Received Pronunciation

In Hollywood movies, many of the villains use received pronunciation--even supposedly German villains like 'Die Hard's' Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman
(20th Century Fox, 1988)

Received pronunciation, commonly abbreviated as RP, is a once prestigious variety of British English spoken without an identifiable regional dialect. It is also known as British Received Pronunciation, BBC English, the Queen's English, and posh accentStandard British English is sometimes used as a synonym. The term received pronunciation was introduced and described by phonetician Alexander Ellis in his book "Early English Pronunciation" (1869).

History of the Dialect

"Received Pronunciation is only around 200 years old," said linguist David Crystal. "It emerged towards the end of the 18th century as an upper-class accent, and soon became the voice of the public schools, the civil service, and the British Empire" (Daily Mail, October 3, 2014). 

Author Kathryn LaBouff gives some background in her tome, "Singing and Communicating in English":

"It was standard practice until the 1950s for university students to adjust their regional accents to be closer to RP. RP was traditionally used on stage, for public speaking, and by the well-educated. In the 1950s, RP was used by the BBC as a broadcast standard and was referred to as BBC English. Since the 1970s, the BBC label has been dropped and RP has slowly been more inclusive of regional influences throughout the United Kingdom. By the turn of the twenty-first century RP was spoken by only 3 percent of the population. Today BBC broadcasters do not use Received Pronunciation, which actually today now sounds out of place; they use a neutralized version of their own regional accents that is intelligible to all listeners." (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Characteristics of RP

Not every dialect in Britain has a pronounced h sound, which is one difference between them, among differences in vowels. "The prestige British accent known as 'received pronunciation' (RP) pronounces h at the beginning of words, as in hurt, and avoids it in such words as arm. Cockney speakers do the reverse; I 'urt my harm," explained David Crystal. "Most English accents around the world pronounce words like car and heart with an audible r; RP is one of the few accents which does not. In RP, words like bath are pronounced with a 'long a' ('bahth"); up north in England it is a 'short a.' Dialect variations mainly affect the vowels of a language." ("Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language." Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Prestige and Backlash

Having a dialect or manner of speaking associated with different classes is called a social dialect. Having esteem or social value to a manner of speaking is called linguistic prestige. The flip side of that coin is called accent prejudice.

In "Talking Proper: The Rise and Fall of the English Accent as a Social Symbol," author Lynda Mugglestone wrote, "Adoptive RP, a common feature of the past, is in this sense increasingly a rarity in modern language use as many speakers reject the premise that it is this accent alone which is the key to success. Reversing the polarities still further, RP... has regularly been deployed for those roundly depicted as villains in, for example, Disney's films 'The Lion King' and 'Tarzan.'" (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian about the backlash in Ghana:

"[A] backlash is growing against the old mentality of equating a British accent with prestige. Now the practice has a new acronym, LAFA, or 'locally acquired foreign accent,' and attracts derision rather than praise.
"'In the past we have seen people in Ghana try to mimic the Queen's English, speaking in a way that doesn't sound natural. They think it sounds prestigious, but frankly it sounds like they are overdoing it,' said Professor Kofi Agyekum, head of linguistics at the University of Ghana.
"'There has been a significant change now, away from those who think sounding English is prestigious, towards those who value being multilingual, who would never neglect our mother tongues, and who are happy to sound Ghanaian when we speak English.'" ("Ghana Calls an End to Tyrannical Reign of the Queen's English." April 10, 2012)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Received Pronunciation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Received Pronunciation. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Received Pronunciation." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).