Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation?

J.C. Wells, UCL

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This article was published in Medina & Soto (eds.), II Jornadas de Estudios Ingleses, Universidad de Jaén, Spain. (1997) p.19-28.

The pronunciation model we traditionally adopt for British-oriented learners of English as a foreign language, Received Pronunciation, has been getting a bad press recently. We were recently told, for example, that "the cut-glass accent of home counties Britain is to be banished from the air waves by the BBC in favour of more energetic and vigorous voices from the regions" (Guardian, 27 Jan 1994). Parts of the BBC, claimed the then managing director of BBC network radio, Liz Forgan, were "lagging a little behind the sound of the nation, beginning to sound a bit antique". Ms Forgan, "herself a model of received home counties pronunciation", reportedly said she did not want presenters to sound like her. The subtext here includes the implication that RP is geographically non-regional and socially upper-class, qualities which demographic and social changed in Britain have made no longer as desirable as heretofore.

In this discussion I offer

First, then, lets us consider some issues relating to how we define RP. What criteria can we use?

The choice of defining criterion may have consequences for what we consider the phonetics of RP to be. Here are three points on which we might have different views according to which criterion we adopt.

Let us turn now to the time dimension, and consider the changes that on any reckoning have affected RP since Jones's day. We can group them in three chronological categories: those of the early twentieth century, those of the mid-century, and those of the late twentieth century. Subjectively for me, they represent those changes that happened before I learnt my native English; those where I or my contemporaries fluctuate, have variable usage (perhaps stylistically conditioned), or are divided; and those which have come about since my own younger days and do not form part of my own speech.

Changes from the early twentieth century

  1. Transfer of the CLOTH set. In Jones's time, and until around the time of the second world war, words belonging to the standard lexical set CLOTH (Wells 1982) were usually pronounced with the vowel /ɔː/ (as in thought); but nowadays they are pronounced with /ɒ/ (as in lot). Examples include cough, soft, cross, lost — words in which the vowel is followed by a voiceless fricative.
  2. Merger of /ɔə/ and /ɔː/. There used to be a distinction in pronunciation in pairs such as floor /flɔə/ vs. flaw /flɔː/. Even Jones recognized that some speakers in his time pronounced /ɔː/ in words where he had /ɔə/, and by now the distinction is obsolete. In contemporary RP floor and flaw are homophones, as are four and for, cores and cause, shore and Shaw.
  3. Change in the quality of the GOAT vowel. My predecessor Gimson's decision (1962) to change the transcription of this diphthong from /oʊ/ to /əʊ/ reflected the change that had taken place in pronunciation. In over the road /ˈəʊvə ðə ˈrəʊd/, I don’t know /aɪ ˈdəʊnt ˈnəʊ/ we now use a diphthong with a mid-central, usually unrounded starting point. A century ago the starting point was back and rounded. A side effect of this change is that the corresponding weakened vowel, written by Jones as [o], thus November /noˈvembə/, has now become an ordinary /ə/, thus /nəˈvembə/. If we keep the first vowel strong in profound we have /prəʊˈfaʊnd/; if, as is more usual, we weaken it, we get /prəˈfaʊnd/.
  4. Opening of /æ/. Listening to old film clips or recordings we are often struck by the quality of the vowel /æ/ previously to be heard, as in that bad man /ˈðæt ˈbæd ˈmæn/. It was not only considerably less open than is now customary, but was also tenser and had more pharyngeal constriction. Currently this vowel is more relaxed and may be quite similar to cardinal 4 [a].
  5. Loss of tapped /r/. A further change from this period was the loss of the alveolar tap [ɾ] as a usual realization of /r/ between vowels, as in very sorry, better off. It has been replaced by the ordinary approximant [ɹ].

Changes in the mid twentieth century

  1. Decline and disappearance of /ʊə/. Words formerly containing the diphthong /ʊə/ have come increasingly to be pronounced with /ɔː/ instead. Thus your is no longer /jʊə/ but /jɔː/. Poor, sure, moor, cure, tourist are often /pɔː, ʃɔː, mɔː, kjɔː, ˈtɔːrɪst/. My survey figures for poor showed that when we group all ages together /pɔː/ was preferred over the traditional /pʊə/ by a margin of 57% to 43% of the respondents; but when we look at different age-groups separately /pɔː/ was preferred by only 27% of the oldest respondents (born before 1923) as against a massive 81% of the youngest (born since 1962). Words such as jury, rural seem generally to be resistant to this change, and do not rhyme with story, choral. Rather, they seem now typically to be pronounced with a monophthong of the [ʊː] type, perhaps to be interpreted as a variant of /uː/.
  2. Drift from weak /ɪ/ to /ə/. In various categories of weak syllables /ə/ is increasingly used where /ɪ/ formerly prevailed. Thus possible is now usually /ˈpɒsəbl/ rather than, as previously, /ˈpɒsɪbl/. For private and carelessness my father said /ˈpraɪvɪt, ˈkeəlɪsnɪs/, but I say /ˈpraɪvət, ˈkeələsnəs/. While both variants are still to be heard in these endings -ible, -ate, -less, -ness, and likewise in -ity, -ily, the balance of preference has, in my judgement, swung from /ɪ/ to /ə/. Where weak /ɪ/ was word-final, as in visibility, once /ˌvɪzɪˈbɪlɪtɪ/, now /ˌvɪzəˈbɪləti/, a different change is taking place, as discussed below.
  3. Plosive epenthesis. Between a nasal and a voiceless fricative, in words such as fence /fens/, answer /ˈɑːnsə/, speakers increasingly now insert a plosive, thus /fents, ˈɑːntsə/. This development appears to have a physiological origin, since it can be demonstrated to result from a slight adjustment in the relative timing of the movements of the soft palate and the primary articulator (the tongue tip). The result is that pairs such as mince and mints have become homophonous, /mɪnts/. Other examples, shown here with the epenthesized consonant in italics, are emphasis /ˈempfəsɪs/, instance /ˈɪntstənts/ and conscience /ˈkɒntʃənts/.
  4. Yod coalescence. English has long had a tendency to convert /tj/ into /tʃ/, /dj/ into /dʒ/. We see this in the history of words such as nature, where the earlier /t/ plus /j/ has long ago been replaced by an affricate, /ˈneɪtʃə/. During the course of the twentieth century this process has continued apace. Jones pronounced actual as /ˈæktjuəl/, a variant that nowadays would be perceived as mannered or indeed artificial: we say /ˈæktʃuəl, ˈæktʃl, ˈæktʃo/. For me, perpetual and to graduate have formal, extremely careful forms /pəˈpetjuəl, ˈgrædjueɪt/, but everyday forms /pəˈpetʃuəl, ˈgrædʒueɪt/. These are all words, you will notice, in which the new affricate is followed by a weak (unstressed) vowel. Further discussion follows below.
  5. T glottalling. In various environments the consonant /t/ tends to be pronounced as a glottal plosive, [ʔ], rather than as the traditional alveolar [t]. This is by now normal before a following obstruent consonant in a different syllable or word, as in football [ˈfʊʔbɔːl], quite good [ˌkwaɪʔ ˈgʊd]. It is also frequent before a sonorant consonant in the same environment, as in witness [ˈwɪʔnəs], atlas [ˈæʔləs], network [ˈneʔwɜːk], quite wrong [ˌkwaɪʔ ˈrɒŋ]. London's second airport, Gatwick, for me has a careful variant [ˈgætwɪk] and a casual variant [ˈgæʔwɪk].

Changes in the late twentieth century

The developments that have arisen in the last two decades or so are associated also with the rise of what has been dubbed Estuary English — a term coined by Rosewarne, 1984, after the Thames estuary, and implying influence of the southeastern part of England centred on London. From the phonetic point of view, Estuary English is supposed to comprise the middle ground between traditional RP on the one hand and Cockney (London working-class speech) on the other. It is best seen as a variety of Standard English, though spoken with a regional accent, just as Standard English may be expressed in a northern or Scottish or Irish accent. But since London is, as ever, the main source of new fashions, in pronunciation as in everything else, many of the characteristics of Estuary English are being, or are likely to be, gradually incorporated into RP. Estuary English is well described in the popular though well-informed book Do you speak Estuary? (Coggle 1993), with its subtitle 'The new Standard English—how to spot it and speak it'.

  1. Tensing of final and prevocalic /ɪ/. The final vowel in words such happy, coffee, valley was traditionally identified with the /ɪ/ of bit. But many speakers nowadays identify it with the /iː/ of beat. In many recent works (e.g. Wells 1990, Roach 1991) the phonetic symbol /i/ is used, to denote this variable or intermediate quality, thus /ˈhæpi, ˈkɒfi, ˈvæli/. This notation reflects the fact that there is no actual opposition between /ɪ/ and /iː/ in these weak syllables (happy does not become a different word by switching from one vowel to the other); what has happened is a change in the preferred phonetic quality of the weak vowel. If our phonological theory is sufficiently sophisticated to recognize a distinction between a strong vowel system (used typically but not exclusively in stressed syllables) and a weak vowel system (used only in unstressed syllables), then we can place /i/ in the weak system. It is used not only word-finally, but also before a vowel as in happier /ˈhæpiə/, various /ˈveəriəs/, radiate /ˈreɪdieɪt/.
  2. Rise of the diphthong [ɒʊ]. Increasingly in RP words such as fold, goal are said with a back rounded diphthong with a starting point comparable to the [ɒ] of lot. This diphthong is found only before dark /l/, [ɫ], or the vowel that develops from it (see below). Speakers who do this are often quite conscious of the difference between their [ɒʊ] and ordinary [əʊ]. Through a process of morphological regularization, they may extend this to words where /l/ is morpheme-final but followed by a vowel, yielding occasional minimal pairs such as wholly /ˈhɒʊli/ vs. holy /ˈhəʊli/.
  3. Change in the quality of /uː, ʊ/. Traditionally classified as back and rounded, these vowels are not only losing their lip-rounding but also ceasing to be very back. Thus spoon, conservatively [spuːn], may now range to a loosely rounded [spʊʉn] or even [spɪɨn], while good /gʊd/ is often pronounced with a schwa-like quality.
  4. T glottalling. The environments for the glottal stop replacing [t] now extend to word-final position even when the next word does not begin with a vowel, as in quite easy [ˌkwaɪʔ ˈiːzi], take it off [ˌteɪk ɪʔ ˈɒf], not only [ˌnɒʔ ˈəʊnli], or absolute-final (prepausal) right. [raɪʔ]. Intervocalically within a word, as in city, water, glottal stops are still regarded as Cockney: [ˈsɪʔi, ˈwɔːʔə] belong neither to EE nor, of course, to RP.
  5. L vocalization. RP is traditionally described as having two main allophones of /l/: clear [l] used before a vowel and dark [ɫ] used elsewhere. It is the dark allophone that is now undergoing a process of vocalization (becoming a vowel): ɫ → o. Thus in a word such as milk, traditionally [mɪɫk], the tongue tip may nowadays make no contact at all with the alveolar ridge: instead we have a new kind of diphthong, [mɪok]. Similarly shelf becomes [ʃeof], tables [ˈteɪboz], apple [ˈæpo]. The position where this development is most favoured is adjacent to a labial, as in the latter examples; but it is no longer restricted to this position. When it applies to cases such as middle, little a natural consequence is that the lateral release found in conservative speech ([ˈmɪdɫ, ˈlɪtɫ]) is replaced by an ordinary median release, [ˈmɪdo, ˈlɪto].
  6. Yod coalescence continues to widen its scope, extending now to stressed syllables. This makes Tuesday, conservatively /ˈtjuːz-/, begin /ˈtʃuːz-/, identical with choose /tʃuːz/. Tune and duke become /tʃuːn, dʒuːk/, and reduce comes to have a second syllable identical with juice. I like to think of the avoidance of this development as a touchstone of RP (as against EE, which clearly accepts it); but I am not sure that this claim can really be maintained.

One further development that perhaps deserves mention is the rise of so-called uptalk or upspeak, the use of a rising nuclear tone on a statement, where a fall might be expected. The (presumably unintended) effect may be one of reluctance to commit oneself or of diffidence. This use of the rise may well have started in Australia or California, but is observably spreading to Britain.

Specific lexical items

The changes we have been discussing up to this point have all been general ones, applying in an environment that can be specified phonetically. There are other changes, though, that are lexically specific: they involve just a single word that has changed its shape. Thus for example nephew, which at the beginning of the century was usually /ˈnevjuː/, is now mostly pronounced /ˈnefjuː/. This is not part of a general trend affecting /v/ between vowels, but something affecting just this word.

My data comes from the survey of pronunciation preferences that I carried out for the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Wells 1990). In the dictionary I reported the polling results relating to close on a hundred words in which speakers were known to disagree about the pronunciation. These results were pooled for all respondents. What I have done now is to analyse the results by respondent’s age. In some cases this reveals no difference at all between the old and the young: for example, in chrysanthemum the pronunciation with /s/ is preferred over the form with /z/ by a margin of approximately 60% to 40% by all age groups. In other cases there is sharp age grading, such that one can see a clear trend as a newer pronunciation, preferred by the young, comes to predominate over an older form.

Thus in nephew the /f/ form, preferred by 79% of all respondents, proves to be the choice of a mere 51% of those respondents born before 1923, but of as many as 92% of those born since 1962. There is a clear trend line, showing that the /v/ form (which happens to be the one I prefer myself) is due to disappear entirely before very long.

Similarly, the percentage preferring /suːt/ over /sjuːt/ in suit has risen from 47% among the oldest group to 92% among the youngest. In deity /ˈdeɪ-/ (as against /ˈdiː-/) has risen from 40% to 98%. In zebra /ˈzebrə/ is preferred over /ˈziːbrə/ by 65% rising to 96%. In applicable stress on the second syllable is preferred over initial stress by 59% of the oldest, but by 91% of the youngest. In primarily, antepenultimate stress (/praɪˈmerəli/ and the like) is preferred over initial stress (/ˈpraɪmərəli/) by 51% of the oldest but 77% of the youngest.


EFL teachers working within a British English-oriented environment should continue to use RP (though not necessarily under that name) as their pronunciation model. But this model must be revised and updated from time to time.


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