Archive for the ‘accents’ Category

The Received Pronunciation (1830s- ), or RP, was the accent or way of saying words of the top people in Britain for most of the 1800s and 1900s. It is what Americans mean when they say someone has a “British accent” and what people in Britain mean when they say someone has a “posh” accent or “no accent”. It is an accent that is readily understood everywhere in the English-speaking world.

Those who use RP, among others:

  • Actors: Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, David Niven, John Cleese, Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard), etc,
  • The BBC from the 1920s to the 1970s,
  • Top schools and universities, like Oxford and Cambridge,
  • Tory MPs.

Patrick Stewart’s accent is not native but part of his theatre training.

About 2 million people in Britain speak RP. For them it is the natural way of speaking. For many who learned English as a foreign language it is the right way to say words, the way you see in British dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary.

RP was the voice of power and authority in the 1930s, but by the 1990s it had become the voice of the stuck-up.

Tony Blair, for example, still spoke RP in the 1980s but by the 1990s he was speaking in Estuary English, an everyman’s London English which is halfway between RP and working-class Cockney.

RP was never the accent of the masses. That was kind of the idea. But for most of the 1900s it was how the top people in all parts of the country spoke. It was how you learned to speak if you went to the top schools and universities, like Eton, Oxford and Cambridge. Eton was said to have the purest RP accent.

RP only tells people that you have a very good education, but not where you are from. You cannot even say an RP speaker is from Britain since most are from overseas.

There was no RP in the 1700s. We know that from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. There was not even a single accent among the rich and powerful back then. That arose in the 1800s with the rise of English public schools (meaning the private schools of the rich).

Lord Reith based BBC English on RP. He saw it as the right way of speaking and wanted the BBC to set an example. It was also the accent that everyone, rich or poor, north or south, native or foreign, understood. That was true before the BBC, but the BBC made it even more true.

You can still hear RP on the BBC, especially on the news, but it started to move away from it in the 1970s.

RP has changed over time. We know that from hearing the old news broadcasts of the BBC. You can also hear it in Angelina Jolie’s character in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004), who speaks in an RP from the 1930s. So RP is not some timeless accent. It changes like everything else.

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