Evolution of the RP Accent

In recent years, there have been various interpretations of the RP accent. Some refer to it as “the Queen’s English,” while others define it as BBC English, the standard accent used in British media. Alternatively, some simply identify it as the standard pronunciation found in English dictionaries like Oxford or Cambridge. The term “Received Pronunciation” is sometimes avoided by teachers due to perceived elitism, associating it with privileged classes. However, this perception is not entirely accurate, as individuals from humble backgrounds also adopt the RP accent.


Examining certain characteristics that differentiate it from Estuary or Cockney accents, Cockney English is described as more guttural, while RP is aspirated out of the front of the mouth with distinct vowel sounds. In Received Pronunciation, vowel sounds are accompanied by rounded lips, particularly with back vowels, whereas Cockney English tends to have a more open mouth.


The RP accent has evolved over the years, transitioning from a traditional to a more modern form. The notable difference lies in slight changes in vowel sounds. Traditional RP places less emphasis on front vowel sounds such as /æ/, /iː/, and /ɛ/, with the tip of the tongue closer to the neutral schwa sound /ə/. There is a tendency not to open the mouth too much with front vowels. Additionally, compared to modern RP, traditional RP accentuates back vowel sounds like /uː/, /ɔː/, and /ɑː/.


Let’s examine this 1962 news broadcast. In the TV broadcast, the presenter poses the question: Do you believe there’s life on other planets?


The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) representation for modern Received Pronunciation (RP) is as follows:


/duː juː bɪˈliːv ðeəz laɪf ɒn ˈʌðə ˈplænɪts?/

Observing the presenter’s speech, he pronounces the initial syllable of the word ‘planet’ with a more schwa-like sound, resembling /ˈplənɪt/. This pattern is noticeable with front vowel sounds like /æ/, /iː/, and /ɛ/.


In essence, with traditional RP, the tongue doesn’t extend as far forward, and the mouth doesn’t open as widely compared to modern RP.