Received Pronunciation, also known as RP, is a British accent known as the “Standard British” accent. It is spoken mostly in London and South East England but is also the accent most often used in formal education and the media. It is also used for phonetic pronunciations in all British dictionaries.
RP developed as the so-called “educated accent” of England, with its roots in the public school system and at the University of Oxford and Cambridge. It became the preferred accent of the BBC in its early days, which significantly reinforced its prestige status. It has also been called ‘The Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’. This is the type of British accent spoken by King Charles and other members of the Royal Family.
There are around 40 British accents. Among these, the most well-known British accent is RP. Each British accent has distinct characteristics. The most noticeable features of RP are as follows.
Non-rhoticity in RP, also known as a non-rhotic accent, refers to the linguistic characteristic where the sound /r/ is not pronounced unless it is followed by a vowel. This feature is one of the main distinguishing characteristics of RP.
The /r/ is not pronounced in words such as “father,” “car,” “butter,” and “farm.”
- Father: /ˈfɑːðə/
- Car: /kɑː/
- Farm: /fɑːm/
Notice how there is no /r/ in the RP phonetic transcriptions, as it is not pronounced.
If a word ending in ‘r’ is followed by another word beginning with a vowel, the /r/ may become audible. This phenomenon is known as Linking ‘r’. For example, in the sentence “the farmer is here”, the /r/ in “farmer” would typically be pronounced in RP because it comes before a vowel sound.
- “four eyes” sounds like “four rise.”
- “more apples” sounds like “more rapples.”
- “our age” sounds like “our rage.”
Doing this helps to connect the speech and makes the words flow better.
Intrusive ‘r’ is a phenomenon in English speech where the rhotic consonant /r/ is pronounced in contexts where it is not written. This typically occurs in certain non-rhotic accents, including RP.
- A syllable that ends in a vowel sound is followed by a syllable that starts with a vowel sound.
- A word that ends in a vowel sound is followed by a word that starts with a vowel sound.
To jump from vowel to vowel, it is easier to insert the /r/ consonant.
- “I saw a dog” is pronounced like “I sawra dog.”
- “Law and order” is pronounced like “lawrand order.”
RP is characterized by its use of the long /ɑː/ vowel sound in certain words, which is different from many other English dialects. This is often referred to as the “bath broadening” because of its use in words like “bath,” “grass,” and “dance”, where the vowel is pronounced as /ɑː/, as in the word “father.” This makes these words sound more like “baahth,” “graahss,” and “daahnse,” in contrast to other English accents like American English which uses a short /æ/ sound.
- grass: /grɑːs/
- bath: /bɑːθ/
- fast: /fɑːst/
- can’t: /kɑːnt/
RP has characteristic diphthongs – two vowel sounds within the same syllable.
For example, the word ‘here’ is pronounced as /hiə/, and ‘no’ as /nəʊ/.
The term Hard ‘t’ refers to the clear, pronounced /t/ sound that is typically used in the RP accent of British English. It is also known as True ‘t’.
In words like “butter” and “water,” the t’s are clearly pronounced.
- butter: /ˈbʌtə/
- water: /wɔːtə/
This differs from a Standard American accent, in which they use a Flap ‘t’ where the /t/ sound in the middle of words like ‘butter’ or ‘water’ is pronounced more like a /d/. It is also known as Soft ‘t’. So, “butter” and “water” would instead sound more like “budder” and “wadder.”
The pronunciation of /l/ is clear in all positions, unlike in many American accents where it is vocalized when it appears at the end of a word or syllable.
For instance, ‘alternate’ is pronounced as /ɔːltərnət/, with a clear /l/ at the beginning of the second syllable.
|Sentence||RP Phonetic Transcription|
|Have you ever been to London?||/hæv ju evə biːn tə lʌndən?/|
|I’d like a bottle of water, please.||/aɪd laɪk ə bɒtl ɒv wɔːtə pliːz/|
|I drive a fast car.||/aɪ draɪv ə fɑːst kɑː/|
|You should meet my father.||/juː ʃʊd miːt maɪ ˈfɑːðə/|
|The standard British accent is different from the standard American accent.||/ðə stændəd brɪtɪʃ æksənt ɪz dɪfrənt frɒm ðə stændəd əmɛrɪkən æksənt/|
|Not every British person likes tea!||/nɒt ɛvri ˈbrɪtɪʃ pɜːsn laɪks tiː!/|
RP is often characterized by its precise diction and enunciation, which make it clear and easy to understand -a reason why it was originally adopted by the BBC.
Variance within RP
There’s no single RP accent but a range of accents that adhere to a similar phonological pattern. This is often divided into “Conservative”, “General” and “Contemporary” RP, reflecting shifts in pronunciation over time.
Changing and Fluid
Like all languages and accents, RP has changed and continues to evolve. Old-fashioned “Upper RP” has given way to more modern forms.
Even though its social significance has lessened over the years, RP was historically associated with a high level of education and upper social class. Nowadays, regional accents are more commonly heard in various professional and media contexts, yet RP still carries a certain prestige.
The use of RP has been declining. According to the Linguistics Society in the UK, only about 2% of Brits now speak RP. In today’s more egalitarian society, the RP accent is less predominant but it still holds an important place in the study of British language and linguistics.