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Transcribing modern RP

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 /ɛ/, not /e/, hot with /ɔ/, not /ɒ/, or four with /oː/, not /ɔː/.

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 /uː/ with /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).


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Jasmine

    Thanks for this post, an particularly for the link to Geoff Lindsey’s post. I was always under the impression that there still was something called RP, but we should give up on the association of RP with the royal family (arguably they were never the standard for RP anyway).

    It’s interesting you mention Oxbridge but not BBC Radio-4, because many who grow up learning RP (more of less) actually try to sound less RP. It’s about the connotations that come with the accent. You can certainly see this with actors and actresses, but also with politicians (Tony Blair was an excellent example, trying to sound more ordinary, if you will).

    So I’d argue that RP is still RP, but the status of RP (and its connotations) have changed. Not also that Geoff Lindsey is speaking of a ‘standard English’.

    As for the IPA, there is really no need to change it. What we (dictionaries) need to do is to update their transcriptions to reflect actual use.

    • Tom

      It’s just a matter of definition.

      We can define RP as the accent of the royal family and the upper echelons of British society. If the accent of the royals changes, so does RP.

      Or we can define RP as the accent of the royal family in, say, the first half of the 20th century. Then we have to say that nobody speaks RP anymore. RP from 80 years ago sounds like a foreign accent!

      I think the first definition is more useful, and so does J.C. Wells:

      I’m not sure I understand what you are trying to say by “RP is still RP”.

      As a point of clarification, I never suggested changing the IPA itself, just the transcription system.

  • MarkF

    As someone who speaks RP himself and only RP, I don’t agree with either of the above definitions of RP. I’m not sure RP is a very good name for it in any case.

    The most important point about it is that it is a non-regional accent. Someone from Cornwall who speaks RP will speak it the same way as someone from East Coast of Scotland, and it will be impossible to tell where they come from from the way they speak.

    RP is mainly spoken by those who have been through the public school system (“public schools” in the United Kingdom is what private schools are misleadingly called). That’s why Tony Blair (Fettes) and David Cameron (Eton) both speak RP, while Gordon Brown (Kircaldy High School) doesn’t.

    English speakers of RP (like myself) usually speak it as their only accent, but Scottish and Irish speakers often in my experience are fluent in the local accent or dialect as well.

  • y

    SSB is good and its underrated. Geoff Lindsey has a youtube channel now. Also the goose vowel is transcribed as /ʉw/ now which is alot better. I speak an SSB like accent as well and i do agree with the symbols he chose. SSB made me understand the IPA more as a whole as well. I wish British English learning resources were updated to use Geoff Lindsey’s SSB so we can move away from the misleading archaic RP symbols for good. American symbols could be updated as well cos I have the feeling that they used RP as a base for that. Hopefully an update of American IPA Symbols will come out soon.

    • y

      Also I nearly forgot to add that SSB has its own pronunciation dictionary called CUBE also made by Geoff Lindsey and another person. So you can see how English words are pronounced in SSB. Also it has a button where you can click on a word and it searches that word up for you on YouGlish. CUBE also have options for non-standard accent features like TH-fronting and L-vocalisation which is really cool. I love CUBE so much.

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