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29 October 2014
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Language and time by Prof David Crystal
Also on Voices
Received Pronunciation and BBC English
Language ecology
In the beginning...

In Your Area
What do you think about your local accent?
Talk about Voices in your area

Did You Know?
95% of people in Northern Ireland think of themselves as having a moderately strong accent, compared to only 63% of people in the east of England.
Voices poll results

Page 4 of 5
The Middle Ages
Standard English
RP and its successors
The situation today

4. RP and its successors

In speech, the legacy of the eighteenth century concern about class and correctness led to the emergence of one accent which attracted more prestige than others - the speech of polite London society. By the 1830s, writers were advising provincials to speak like Londoners, and by the end of the nineteenth century this accent received a name. It was called 'received pronunciation' (now usually referred to as RP) - that is, the kind of pronunciation passed down from one educated generation to the next.

table top
Play video David Crystal on RP
Play video Lord Reith and RP

RP quickly came to be associated with a public-school education followed by higher education at Oxford or Cambridge. And the accent then rapidly spread through the career-structure which such an education opened up - in the civil and diplomatic service (especially abroad, as the Empire expanded) and the Anglican Church. When the BBC was established, in the 1920s, it was the accent used by its presenters. And it remained the accent of educated choice for most of the twentieth century, going by such varied labels as the 'Oxford accent', 'BBC accent', the 'King's/Queen's accent', and 'public-school accent'.

But almost as soon as RP arrived, it began to diversify. It already contained a great deal of personal variation, and it was subject to change, as any other accent. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was displaying a range of chiefly age-related differences. These would later be described as 'conservative' (used by the older generation), 'general' (or 'mainstream'), and 'advanced' (used by young upper-class and professional people), the latter often being judged as 'affected' by other RP speakers. It retained its upper and upper-middle social-class connotation, as a supra-regional standard, but from the 1960s it slowly came to be affected by the growth of regional identities, resulting in the re-emergence of regional colouring - a phenomenon now described as 'modified RP'.

There was also a reduction in the extent of the country which recognized RP as a desirable standard. It had never had great presence in the Celtic-speaking parts of the UK, and these days, especially after devolution in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, RP survives in most educated voices only with a noticeable regional modification. But even in England, the range of the accent as spoken by the educated class has dramatically altered, incorporating a number of features previously associated with local London speech to produce the accent that the media have happily designated 'Estuary English', or simply 'Estuary'.

Although Estuary was first noticed in the 1990s with reference to the accent emerging around the mouth of the River Thames, it soon became apparent that this name would not do as a means of characterizing an accent several of whose features were spreading around the country. Moreover, the trend had been around for quite a while. As early as 1949, the phonetician Daniel Jones had commented that 'it seems quite likely that in the future our present English will develop in the direction of Cockney unless special influences come in to counteract this tendency'.

No such influences arrived. By the 1970s, accents showing a mixture of RP and Cockney were becoming noticeable, motivated by an upmarket movement of originally Cockney speakers and a downmarket trend towards 'ordinary' (as opposed to 'posh') speech by the middle class. By the 1990s, attitudes had begun to change, with conservative RP attracting negative attitudes, such as 'posh' and 'distant', and modified varieties (such as Estuary) eliciting such positive evaluations as 'warm', 'customer-friendly', and 'down to earth'.

table top
play video RP RIP

For many people, no further evidence of the rehabilitation of regional accents is required than the voices heard during the 1990s in call-centres throughout the UK, where Edinburgh Scots, Yorkshire, and other regional forms were routinely encountered, but traditional RP hardly ever. The number of people using a classical RP accent has fallen greatly, as a consequence. Estimates of usage in the 1980s were that between three and five percent of the British population still used it - around two million. This must be now less than two percent and falling.

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