What Is Received Pronunciation And How Did It Become The Standard Accent Of The UK?

Published March 5, 2015
Updated January 17, 2018

Only a fraction of people speak with the received pronunciation accent, and yet it is considered to be the authoritative British accent. What gives?

If you are a non-Brit, chances are when you imagine a British accent you’re thinking of a crisp, clean, regal and very intelligent sounding lilt: think the Queen of England or BBC reporters.

What you might not know is that what you’re imaging is a very specific — and, in fact, somewhat rare — accent called Received Pronunciation:

It goes by other names, too: The Queen’s English, BBC English, Oxford English — and the sound of this accent is instantly recognizable to Brits and non-Brits alike due to its exactness.

It’s important to make the distinction between an accent and a dialect: in the UK, there are many dialects as well as accents, but Received Pronunciation (or RP) is not a dialect. A dialect suggests the geographic region of the speaker whereas an accent, particularly RP, is associated with a person’s location within the social hierarchy.

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In fact, Received Pronunciation is meant to be a neutral English accent in the sense that by speaking in that manner, one would not give any hints as to where they are from on the map, but establish straight away in conversation that they are educated and well-to-do. RP, in fact, began in public schools (* it’s important to note here that in the U.S. public schools are state funded and private schools would be considered “elite” — in the UK, the term “public school” refers to what we in the states call “private” schools).

Received Pronunciation quickly became the calling card of the social elite. The term “received pronunciation” was coined in 1869 by linguist AJ Ellis around the time that it was adopted as the official standard of pronunciation for the Oxford English Dictionary.

This was, of course, the height of Queen Victoria’s reign in the UK and the social elite were thriving (think Downton Abbey). RP was initially taught in schools to the children of the socially well-off because the instructors at such institutions had most often graduated from Oxford or Cambridge; thus, RP was their default setting.

The accent was then adopted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as the standard for broadcast journalists. While it is seen as somewhat passe (and only spoken by around 2% of the population) it remains the sound of the BBC as well as the Royal Family.

How To Speak Like a Queen

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The “posh” accent of RP is a very practiced one and it has a specific set of linguistic rules; here are three of them to get you started!

1. Use elongated vowels: the ‘a’ sound becomes ‘ah’. The word “bath” becomes “bawth”, “can’t” becomes “cawhn’t” and so on. To achieve this physically, pronounce your ‘a’ sounds by dropping your jaw and saying “ahh” like you would when a doctor is looking at your tonsils, rather than widening your lips horizontally.

2. “O’s” are seriously elongated: if you think you’re saying the “oh” sound in a word too long, it’s probably not long enough for RP.

3. ENUNCIATE EVERY CONSONANT: Instead of received pronunciation they should just call it “hella pronunciation” because you’re going to pronounce consonant sounds that you forgot existed. “February” is a great example: instead of squishing the sounds together and saying “Feb-you-air-ee”, in RP you would pronounce each syllable clearly: “Feb-ru-air-ree”

4. “Y” is not an “ee” sound: the word “finally” is not “final-ee” but “final-eh”.

Good show, old chap!

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England . Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Bustle, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura, and Quartz.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
Cite This Article
Norman, Abby. "What Is Received Pronunciation And How Did It Become The Standard Accent Of The UK?." AllThatsInteresting.com, March 5, 2015, https://allthatsinteresting.com/received-pronunciation. Accessed April 19, 2024.