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2 September 2014
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Accent-uate the positive
Also on Voices
Attitudes towards accents
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Queen's speech 'less posh'
Rise of Estuary English
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Estuary English


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"I haven't got an accent..."
Is RP what it was?
Estuary English

"The BBC's really gone downhill - aren't they supposed to be the guardians of RP?"

If received pronunciation (RP) is "the regionally neutral, prestige accent of British English", then there's a useful distinction to be made between 'traditional RP' and 'modern RP'.

Trad RP is the very posh, now very rare accent spoken by earnest men in 1950s public information films, certain members of the royal family and art critic Brian Sewell. Modern RP is an unmarked, non-regional standard accent, predominantly spoken in England. Many people have it as part of their repertoire, and it's arguably less far removed from other accents than trad RP.

Someone speaking modern RP, for example, would pronounce 'handle', as 'han-dl' as opposed to the local 'an-dl' or 'an-duw' they might use at other times. A trad RP speaker would pronounce the word 'hen-dl'.

For many years, 'BBC English' was synonymous with received pronunciation.

When the BBC was founded, Lord Reith believed that the traditional RP accent - along with the Standard English dialect - would be the kind of speech that the largest number of people would easily understand.

To some extent, Reith was correct. Since trad RP is an accent that doesn't come from one particular region, in one sense, no area of the country was more disadvantaged than any other. However, since RP was the preserve of the aristocracy and expensive public schools, a very small social minority was favoured over the rest of the population.

In 1941, the BBC first allowed a Northern accent onto the air waves in the shape of news reader Wilfred Pickles.

Some listeners were less inclined to believe the news when Pickles was reading it.

This was not an early attempt at appealing more to the general public, but actually a move to make it more difficult for Nazis to impersonate BBC broadcasters!

Wilfred Pickles became a hero for some, but others were outraged: there was no place for regional accents on the BBC! It was even said that some listeners were less inclined to believe the news when Pickles was reading it.

In more recent times, broadcaster Susan Rae was sent hate mail when her 'incomprehensible' Scottish accent was first heard by some Radio 4 listeners.

Nowadays, the BBC does not aspire to be a 'guardian' of RP as much as to reflect its whole audience, linguistically as well as in its programming.

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