What is RP? by English with Stephen

Reasons for English: What is RP?

6 This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about RP, where it comes from, and why it is important for English language students.

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Hello and welcome! My name’s Stephen and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

In a recent episode, I talked about accents and what students should be aiming for with their own accents. In that episode, I talked about RP, or Received Pronunciation. A few listeners wrote some questions about RP, asking what it was and where it comes from.

So today, we are going to look at the very strange story behind this thing called RP.

After this short break.

Before we talk about RP, I’d like to give you a success story. For the last few years, I have been working with a great bunch of students here in Curitiba, Brazil. They are all musicians and they wanted to sing in English. Recently, they have recorded some great songs and put them up on Spotify, as well as launching a youtube channel. If you like rock ‘n’ roll you are going to love this band. They are called Abbout, that’s Abbout with two bs, A B B O U T. I will post a link to their stuff on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, or just search for them on either Spotify or Youtube.

As I said before, the standard for British English is RP. RP means Received Pronunciation. And I have a little story to tell you about how RP came to be the standard.

There were, and still are, many varieties of English all over the United Kingdom. The way somebody speaks in Glasgow is very different to the way a person from Bristol speaks. A Londoner does not have the same way of talking as somebody from my city of Birmingham.

Sometimes, the differences are small, but usually the further you travel, the bigger the differences.

Even today, it can be difficult to understand somebody from another part of the country if they have a strong accent.

In the past, these differences were even greater. If we go back to the Victorian days, in the 1800s, most people did not travel much. They were often born, lived and died in the same area. At the same time, there was no television or radio to expose yourself to different accents. This meant that there was a lot of isolation between communities. And isolation is the one thing that is needed to create very different accents. Eventually, isolation can even create different languages.

Anyway, Victorian England was also a very rich country. Britain had an empire that spread across the world. This empire brought a lot of money into the country, and so many people became rich. There were opportunities in trade, in the armed forces, and in government to travel the world and make a lot of money.

In order to do this, the people needed to be educated. And so a lot of schools were founded. Some of the most famous schools were founded at this time, like Eaton and Rugby. These were schools for the upper and middle classes. The boys of these wealthy families were sent off to school.

But they didn’t just go to school during the day. They lived at the school. This type of school is called a boarding school and is perhaps most famous from the Harry Potter books and films.

You had boys coming from the whole country to attend the same school. Maybe there would be boys from Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Norwich, all in the same class.

Obviously, this created problems because everyone was speaking with very different dialects of English.

However, for the British state, there were other problems.

You see, how could they efficiently run a worldwide empire if everyone spoke a different variety of English? You have to remember that Britain is a relatively small country. There are not enough British people to do all the jobs needed all over the world in such a large empire. Instead, the policy was to send British people to other parts of the world and get the local people to actually do the hard work, while the British would coordinate and manage it all. Before taking all the profit out of the enterprise.

This relied on local people being able to understand the British people. This was obviously going to be difficult, but it would be even more difficult if all the British people spoke different types of English.

What was to be done about this?

Well, part of the education all of those little boys who had been sent off to school would receive was in pronunciation. They “received pronunciation” classes in how to speak English properly. And this is where the name of the standard British accent comes from – Received Pronunciation, because the boys received classes in ‘correct’ pronunciation.

So that is the origin of the phrase. But there are some interesting peculiarities that come from this.

The first is that RP is one of the few accents that is not linked to a geographical area. Most of the time, when we speak about accents, we refer to a place, for example, I grew up speaking a Brummie accent. But RP is a totally artificial construct that does not belong anywhere.

Another strange thing about RP is that very few people actually speak it. Nowadays, my accent is closer to RP than to my original Brummie. However, there are certain words and sounds that I do not produce in a true RP fashion. For example, I say “path” instead of “path”. It turns out that most people will have one or two aspects of RP that they do not use.

It is also strange then, that RP should be considered the national standard when so few people actually use it! Not even the Queen speaks RP!

In the past, RP was associated with BBC English. The idea was that to be on the BBC, you had to speak “correctly” and this meant having an RP accent. However, and thankfully, in recent years the BBC has moved away from this silly fascination with correct pronunciation and embraced different accents and dialects from around the English-speaking world.

And this should be important for anyone learning English. Having a standard to aim at is probably a good thing. It allows for consistency and RP is generally easy to understand all around the world. However, it is not a problem if you don’t achieve this standard model 100%. If the vast majority of British people do not use RP, why should you?

Instead, allow your accent to come out. It is an expression of who you are. Can people understand you? If the answer is yes, it does not matter what variety of English you speak. If even the BBC doesn’t demand RP, why should you?

Just before I go, don’t forget to go check out the band my students have put together. The name of the band is Abbout, and I am pretty sure you are going to like them. You can find them on Spotify or Youtube, and I will also put some links on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com.

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