When people come to Britain, having learned English in another country, they are often amazed by the number of different ways there are of speaking the language. Britain is not, after all, a very big place, yet the accents of and dialects of Yorkshire, say, or Cornwall, County Durham or Birmingham, let alone Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland are surprisingly diverse. Even native speakers can sometimes find it hard to understand someone from another part of Britain. For people whose first language is not English it can be a nightmare.
There is no such thing as ‘standard English’. The nearest we have to that is known as ‘Received Pronunciation’ or RP. The word ‘received’ in ‘Received Pronunciation’ is used in its old sense of ‘accepted’ or ‘approved’ (as in ‘received wisdom’).
RP is what you sometimes hear referred to as ‘Oxford English’, or ‘BBC English’ or even ‘the Queen’s English’, although none of these terms is particularly useful in defining it. These days we hear all sorts of accents at Oxford University or on the BBC, and the only person who speaks like the Queen is the Queen. In fact, the British Library* reckons that only about 2% of the population of the UK speaks in Received Pronunciation.
RP is more or less based on the English of the South East and East of England. It was first identified as a particular way of speaking in 1869. Its influence really became significant, though, when the BBC was founded as a national radio broadcaster. Lord Reith, the first head of the BBC, wanted a standardised way of talking for his presenters which would be equally clear and acceptable throughout Britain. RP was chosen, even though for most listeners it represented a relatively upper-class manner of speech. The point was that RP, unlike other accents, does not give any indication of where in the country the speakers comes from. I sometimes call it ‘Vanilla English’ because it has all those interesting (but confusing) local features left out of it.
As mentioned above, presenters on the BBC are no longer all RP speakers. The emphasis today is on clarity of speech and on understandability, neither of which are necessarily affected by accent alone. Yet when my clients tell me that they want to speak ‘properly’, or even ‘posh’, I know it is normally Received Pronunciation they have in mind, even if they have never heard that phrase. Like Lord Reith in 1922, they are looking for a manner of speaking which is equally clear and acceptable wherever they go in Britain, with no distracting regional features.
As a tutor I am lucky in that respect. I come from the south east of England and I had the kind of education where I was encouraged to speak in Received Pronunciation (my real natural accent is more Essex). I know exactly what it is supposed to sound like and I can pass that skill onto my clients. Lord Reith, I am sure, would be very proud.
*If you are interested in RP and the accents of Britain, the British Library website is an excellent place to visit – http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/received-pronunciation/