3 Nov 2022

All about accents: has Received Pronunciation had its day?

There has been much talk in the media about the ways in which people in Britain still feel discriminated against because of their regional accent. There is a huge diversity of regional accents in Britain, which bring colour and personality to the language, and this should be celebrated not denigrated. There are no good or bad accents – verbal communication is about clear diction, not pronunciation. It goes without saying that commenting adversely on a person’s pronunciation or indicating that it is not ‘correct’ is the height of bad manners.

Many of these problems stem from the notion of ‘received pronunciation’, a phrase that was first coined in the 1869. It is also known as the ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘Oxford English’. Received pronunciation is an accent, not a dialect; its speakers use Standard English, avoiding non-standard constructions and local vocabulary. It is therefore impossible to detect the geographical origins of RP-speakers. It is estimated that only 3 per cent of English-speakers in the UK use Received Pronunciation.

Received Pronunciation originated in the public schools and universities during the 19th century, which were populated by members of the ruling elite. Their speech patterns – based on a geographical nexus that embraced London, Oxford and Cambridge – came to be associated with the middle-class Establishment.

In 1922 the BBC selected Received Pronunciation as a broadcasting standard (it is also called BBC English), believing that this standard pronunciation would be widely understood throughout the UK and overseas. However, RP represented only a very small social minority, and this decision effectively excluded regional accents from the airwaves, probably contributing to negative perceptions of regional accents.

For much of the 20th century Received Pronunciation represented the voice of education, authority and power. For this reason, people who sought social advancement often felt it was necessary to modify their accent, thereby disguising their regional roots. This has changed in recent years, and a vast range of accents are represented in all walks of life – from media, sport, the arts to the traditional strongholds of RP such as politics, the City and academia.

Old habits die hard, however, and recent research would seem to indicate that there is still discrimination against regional accents. Because of the traditional associations of RP with the corridors of power, it would appear that some diehards feel that it is permissible to patronise people who do not speak Standard English, or even feel it is legitimate to offer advice on ‘correct’ pronunciation.

The only time it is ever acceptable to correct someone’s pronunciation is if they mispronounce your name, in which case it is fine to gently repeat it with the correct pronunciation – perhaps with an acknowledgment if it happens to be unusual or difficult to get right.

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