What is ‘Received Pronunciation’?

‘Received Pronunciation’ or RP is a widely used term, but is not well defined. It is associated both with ‘standard’ and ‘upper class’ accents of English. Often also described as an accent of the South East of England, people from any region may speak it, so what exactly is ‘Received Pronunciation’?

The term ‘Received Pronunciation’ first came into popular usage in the early 20th century when pioneering phonetician Daniel Jones used it in the second edition of the ‘English Pronouncing Dictionary’. It has been used as a learning model for British English ever since; it forms a ‘standard’ set of sounds still used in dictionaries.

Many other names have been used and confused with RP: BBC English, Oxford English, The Queen’s English to name a few. Recently the term ‘General British’ has been introduced by phoneticians to replace ‘Received Pronunciation’ in an attempt to both reflect a more modern standard alternative to ‘General American’, and distance standard English from its upper class associations.

Within the term ‘Received Pronunciation’, there is a wide variation of perceptions. Some associate it with a traditional, ‘upper crust’ accent of the 50s, heard by BBC presenters of the time, though this is now rather antiquated and only heard in older speakers – this is now generally referred to as ‘Upper RP’. Others consider it an accent of the academic worlds of Eton and Oxford. It is often quoted as being spoken by about 3% of the British population, though this figure is impossible to verify and there is no single place where you will find RP spoken by all of those born there.

The last 30 years has seen a considerable loosening and evolution of the concept of ‘Standard’ English accents, with many regional influences creeping in and becomig widely accepted, possibly even favoured in broadcasting. It is unlclear whether the term Received Pronunciation incorporates these developments, as many still perceive it in a more traditional way.

As a term then, Received Pronunciation is confusing as it does not pinpoint an accent or region in the way that other terms like ‘Cockney’, ‘Scouse’ or ‘Lancashire’ do. It started as a blueprint of the range of sounds required to produce a ‘standard’ version of British English and is still useful in this limited scope. It seems likely that other terms, in particular General British will be used to define more modern accents.