When the Royal Society unsuccessfully attempted to establish a formal language academy in England in 1664, lexicographers and grammarians from the London area alternately formed a Grammarian Class with the aims to refine, fix, and ascertain the English language (Smith “Scientific”). From the language prescriptions and proscriptions imposed by the wealthy white English male hegemony of the Grammarian Class arose the spoken standard of British English termed Received Pronunciation (Smith; Baugh and Cable 315). Often abbreviated RP, Received Pronunciation developed from the middle class London dialect in the eighteenth century (“Received”). RP quickly became the accent spoken at prominent private schools and prestigious universities such as Eton, Harrow, Cambridge, and Oxford in the nineteenth century and continues as the standard pronunciation of the “Royal Family, Parliament, the Church of England, the High Courts, and other national institutions” (“Received”). During the period of British Imperialism, extra-insular varieties of English emerged and subsequently developed standards in former British colonies such as America, Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand, and Australia (Smith “Englishes”). As the conventional pronunciation of the affluent and powerful, however, RP remains the voice of authority and influence for many speakers of divergent dialects and Englishes. In fact, some speakers of extra-insular varieties of English even view their own languages as inferior to RP (Smith “Englishes”). But, regardless of the superior status granted to Standard British English, the RP accent is only socially more prestigious, not linguistically.
Received Pronunciation elitists often justify the superiority of RP to extra-insular varieties with the claim that the accent uses older forms of pronunciation. According to Baugh and Cable, however, current American pronunciation more closely resembles seventeenth and eighteenth century British English and even seems “somewhat old-fashioned” when compared to modern RP (360). For example, Standard American English is rhotic, but Standard British English is non-rhotic (Smith “Features”). Rhotic accents pronounce the phoneme /r/ in all linguistic environments in contrast to non-rhotic accents in which the phoneme /r/ is pronounced only when preceding a vowel sound (“Rhotic”). Speakers of twenty-first century RP pronounce both lord and laud as [lɔd] and both lorn and lawn as [lɔn] (Mugglestone 99). Standard American speakers instead produce four distinct words: lord [lɔrd], laud [lɔd], lorn [lɔrn], and lawn [lɔn]. Whereas British speakers pronounce car and mister as [ka] and [mɪstə] with a “dropped r” pronunciation, American speakers produce car [kar] and mister [mɪstər] with retention of the /r/ sound at the ends of the words (Mugglestone 98). Scottish English and Irish English are other examples of extra-insular rhotic accents (Mugglestone 99). Since pronunciation of the phoneme /r/ differs in Standard British English and Standard American English, supporters of Received Pronunciation superiority claim Standard English originates as a non-rhotic accent.
In addition to /r/ retention, Standard American English also retains the “flat a” in words in which Standard British English shifted the vowel to the back of the mouth (Baugh and Cable 360). For instance, both castle [cæsəl] and grass [græs] are pronounced with the low front vowel [æ] by many American speakers. Most British speakers conversely pronounce castle and grass as [casəl] and [gras] with the low back vowel [a]. Just as with the rhotic pronunciation, RP elitists argue that the low front vowel [æ] is an innovation in Englishes different from Standard British English. According to Lynda Mugglestone, however, language critics in England considered the pronunciation of the low back vowel [a] in words such as fast [fast], bath [baθ], and last [last] as improper and uneducated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (90). While many extra-insular varieties of English maintain both low vowel sounds, Standard British English only recently shifted from [æ] to [a]. Thus, contrary to the assertion that RP uses older forms of pronunciation, both the preservation of the phoneme /r/ in all linguistic environments and the continuation the “flat a” sound in Standard American English are retentions from older forms of English (Baugh and Cable 360). Standard British English instead changed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which contradicts the justification of the elitist status of RP to extra-insular accents founded on older pronunciation. Received Pronunciation therefore cannot claim superiority based on age.
All languages can express the same idea, which means no language or dialect is linguistically “better” than any other language or dialect (Smith “Early”). Just as I knowed it and I don’t want none communicate the same information as I knew it and I don’t want any, American speakers utter the same linguistic command with start the car mister pronounced [start θə kar mɪstər] as British speakers with [stat θə kar mɪstə] (Baugh and Cable 314). Because Received Pronunciation is not linguistically superior to other varieties of English, the accent depends on speakers of all Englishes to gain and maintain social prestige. As John Honey points out, barely three percent of the entire English speaking population actually pronounce words with the RP accent (53). In addition to establishing the spoken standard of British English, the Grammarian Class formed in the seventeenth century also developed a written standard based on the grammar of Received Pronunciation. The new Prescriptive Grammarians were not only concerned with speaking “properly” but also with writing “correctly” (“Received”). Since writing was mainly confined to educational environments until as late as the twentieth century, RP thus became the language of academia, and as such, the only accepted English spoken and taught at prestigious educational institutions such as Eton, Harrow, Cambridge, and Oxford (“Received”). Speaking with an RP accent and writing with an RP grammar indicated the speaker and writer recieved a lengthy formal education (Honey 53). But, prescribed academic language does not necessarily equal actual spoken language.
Although neither I don’t want none nor start the car mister [start θə kar mɪstər] conform to the prescribed grammar or pronunciation of Standard British English, both communicate the same linguistic meaning as I don’t want any and start the car mister [stat θə kar mɪstə] (Baugh and Cable 314). Language, however, includes not only a communicative dimension but also a social aspect (Smith “What”). The other ninety-seven percent of speakers who pronounce words with accents other than RP are not uneducated idiots. As Baugh and Cable argue, nonstandard varieties of English stray from conventionally correct forms and pronunciations but nevertheless “convey their meaning just as clearly as the standard forms and historically are no worse than dozens of others now in accepted use” (314). Received Pronunciation elitists thus attack divergent Englishes for a perceived social inferiority to the standard as opposed to a linguistic inadequacy. Just as Early Modern speakers borrowed from Latin and Greek as a social response for “improving” the English language, current supporters of Received Pronunciation superiority maintain the elitist attitude instituted by the wealthy white English male hegemony of the Grammarian Class as a similar social response to divergent varieties of English. Even though RP remains the conventional pronunciation of the upper-class and well-educated for many speakers of both standard and nonstandard Englishes, the RP accent is not linguistically superior to any other form but rather only socially more prestigious.
Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Honey, John. Does Accent Matter?: The Pygmalion Factor. London: Faber and Faber, 1989.
Mugglestone, Lynda. “Images of Accent: Prescription, Pronunciation, and the Elegant Speaker.” Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. 58-106.
“Received Pronunciation.” English Usage. 5 Mar. 2007. English Usage. 9 Apr. 2007. <http://www.yaelf.com/rp.shtml>
“Rhotic and Non-Rhotic Accents.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 15 Apr. 2007. Wikimedia Foundation. 16 Apr. 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotic_and_non-rhotic_accents>
Smith, K. Aaron. “Early Modern English.” History and Development of the English Language. Illinois State University. Normal, IL. 1 Mar. 2007.
—. “Englishes.” History and Development of the English Language. Illinois State University. Normal, IL. 5 Apr. 2007.
—. “Features of English Dialects.” History and Development of the English Language. Illinois State University. Normal, IL. 12 Apr. 2007.
—. “Scientific Notion of Language.” History and Development of the English Language. Illinois State University. Normal, IL. 20 Mar. 2007.