I was lucky to have been to the UK for several times. Each time I had considerable difficulties in understanding English. The thing is I lived in families of different social level and different areas of the UK. It made me find all the information about dialects and accents of the state. While studying the problem I came across the abbreviation RP, got interested in Received Pronunciation and would like to share this information with my colleagues.
People belong to different social groups and they perform different social roles. A person might be identified as " a woman”, "a student”, "a husband”, "a citizen” or in many other ways. We acquire identities as we participate in social structures. Any of these identities can influence the kind of language we use. It is the language (much more than clothing, furniture or other things) that is the main aspect of our social identity. The question "Where are you from, in the English-speaking world?” turns into a somewhat different question; "What are you , in the eyes of the English-speaking society to which you belong?”
Age, sex, social level are closely connected with the way we speak. When we adopt a social role we choose appropriate linguistic forms; sounds, constгuctions and vocabulary.
They say all the countries display the division of people into different groups. May be some of them have more clearly-defined class boundaries and others have less. Britain is usually said to be linguistically much more class-conscious than any other country. The UK has identified features of class dialects.
Dr. Honey, socio-linguist uses the word "class” when he talks about accent. In his book "Does Accent Matter?” he describes research in which people are played tapes of the same messages being read in various ways, then asked to award attributes to the voices they have heard.
The stereotypes are consistently confirmed: people state competence, efficiency and even good looks to voices which speak in " Received Pronunciation”. Speakers of RP are thought likely to be lawyers and bank managers.
Regional accents persistently fall into a hierarchy with Yorkshire ,West Country and Geordie (Newcastle) near the top .Lodged at the bottom there are the five accents at the working-class industrial cities – Cockney ( London), Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow and Belfast. People still imagine the owners of these accents to be manual workers. On television they are the accents of comics and villains.
In England one accent has traditionally stood out above all others showing respectable social standing and good education. This " prestige” accent is known as "Received Pronunciation” or RP. It is associated with the south-east, where most RP-speakers live or work, but it can be found anywhere in the country.
Accents usually tell us where a person is from; RP tells us only about a person’s social or educational background.
The British phonetician Daniel Jones was the first to arrange the properties of RP into a system. ”DJ” as he was known within the profession, originally studied mathematics at Cambridge, and trained as a lawyer, but never practised. He became interested in language and by the 1920s DJ was being recognized as the British authority on phonetics. He explains in "An Outline of English Phonetic”:” …the type described in this book is certainly a useful one. It is … generally used by those who have been educated at ”preparatory” boarding schools and the "Public schools”…The term "Received Pronunciation” ... is often used to designate this type of pronunciation. This term is adopted here for want of a better”
The early form of RP was known over 400 years ago as the accent of the court and the upper classes. The English courtier George Puttenham (1589) thought that the English of northern men, whether they be noblemen or gentlemen … is not so courtly as our Southern English is. ”Most people who wanted to advance socially moved to London and tried to adopt the accent they found there. They say there were some exceptions, for example Walter Raleigh who had Devonshire accent.
Eventually RP became to symbolize a person’s high position in society. During the 19th century, it was the accent of the public schools , such as Eton and Harrow. RP appeared to be the main sign of a good education. It spread rapidly throughout the Civil Service of the British Empire and the armed forces. RP became ‘the voice” of authority and power.
In the 1920s radio broadcasting began. RP was a regionally " neutral” accent. It was thought to be more widely understood than any regional accent. That’s why RP was adopted by the BBC. The notion of a "BBC pronunciation "grew” during World War II. RP was linked in many minds with the voice of freedom.
The most famous debate on the English language and social class took place in the 1950s. It happened after the publication of an article on the subject by British linguist Alan Ross. The article distinguished "U” ( upper –class) usage from "Non-U” usage taking into account vocabulary, pronunciation and written language. The article provoked an enormous public reaction. In 1956 Nancy Mitford edited a collection of satirical essays on the subject called "Noblesse Oblige”. Here is Mitford ‘s paraphrase of some Ross’s examples:
"Cycle” is non-U against U bike
"Dinner”: U-speakers eat luncheon in the middle of the day and dinner in the evening. Non-U speakers ( also U-children and U-dogs) have their dinner in the middle of the day.
"Greens” is non-U for U vegetables.
"Home”: non-U – " they l have a lovely home”
U –"they’ve a very nice house”
"Ill” : " I was ill on the boat” is non-U against U sick.
"Mental””: non-U for U mad.
"Toilet paper”: non-U for U lavatory paper.
"Wealthy”: non-U for U rich
Nowadays they say there is the breakdown of divisions between social classes. RP is no longer the preserve of a social elite. It is described as an "educated” accent. To be more precise it’s necessary to say "accents” because there are several varieties.
The most widely used is the accent generally heard on the BBC. There are conservative and trend-setting forms. The former is found in many older establishment speakers. The latter is usually associated with certain social and professional groups.
Early BBC recordings show how much RP has altered over just a few decades. It’s quite clear that no accent is immune to change, not even "the best ". Some linguists observe that RP is no longer as widely used today as it was 50 years ago. It is still the standard accent t of the Royal Family, Parliament, the Church of England, the High Courts, and other national institutions. But only about 3% of the British population speak RP. The very posh form of RP traditionally spoken by the Royal Family is nowadays widely downgraded. Most educated people have developed an accent which is a mixture of RP and various regional characteristics. Some linguists call it "modified RP”. In some cases, a former RP speaker has been influenced by regional norms; in other cases a former regional speaker has moved in the direction of RP .In this respect a major trend is the "Estuary English”(the "estuary” means the river Thames).The term appeared in the 1980s to identify the way features of London regional speech seemed to be rapidly spreading throughout the counties adjoining the river ( especially Essex and Kent ). Some linguists consider it as a possible claimant to the phonetic throne.
Nevertheless RP retains considerable status. It is widely used abroad because RP has been the chief accent taught to foreigners who wish to learn a British model. It is considered to be surprising, as RP has several features which add to the difficulty of a foreign learner.
Still there is the hope that the Royal Family and the British establishment can continue to provide enough prestige to the accent to enable it to survive.
Returning to Dr Honey one can say that he has no scruples about telling people they should get rid of their working class accents. He thinks they are a huge barrier to progress towards equality.” We have to choose between the museum approach, which keeps these accents on in glass cases even though they are rotting the chances of the people who use them, or we recognize that the world would be a drearier but a fairer place if we got rid of them” Dr. Honey thinks much more attention should be paid to the English language-grammar and spelling-in schools. Pupils should be taught clear, intelligible speech. By Dr. Honey’s disappointment, the new National Curriculum contains no requirement to teach children Received Pronunciation.
Brian Cox, who advised the Government on its development, sympathizes with Honey’s ideas but says they are impracticable. Consequently, the curriculum requires only that children be taught "to speak standard English in an accent which is clear and comprehensible. Still in the UK there is the new interest in "talking proper”. For example’, at Lucie Clayton school in London people learn "voice and communication along with corporate dress sense and business make-up. It gives people’s confidence.