5 Myths About Received Pronunciation (RP)

The Queen speaks RP. So do 3% of Brits. The BBC insist on its use. Oh and it’s currently dying… It’s fair to say that there is a lot of contradictory opinion about RP out there, here are 5 myths about the most controversial of English accents, and the extent to which they may be true:

1. The BBC promotes RP.

In the early days of the BBC (from the 1920s), when the famously authoritarian Lord Reith was in charge, it is certainly true that he saw his mandate to “inform, educate, entertain” stretch to pronunciation. He formed the ‘Advisory Committee’ in order to direct presenters on correct pronunciation, the accent was referred to as ‘Received Pronunciation’. In those days, it seems from their letters at least, that the public generally accepted this approach and saw the BBC as an authority on correct pronunciation.

Fast forward nearly a century and the Advisory Committee no longer exists, replaced by the broader ‘Pronunciation Unit’ after the second world war. The role of this unit is to make recommendations available to broadcasters without dictating. RP is no longer actively promoted, though it is still very commonly heard on the BBC and other British media channels, regional accents are accepted and possibly even preferred in many cases. So it could be said that BBC English and RP were one and the same nearly a century ago, it cannot be said anymore, which explains the problem with the term ‘BBC English’.


2. RP is the accent of Shakespeare.

The image of an actor theatrically galavanting around a stage booming out a soliloquy in Received Pronunciation is perhaps the first image that springs to mind of modern Shakespeare productions. Whether played by a British or American actor, RP is generally the chosen accent. But why? His plays were originally performed in something more similar to West Country, and closer to modern day American than British accents.

Linguist David Crystal and his actor son Ben have been producing Shakespeare in OP (Original Pronunciation) in the last decade and the general consensus is that it makes more sense: it’s more atmospheric, closer to how it would have been performed, and not at all difficult to follow. We’ll never know exactly how Shakespeare sounded, but we do know it wasn’t boomed out in RP.


3. 3% of Brits speak RP.

One of the most commonly cited statistics about RP is that 3% of the population of Britain speak it as their native accent. It is a highly dubious number for various reasons. Firstly, it is notoriously difficult to measure numbers of speakers of any accent, let alone one that appears over a broad geographic area. Secondly, a line must be drawn where RP begins and a regional accent ends, particularly in the South of England. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the study from which the stat is drawn, was based on one group of 50 speakers from Norwich – hardly representative of Britain as a whole. The author’s own explanation of the study is here.


4. RP is dying.

There has been much talk in recent years that RP is dying. To an extent, this is true in that the name is dying; many academics and language teachers have stopped using the term ‘RP’ and are now using ‘General British’ (GB) instead. But in so far as RP is a neutral, non-regional pronunciation of standard English, there is no evidence to suggest it is disappearing, to the contrary, in fact, many regional accents are softening towards the neutral model, but it remains to be seen whether the name will survive.


5. The Queen’s English is RP

If you Google ‘Queen’s English’, most of the first page results are about Received Pronunciation. It’s one of the problems with the term RP, that it has cast a net around just about every upper class British accent around, the Queen’s rather unique accent being the extreme. Probably the only person who speaks like the Queen, is… the Queen. Or actors playing the role of the Queen.