Many of you know that the phonetic transcriptions that you can see in any modern British dictionary represent an accent called Received Pronunciation (RP). RP is, broadly speaking, the kind of accent that you have if your family has a coat of arms and an estate in Kent, or, at the very least, if you went to Oxford or Cambridge.
To describe RP pronunciations of words, dictionaries use a transcription system based on symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The system was developed by Daniel Jones in the early 20th century; the last significant change to this system occurred in 1967 when A. C. Gimson took on the job of editor of the English Pronouncing Dictionary.
Did you catch that date – 1967? That’s 46 years ago. But accents evolve all the time. The British upper classes speak differently than they did in the 1960s. Yet the transcription system has remained virtually unchanged.
Many people have noticed problems with the prevalent system of British transcriptions. For example, it only takes a brief encounter with an audio IPA chart to realize that bed should be transcribed with
/e/, hot with
/ɒ/, or four with
Geoff Lindsey (UCLA linguist and accent coach) has not only noticed these issues – he has proposed a revolutionary (and in this case, the word revolutionary really applies) new transcription system for “modern RP” or, as he calls it, “Standard British”. His blog post presents a wonderfully comprehensive discussion (with lots of audio examples!) of what has changed in RP over the years, as well as ideas on how these changes should be reflected in dictionary transcriptions.
While I feel that some of Lindsey’s suggestions go a bit too far (one example is replacing
/ɵw/), his discussion (and, indeed, all of his blog) is a must-read for anyone interested in British pronunciation.
P.S. Listen to this recording of Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth from 1940 to hear “classic” RP – the model that is codified in dictionaries to this day. Yes, it sounds beautiful, but it’s also very old-fashioned. Nobody speaks like this today (not even Prince William).