivism without taking into account his obvious efforts to negate such a reputation and to adhere to what he understood as scientific neutrality. Jones claims in his introduction to the first edition of the 1917 Pronouncing Dictionary that “The book is a record of facts, not of theories or personal preferences. No attempt is made to decide how people ought to pronounce; all that the dictionary aims at doing is to give a faithful record of the manner in which certain specified classes of people do pronounce” (Jones, Pronouncing Dictionary vii). Jones is very explicit about the “specified classes” from which his study is taken: the work is based on the ordinary conversation of “cultivated Southern English people” (vii). Similarly, the editor of the 1919 reprint prefaces the dictionary with high praise of Jones’ scientific offering, while also revealing his own opinions of the importance of standardization. The editor, Walter Ripman, writes, “Every dialect has its interest and its appeal; but one who knows only his dialect finds himself at a disadvantage in social life, when once he passes beyond the limits within which that dialect is spoken, and it may well be doubted whether aesthetic appreciation of our literature is not impaired” (Ripman vi). Here, the editor not only offers a critique of provincialism, but even extends the importance of pronunciation (with a significant leap of imagination) to an appreciation of literary aesthetics. Most fascinating though, are the editor’s contradictory claims two paragraphs later where he states that pronunciation is “a fatally attractive subject for dogmatizing . . . This book does not claim to afford a model of pronunciation, and criticism that attributes to it any such claims is futile. It is to be judged as a record of fact . . . and to those who like me believe that we can and should face the question what should be taught as ‘standard English speech’ it will prove no less stimulating” (Ripman vi). The internal contradictions in these statements hardly need rehearsing: the book is not to be seen as prescribing a “model of pronunciation”, yet it should be used for teaching “standard English speech”. At the time of the Dictionary’s publication the term RP was not yet employed to describe Jones’ model, but the editor’s term “standard,” with all of the later connotations in tact, is what eventually became RP.

Establishing the Notion of a Standard Pronunciation

Attempts to establish a standard English pronunciation occurred long before Daniel Jones’ English Pronouncing Dictionary introduced RP. In 1766 James Buchanan published “An Essay towards establishing a standard for an elegant and uniform pronunciation of the English language throughout the British dominions, and practiced by the most learned and polite speakers”. It is clear from Buchanan’s title that the standard he calls for should be based on education and class, thereby emphasizing the traditional associations of “proper,” “standard” pronunciation with the accent of the educated elite. What is even more fascinating is Buchanan’s association of pronunciation with Britain’s military power. He rhetorically exclaims:

 Shall we ourselves then, unmindful of the richness and elegance of our own language, justly incur contempt by a shameful neglect in training up our youth in a masterly knowledge of it? Forbid it, Britain’s better genius! Let it rather be published . . . that after the British nation had carried their victorious arms over the four quarters of the globe, and compelled their enemies to sue for peace, they had the good policy to set about the further improvement of their language. (7)

It is clear from comments such as Buchanan’s that pronunciation has the tendency to become a political issue. Importantly, Tony Crowley examines the development of the notion of a standard, tracing the nineteenth-century valorization of particular pronunciations. In his study he notes that the phrase “The Queen’s English” became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century (110). He importantly explains the associations the term possessed: “The Queen’s English clearly marks out certain speakers as English citizens and demands in return an allegiance to the language. Moreover, the Queen’s English, like the sovereign herself, has to be protected from abuse and it has to be cared for and protected in order to safeguard both it and our ability to think and speak” (110). Yet while the phrase “The Queen’s English” may be loaded with such weighty implications as allegiance and citizenship, Crowley points out that the term standard superseded the monarchical moniker, and was filled with even further ideological connotations. In effect, the term standard suggests “a single form of speech that [replaces] diversity and variation” (Crowley 107). It is within this hardening concept of “standard” that Jones’ English Pronouncing Dictionary emerged, thus entering a discourse that left little room for the neutrality RP’s creator ostensibly hoped for. In later editions of his 1918 work An Outline of English Phonetics, Jones asserts:

 I do not consider it possible at the present time to regard any special type as ‘Standard’ or as intrinsically ‘better’  . . . Nevertheless, the type described in this book is certainly a useful one. It is based on my own (Southern) speech, and is, as far as I can ascertain, that generally used by those who have been educated at ‘preparatory’ boarding schools and the ‘Public Schools’. This pronunciation is fairly uniform in these schools and is independent of their locality. (Jones, Outline 12)

Here, Jones reveals that the educational background of RP is Britain’s “public schools,” which, in actual fact, are very expensive private schools. Thus, it is clear that despite the seemingly innocuous, agentless term “Received Pronunciation,” the standard accent codified in Jones’ dictionary was “received” through elite institutions, thereby associating accent with education in the manner James Buchanan hoped for in 1766.

BBC Involvement

In the eighteenth-century James Buchanan may have needed a pronouncing dictionary or a language society to act as gatekeeper for an elite English accent, but in the twentieth century all Daniel Jones needed for standardizing RP was the advent of radio. The British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in 1922 and its creators soon realized the network’s potential to affect the nation’s pronunciation. Thus, RP’s authority was even further entrenched when the BBC adopted it as its broadcast standard, thereby promoting both Jones’ work and his scholarly reputation to a widespread lay audience. In 1924, the managing director, John Reith explained that the BBC had made specific efforts to hire men who “employ the correct pronunciation of the English tongue . . . I have frequently heard that disputes as to the right pronunciation of words have been settled by reference to the manner in which they have been spoken on the wireless” (Oxford Companion 106-7). Clearly, the public adopted the BBC as its pronunciation authority quickly. Simon Elmes, an affiliate of the BBC, has recently pointed out that there has even been a perceived association between the accuracy of the announcer’s pronunciation and the accuracy of the announcer’s facts (Elmes xiii). Such a powerful ideological investment in RP is nowhere more clear than in the public outcry over introducing a non-RP newsreader during World War II. In 1941 the BBC first attempted to introduce a non-RP accent on air when Wilfred Pickles, from the north of England, was used as a newsreader to make it difficult for the Nazis to impersonate a BBC accent and present misleading news of their successes (“BBC English,” 108). An indignant public rejected Pickles as a national newsreader and some listeners actually questioned the accuracy of the news when Pickles read it (Law).  The environment at the network helped exaggerate the authoritative connection between newsreader and accent where under Reith’s management newsreaders and programme announcers were required to wear dinner-jackets when on duty in the evening (Oxford Companion 108). It may be useful to remember this was before the advent of television, which only highlights the formality further. Perhaps extremely, Vivian Ducat emphasizes the connection between the BBC and elitism: “the BBC’s administrators and announcers were drawn from the ruling elite, from the top of a staunchly hierarchical social system. With a high-minded pride reminiscent of those who shouldered the ‘white man’s burden,’ the early BBC directors saw it as their mission not only to entertain but also to educate” (186). Significantly, it was into this decorous environment that Jones’ RP model was adopted and disseminated over the airwaves of the nation. Thus, Jones’ academic authority, combined with the BBC’s credibility, effectively reified RP as the standard British accent.

BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English

In 1926 the BBC’s interest in providing pronunciation advice for its newsreaders (and the general public, by extension) resulted in the inception of the Advisory Committee on Spoken English (ACSE) (Oxford Companion 107). The members of this committee afford a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of linguistic authority. The ACSE consisted, in part, of John Reith, managing director of the BBC; Daniel Jones, phonetician and founder of RP; George Bernard Shaw, responsible for popularizing phonetics in Pygmalion thirteen years earlier; Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate; and Arthur Lloyd James, phonetician and colleague of Jones at the University of London. The purpose of the ACSE was to make recommendations, based on majority vote, for eliminating confusion in the pronunciation of place names, uncommon literary or scientific words, and words in common use (Leitner 96). Yet the Committee had many detractors, and as it was often in the public eye, there were constant complaints (Ducat 196). In addition, the regional press was resistant, since it naturally perceived an attempt on the part of the ACSE to eliminate the diversity of Britain’s regional accents (Ducat 196).

Arthur Lloyd James and The Broadcast Word

To disseminate their findings, the Committee produced phonograph records of correctly pronounced words spoken by Arthur Lloyd James (Leitner 96). Furthermore, “talks” on the notion of correct speech, as well as a course entitled English Speech were broadcast on BBC airwaves, both of which were results of the ACSE’s activities. In 1935 Lloyd James published The Broadcast Word, a collection of these talks, lectures, and essays stemming from the ACSE’s work. In the preface James thanks the BBC for permission to reprint work first written for the network’s use, thereby linking the BBC to the content of the collection. Interestingly, the epigraph to the first work in the collection is a telling quotation from Ben Jonson: “Custom is the most certain Mistress of Language . . . Yet when I name Custom, I understand not the vulgar Custom: for that were a precept no less dangerous to Language, than life, if we should speak or live after the manners of the vulgar: but what I call Custom of speech, which is the consent of the learned; as Custom of life, which is the consent of the good” (qtd. in James 1). With the rhetoric of this preface, it is hardly surprising to find statements by James that proclaim radio broadcasting as a way to rid public life of “infantile incoherence of speech” (James 5).  James’ first essay outlines the BBC’s hiring and training practices, both of which show a clear emphasis on a very specific accent associated with higher education. Though a preference for education and clarity can hardly be criticized, the rhetoric James uses is again the language of linguistic prescriptivism which privileges a certain pronunciation over others, seemingly beyond the context of broadcasting. James explains, “Many candidates are rejected because their English accent is unsuitable; usually it is too aggressively modern, too much like what is sometimes called the ‘haw-haw’—the sort of speech certain comedians love to play with” (21). James may not feel that certain accents are the most easily understood for broadcasting purposes, but the label “haw-haw” suggests a discrimination beyond mere intelligibility. Also rather astonishing is James’ claim that while many BBC listeners not used to RP hate its sound and ascribe to it such pejorative epithets as “precious,” “mincing,” and “affected,” speakers with RP accents are still preferred by the BBC (32-33). Oddly, James offers no reason for this preference, though it is obvious elsewhere that the BBC’s assumption is that this accent reflects education, which is the primary value of the network.

George Bernard Shaw and RP

As another member of the ACSE, the authority George Bernard Shaw’s literary status lent RP is clear. In addition to his pronunciation work for the BBC, Shaw was instrumental in promoting RP as a standard through his art, as well as through various outspoken articles asserting the importance of proper pronunciation. While his famous play Pygmalion is, on one level, a critique of artificial boundaries between the classes, the work also does much to underscore the social and economic advantages of what is more or less RP. In fact, in the preface to Pygmalion, Shaw emphasizes the value of the science of phonetics, popularizing an emerging discipline that was (and still is) largely unrecognized in the public imagination. In this preface, Shaw includes such characteristically scathing criticism as: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it . . . The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play” (807). At the end of his preface he restates that “if the play makes the public aware that there are such people as phoneticians, and that they are among the most important people in England at present, it will serve its turn” (809). Naturally, Shaw was no phonetician, and had a lay knowledge of the science only, which raises important questions regarding his authoritative credibility in helping to decide pronunciation for the BBC. In fact, Daniel Jones’ biographers reveal that Shaw “knew little about the discipline whose cause he espoused with such enthusiasm . . . his knowledge of the content of phonetics was limited; most of his writings on language show a combination of a little half-understood information with many bigoted opinions” (Collins 98). Yet Shaw became chairman of the Advisory Committee in 1930 (Ducat 190) and in 1934 wrote a letter to The Times defending the Committee (and himself) to detractors. In the letter he claims that “All the members of the committee speak presentably: that is they are all eligible, as far as their speech is concerned, for the judicial bench, the cathedral pulpit, or the throne” (qtd. in Ducat 191). Shaw had a fraught relationship with the Committee however, and never hesitated to point out internal difficulties in the decision-making process.

What is perhaps most fascinating about Shaw’s role in popularizing RP is that Daniel Jones was quite likely the real-life phonetician on whom Pygmalion’s Professor Higgins was based. Although Shaw claimed his crabby pedant did not stem from anyone in particular, it is supposed by Jones’ biographers that the London University professor was the partial model. In fact, Jones and Shaw were well-acquainted by the time of Pygmalion’s production, and Shaw had even sought advice from Jones on phonetic matters while writing the script (Collins 99). There is also an anecdotal account from a third party claiming Shaw told Jones he was naming his character Higgins after having seen a shop sign in south London emblazoned with the names Jones and Higgins (Collins 100). Furthermore, Shaw sent the American actress playing Eliza for the original production to Jones for elocution lessons (Collins 101). Ultimately, Shaw’s connection to both Jones and the BBC provided him with an outlet beyond his art for exerting influence over the nation’s pronunciation, which he felt was in peril. By investing his literary authority in RP he lent the accent even higher status in the popular imagination.

BBC Pronunciation Unit

Although Shaw, Jones, and the rest of the ACSE suspended their work during the Second World War, an heir was established later in the 1940s named the BBC Pronunciation Unit, which still exists in some form today (Oxford Companion 108). The Pronunciation Unit was staffed by one woman, Gertrude M. Miller, but in 1941 Jones re-established his connection with the BBC and became adviser to Miller (Collins 367). Jones’ research with her was later incorporated into the eleventh edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary in 1956, again demonstrating the influence of the BBC in the evolution of RP. Ultimately, Jones worked for the BBC on a consultancy basis until his death at 86, and in his later years his increasingly progressive approach to phonetics allegedly paved the way for the more liberal practices of the BBC today (Collins 369).

The Changing Relationship between the BBC and RP

In 1979, famous retired BBC broadcaster, Alvar Lidell, complained in an article to the BBC’s magazine that the network’s pronunciation standards were declining (Oxford Companion 109). In response, the BBC established a monitoring committee to assess the situation and report on its findings. Robert Burchfield, a member of the committee and chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, published the proceedings in a 1982 tract entitled The Spoken Word: A BBC Guide. The report finds that the standard of spoken English broadcast on BBC networks is acceptable (5). Moreover, the report holds that it can no longer be assumed that all BBC broadcasters should speak RP (7). This statement is a significant early step in the BBC’s efforts to disassociate itself from the negative connotations of RP. The publication also offers lists of standard pronunciations for BBC announcers to follow as a reference guide only. Burchfield importantly notes: “Most of those who express concern about the state of the English language at the present time seem to be unaware that more grievous or more fundamental changes to the language have occurred at various periods” (5-6). He then goes on to cite examples of grammatical change, foreign borrowing, the Great Vowel Shift, and the general spread of English as a lingua franca through the world. Lastly, Burchfield explains that the booklet does not commend itself to every broadcaster in the country and that changes should be made by region where necessary (6): an argument that undermines accusations of more recent attempts by the BBC at standardization. However, it should be noted that while Burchfield and his peers seemingly display a less prescriptive stance on pronunciation than Lidell, the cover of the pamphlet clearly establishes Burchfield’s credentials as chief editor of the OED, which appear only slightly above the New York Times declaration that the tract is “The Last Word on the Queen’s English”. Ultimately, the tract follows in the footsteps of earlier BBC productions that entrench RP pronunciation through linguistic authority.

Yet despite the continued connection, Gerhard Leitner has assessed the BBC’s historical role in the development of RP and has usefully concluded that despite “maximalist” studies assigning the BBC the role of “linguistic gatekeeper” the actual influence of the BBC makes it more useful to view the network as a “co-orchestrator” with other linguists and institutions (Leitner 103). Today, the BBC Pronunciation Research Unit vehemently rejects the term BBC English, labeling it a misnomer, and attempting to distance the network from a long history of prescriptive associations. The head of the Unit, Dr. Catherine Sangster, emphasizes RP’s continued connection with education, prestige and authority, but also its connotations of privilege and arrogance which the network now wishes to evade. Currently, the BBC World Service has several sites devoted to teaching English to foreign learners and treats the issue of pronunciation carefully. There are disclaimers all over the various sites recognizing the prevalence of RP while emphasizing that it is only one of many English accents and not necessarily the most valid. In fact, the introductory page of the BBC Learning English site has this disclaimer:

 . . . you do not have to speak like a native English speaker to have good pronunciation. There are many different natural varieties of English pronunciation in Britain and around the world. The activities and resources in this part of the site are designed to give an introduction to certain features of standard British English pronunciation, which is sometimes called Received Pronunciation (RP). (Learning English - Pronunciation tips”)

This warning is characteristic of the rash of politically correct apologies RP now trails with it. Another site supported by the British Council and the BBC, teaching English, emphasizes to English Language teachers that they should encourage non-standardized accents in the classroom and recognize English as an international language spoken with many different accents around the world. Jennifer Jenkins, a lecturer in sociolinguistics and a writer for the site, even suggests that “students should be given plenty of exposure in their pronunciation classrooms to other non-native accents of English . . . For EIL [English as an International Language], this is much more important than having classroom exposure to native speaker accents” (Jenkins). Jenkins’ comments highlight a major ideological shift in the teaching of pronunciation and in the BBC’s own policy: RP is no longer prized as the most valuable accent for social, economic, and political advancement. Although a form of RP is still taught to foreign learners today, deviations from it are far more acceptable.

Shifting Attitudes towards RP

The more democratic approach to pronunciation taken by the BBC and English Language teachers now entails altered perceptions of RP and even of its speakers. For instance, one socio-psychological study has noted that while RP speakers may have some economic and social advantages, they are often identified as lacking in human warmth and caring (Giles et. al, qtd. in Altendorf 34). Similarly, Peter Trudgill explains, “RP speakers are perceived, as soon as they start speaking, as haughty and unfriendly by non-RP speakers unless and until they are able to demonstrate the contrary. They are, as it were, guilty until proven innocent” (195). Thus, there seem to be cases where using RP actually increases prejudice. David Crystal helpfully confirms this by noting that though a variation of RP remains the standard accent of the monarchy, Parliament, and the Church of England, “regionally modified speech is no longer stigmatized . . . it can be a plus feature, expressing such virtues as solidarity and ‘down-to-earthness’. A pure RP accent, by contrast, can evoke hostility or suspicion” (365). Consequently, where pronunciation has historically been defined along value-laden binaries positioning RP on the left-hand side (educated/uneducated, non-regional/regional, and correct, careful/slovenly speech (Leitner 100)), new binaries may be said to exist between ‘down-to-earthness’/snobbery and human warmth/coolness which now position RP on the less powerful right-hand side. A further example of changing negative perceptions can be seen in an RP-speaking journalist’s complaint that a BBC controller claimed her RP accent would “cause nerveless fingers to grope for the off button” because her speech was “too posh, stuck-up, toffee-nosed” (The Spectator, 9 October 1999: qtd. in Altendorf 36). Thus, it is clear that RP’s reputation is changing, and in some contexts is seen as completely inappropriate.

Significantly, if an “authentic” RP speaker can be accused of affectation, those who adopt the accent for social advancement may be perceived as even more affected. For instance, Deborah Cameron examines RP in British politics and shows how some politicians with lower-middle-class backgrounds, such as Margaret Thatcher, have adopted RP for its class associations but have failed to do so properly. In one example, Cameron explains the phenomenon of hypercorrection wherein non-RP speakers correct vowel sounds in the wrong places (94). Such hypercorrection results in a “double bind” for those who attempt to avoid the negative judgment of possessing “vulgar” pronunciation, only to encounter prejudice against “inauthentic” RP speech as affected (95). She notes the public repulsion to Thatcher’s speech makeover, which in some minds was associated with manipulation—an association potentially damaging to a political public image (96). Essentially, this changing attitude to RP results from challenges to its elite associations that have been developing for the past half-century. As noted above, the posh connotations of RP have been partially replaced with opposing ones, displaying how ideologically loaded pronunciation can be. Tom McArthur outlines:

the mood of the nation began to change, particularly in the 1960s—a decade in which many received attitudes were challenged . . . During and after the 1960s (the golden age of the Beatles, four working-class Liverpool pop singers who represented the speech style of another England altogether), language attitudes tended to become more ‘democratic’ and less judgemental. (McArthur 365)

Here, McArthur points to the early form of an influential phenomenon affecting attitudes towards pronunciation: Britpop. For younger generations, Britpop, Rock and Punk introduced and popularized an entirely new outlook on pronunciation and correct speech that granted a new type of street credit to accents typically thought inferior to RP.

RP, Popular Culture, and Accent Levelling

Popular Punk Rock and Britpop music played an instrumental role not only in changing attitudes towards RP, but also in actually altering popular pronunciation. Tom McArthur goes on to explain that “a marked element of counter-pressure prevailed, as where the non-establishment speech styles of pop stars . . . had a powerful impact, including a trending down or linguistic downshifting among young people . . . contribut[ing] in the UK to accent levelling between RP and some local kinds of usage” (371). Importantly, the accent levelling introduced by British pop music was largely the influence of the Cockney accent. The anti-establishment attitudes of Rock and Britpop were generally conveyed in London’s infamous working-class, east-end accent, invoked in a spirit of rebellion against the authority of wealth and privilege. Emphasizing the Cockney accent was crucial to the defiant punk project as musicians attempted to distance themselves from the authority of conservative institutions such as the monarchy and the BBC—both of which are implicated in nicknames for RP. In short, rejecting such authorities necessitated rejecting the accents with which these authorities were intimately connected. The influence of popular culture seems, therefore, to have been partially responsible for a generational variation of RP speakers. In fact, two sub-varieties of RP have been named. “General RP” is the accent typically spoken by the middle-aged BBC newsreader, and “Advanced RP” is the accent of the “young and trendy” (Altendorf 31). While there may be internal divisions that fall under the umbrella of RP, the influence of the Cockney accent has also contributed to a newly emerging “standard”: Estuary English. This accent stems from the south like RP, but reflects the breakdown of stringent class barriers with its Cockney influence from “below,” and RP influence from “above” (Svartvik 130). Ironically, even the Queen’s version of RP has altered over the years. In 2000 the BBC News released the findings of an experiment carried out in Australia where scientists listened to archives of Her Majesty’s Christmas messages since 1952 to track changes in her accent. The examiners discovered that the Queen’s accent today is less “cut-glass” than several decades ago. From years of recordings, the Queen’s vowels were compared to archives of the standard accents of female BBC broadcasters whose accents are also representative of changes in RP. Apparently, the queen’s vowel pronunciation has shifted towards the same pronunciation characteristic of speakers “who are younger and/or lower in the social hierarchy” (“Queen’s Speech ‘Less Posh’”). The example provided is the Queen’s pronunciation of had, which rhymed with bed in the 1950s, but now sounds more like bad. However, the researchers are quick to point out that despite the slight changes the Queen shows no signs of Cockney influence even though Prince William has occasionally been overheard using glottal stops (“Queen’s Speech ‘Less Posh’”).


On the whole, while the ideological connotations of accent may seem less important in the more liberal, demotic climate of the twenty-first century, the social and political implications RP has traditionally carried cannot be understated. The linguistic authorities that so influentially promoted the “non-regional” accent in the first half of the twentieth century may have had useful intentions, but the side-effects of their prescription have long been realized in social and class prejudices. The exponents of Punk and Britpop quite rightly identified RP with power since Received Pronunciation is still maintained by traditional sites of authority today. Tracing the dying vestiges of RP in London, columnist Michael Rundle recently realized when he boarded the Tube that RP is still used over loud-speaker addresses for the London transport system: a realization that led him to conclude like the Punk musicians that “Perhaps we expect RP where we expect authority” (Rundle). Overall, RP’s connotations of power and authority have to do with the process of its evolution and codification, which, clearly, had more to do with the influence of the educated elite than with a natural rise to prominence through common, everyday usage.

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