Received Pronunciation

Received Pronunciation

Received Pronunciation (RP) is a form of pronunciation of the English language (specifically British English) which has long been perceived as uniquely prestigious amongst British accents. About two percent of Britons speak with the RP accent in its pure form.

The earlier mentions of the term can be found in H. C. Wyld's A Short History of English (1914) and in Daniel Jones's An Outline of English Phonetics, although the latter stated that he only used the term "for want of a better". According to Fowler's Modern English Usage (1965), the term is "the Received Pronunciation". The word received conveys its original meaning of accepted or approved as in "received wisdom".

Received Pronunciation may be referred to as the Queen's (or King's) English, on the grounds that it is spoken by the monarch; however, that term is more often used to refer to correctly written Standard British English, as in the Queen's English Society. It is also sometimes referred to as BBC English, because it was traditionally used by the BBC prominently during the period between 1930 to 1955 (approximately), yet nowadays these notions are slightly misleading. Queen Elizabeth II uses one specific form of English, whilst BBC presenters and staff are no longer bound by one type of accent. There have also long been certain words that have had more than one RP pronunciation, such as again, either, and moor.

It is sometimes referred to as Oxford English. This was not because it was traditionally the common speech of the city of Oxford, but specifically of Oxford University; the production of dictionaries gave Oxford University prestige in matters of language. The extended versions of the Oxford Dictionary give Received Pronunciation guidelines for each word.

RP is an accent (a form of pronunciation), not a dialect (a form of vocabulary and grammar). It may show a great deal about the social and educational background of a person who uses English. A person using the RP will typically speak Standard English although the reverse is not necessarily true (e.g. the standard language may be spoken by one in a regional accent, such as a Yorkshire accent; but it is very unlikely that one speaking in RP would use it to speak Scots or Geordie).

In recent decades, many people have asserted the value of other regional and class accents. Many members (particularly the younger) of the groups that traditionally used Received Pronunciation have, to varying degrees, begun to use it less. Many regional accents are now heard on the BBC.

RP is often believed to be based on Southern accents, but in fact it has most in common with the dialects of the south-east Midlands: Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire. Migration to London in the 14th and 15th centuries was mostly from the counties directly north of London rather than those directly south. There are differences both within and among the three counties mentioned, but a conglomeration emerged in London, and also mixed with some elements of Essex and Middlesex speech. By the end of the 15th century, "Standard English" was established in the City of London.


Researchers generally distinguish between three different forms of RP: Conservative, General, and Advanced. Conservative RP refers to a traditional accent associated with older speakers with certain social backgrounds; General RP is often considered neutral regarding age, occupation, or lifestyle of the speaker; and Advanced RP refers to speech of a younger generation of British speakers.

The modern style of RP is the usual accent taught to non-native speakers learning British English . Non-RP Britons abroad may modify their pronunciation to something closer to Received Pronunciation in order to be understood better by people who themselves learned RP in school. They may also modify their vocabulary and grammar to be closer to Standard English, for the same reason. RP is used as the standard for English in most books on general phonology and phonetics and is represented in the pronunciation schemes of most dictionaries.


Traditionally, Received Pronunciation was a manufactured accent of English published as the "everyday speech in the families of Southern English persons whose men-folk have been educated at the great public boarding-schools and which conveys no information about that speaker's region of origin prior to attending the school. However, this form of Received Pronunciation is a construct of its period of creation during the 19th century, its pronunciation based upon Court English, and aimed at a rising educated middle class.

It is the business of educated people to speak so that no-one may be able to tell in what county their childhood was passed.
A. Burrell, Recitation. A Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary School, 1891.

In the 19th century, there were still Prime Ministers who spoke with some dialectal features, such as William Gladstone. It was not until the end of the century that the use of Received Pronunciation was considered to be a trait of education. As a result, at a time when only around five percent of the population attended universities, elitist notions sprang up around it and those who used it may have considered those who did not to be less educated than themselves. Historically the most prestigious British educational institutions (Oxford, Cambridge, many privately funded public schools) were located in England, so those who were educated there would pick up the accents of their peers. (There have always been exceptions: for example, the University of Leeds using an RP accent; Morningside, Edinburgh, Broughty Ferry, Dundee and Kelvinside in Glasgow had Scottish "pan loaf" variations of the RP accent aspiring to a similar prestige).

From the 1970s onwards, attitudes towards Received Pronunciation have been slowly changing. One of the catalysts for this was the influence in the 1960s of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. Unusually for a prime minister, he spoke with elements of a Yorkshire accent. The BBC's use of announcers with strong regional accents during and after World War II (in order to distinguish BBC broadcasts from German propaganda) is an earlier example of the use of non-RP accents.



When consonants appear in pairs, fortis consonants (i.e. aspirated or voiceless) appear on the left and lenis consonants (i.e. lightly voiced or voiced) appear on the right

Consonant phonemes of Received Pronunciation
  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal1 m n ŋ
Plosive p  b t  d k  g
Affricate tʃ  dʒ
Fricative f  v θ  ð2 s  z ʃ  ʒ h3   
Approximant ɹ1, 4 j w
Lateral l1, 5

  1. Nasals and liquids may be syllabic in unstressed syllables.
  2. /ð/ is more often a weak dental plosive; the sequence /nð/ is often realized as [n̪n̪].
  3. /h/ becomes [ɦ] between voiced sounds.
  4. /ɹ/ is postalveolar unless devoicing results in a voiceless fricative articulation (see below).
  5. /l/ is velarized in the syllable coda.

Unless preceded by /s/, fortis plosives (/p/, /t/, and /k/) are aspirated before stressed vowels; when a sonorant /l/, /ɹ/, /w/, or /j/ follows, this aspiration is indicated by partial devoicing of the sonorant.

Syllable final /p/, /t/, /tʃ/, and /k/ are preceded by a glottal stop (see Glottal reinforcement); /t/ may be fully replaced by a glottal stop, especially before a syllabic nasal (button [bɐʔn̩]).


Front Central Back
long short long short long short
Close ɪ ʊ
Mid e ɜː ə ɔː
Open æ ʌ ɑː ɒ

Examples of short vowels: /ɪ/ in kit and mirror, /ʊ/ in put, /e/ in dress and merry, /ʌ/ in strut and curry, /æ/ in trap and marry, /ɒ/ in lot and orange, /ə/ in ago and sofa.

Examples of long vowels: /iː/ in fleece, /uː/ in goose, /ɜː/ in nurse, /ɔː/ in north and thought, /ɑː/ in father and start.

RP's long vowels are slightly diphthongised. Especially the high vowels /iː/ and /uː/ which are often narrowly transcribed in phonetic literature as diphthongs [ɪi] and [ʊu].

"Long" and "short" are relative to each other. Because of phonological process affecting vowel length, short vowels in one context can be longer than long vowels in another context. For example, a long vowel following a fortis consonant sound (/p/, /k/, /s/, etc.) is shorter; reed is thus pronounced [ɹiːd̥] while heat is [hiʔt].

Conversely, the short vowel /æ/ becomes longer if it is followed by a lenis consonant. Thus, bat is pronounced [b̥æʔt] and bad is [b̥æːd̥]. In natural speech, the plosives /t/ and /d/ may be unreleased utterance-finally, thus distinction between these words would rest mostly on vowel length.

In addition to such length distinctions, unstressed vowels are both shorter and more centralized than stressed ones. In unstressed syllables occurring before vowels and in final position, contrasts between long and short high vowels are neutralized and short [i] and [u] occur.

Diphthong Example
/eɪ/ /beɪ/ bay
/aɪ/ /baɪ/ buy
/ɔɪ/ /bɔɪ/ boy
/əʊ/ /bəʊ/ beau
/aʊ/ /baʊ/ bough
/ɪə/ /bɪə/ beer
/eə/ /beə/ bear
/ʊə/ /bʊə/ boor

Before World War II, /ɔə/ appeared in words like door but this has largely disappeared, having merged with /ɔː/; there are a number of words where /ʊə/ has merged with /ɔː/, although the Oxford Dictionary still lists poor as being pronounced with the former diphthong. In the closing diphthongs, the glide is often so small as to be undetectable so that day and dare can be narrowly transcribed as [d̥e̞ː] and [d̥ɛː] respectively.

RP also possesses the triphthongs /aɪə/ as in ire and /aʊə/ as in hour. The realizations sketched in the following table are not phonemically distinctive, though the difference between /aʊə/, /aɪə/, and /ɑː/ may be neutralised to become [ɑː] or [äː].

As two syllables Triphthong Loss of mid-element Further simplified as
[aɪ.ə] [aɪə] [aːə] [aː]
[ɑʊ.ə] [ɑʊə] [ɑːə] [ɑː]

Not all reference sources use the same system of transcription. In particular:

  • /æ/ as in trap is often written /a/.
  • /e/ as in dress is sometimes written /ɛ/.
  • /ɜː/ as in nurse is sometimes written /əː/.
  • /aɪ/ as in price is sometimes written /ʌɪ/.
  • /aʊ/ as in mouse is sometimes written /ɑʊ/
  • /eə/ as in square is sometimes written /ɛə/, and is also sometimes treated as a long monophthong /ɛː/.

Most of these variants are used in the transcription devised by Clive Upton for the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993) and now used in many other Oxford University Press dictionaries.

Historical variation

Like all accents, RP has changed over time. For example, sound recordings and films from the first half of the 20th century demonstrate that it was standard to pronounce the /æ/ sound, as in land, with a vowel close to [ɛ], so that land would sound similar to lend. RP is sometimes known as the Queen's English, but recordings show that even the Queen has changed her pronunciation over the past 50 years, no longer using an [ɛ]-like vowel in words like land.

The 1993 Oxford Dictionary changed three main things in its description of modern RP, although these features can still be heard amongst old speakers of RP. Firstly, words such as cloth, gone, off, often were pronounced with /ɔː/ instead of /ɒ/ so that often sounded close to orphan (See lot-cloth split). The Queen still uses the older pronunciations, but it is rare to hear them on the BBC anymore. Secondly, there was a distinction between horse and hoarse with an extra diphthong /ɔə/ appearing in words like hoarse, force, and pour. Thirdly, final y on a word is now represented as an /i/ - a symbol to cover either the traditional /ɪ/ or the more modern /i:/, the latter of which has been common in the south of England for some time.

Before World War II, the vowel of cup was a back vowel close to cardinal [ʌ] but has since shifted forward to a central position so that [ɐ] is more accurate; phonetic transcription of this vowel as <ʌ> is common partly for historical reasons.

In very early forms of RP, the vowel /oʊ/ was used instead of the modern /əʊ/ in words such as goat, no, cold, etc.; the /oʊ/ was used throughout Daniel Jones's work on RP. Joseph Wright's work suggests that, during the early 20th century, words such as cure, fewer, pure, etc. were pronounced with a tripthong /iuə/ rather than the more modern /juə/. The older pronunciation is still common in speech across the North of England and Scotland.

The change in RP may even be observed in the home of "BBC English". The BBC accent from the 1950s was distinctly different from today's: a news report from the 1950s is recognisable as such, and a mock-1950s BBC voice is used for comic effect in programmes wishing to satirize 1950s social attitudes such as the Harry Enfield Show and its "Mr. Cholmondley-Warner" sketches. There are several words where the traditional RP pronunciation is now considered archaic: for example, "medicine" was originally said /'medsɪn/ and "tissue" was originally said /'tisju:/.

Comparison to other varieties

  • RP is a broad A accent, so words like bath and chance appear with /ɑː/ and not /æ/.
  • RP is a non-rhotic accent, meaning /r/ does not occur unless followed immediately by a vowel.
  • RP has undergone the wine-whine merger so the phoneme /ʍ/ is not present except among those who have acquired this distinction as the result of speech training. R.A.D.A. (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), based in London, still teaches these two sounds as distinct phonemes. They are pronounced differently in most of Scotland and in the north-east of England.
  • Unlike many other varieties of English language in England, there is no h-dropping in words like head or herb.
  • RP does not have yod dropping after /n/, /t/ and /d/. Hence, for example, new, tune and dune are pronounced /njuː/, /tjuːn/ and /djuːn/ rather than /nuː/, /tuːn/ and /duːn/. This contrasts with many East Anglian and East Midland varieties of English language in England and with many forms of American English, including General American. There are, however, several words where a yod has been lost over time: for example, the words suit and tissue originally had yods in RP but this is now extremely rare.
  • The flapped variant of /t/ and /d/ (as in much of the West Country, most American varieties including General American and the Cape Coloured dialect of South Africa) is not used. In traditional RP [ɾ] is an allophone of /r/ (used only intervocalically).

See also

Audio files



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