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Social Saturdays’ posts look at the social side of language. After all, language isn’t just a way to communicate, it is communication.

You may have noticed that I – and others – refer to R.P. when discussing accents.

What is it? What does it stand for? Where did it come from? Why isn’t it named after where it comes from, like other accents?

R.P. stands for Received Pronunciation. It’s meant to be the “standard accent” of British people.

Stephen Fry talks in R.P.

As does the Queen.

It’s not named after a certain area because it doesn’t come from a certain area.

Received Pronunciation was originally named Public School Pronunciation; a name penned by Daniel Jones.

This gives us more of a clue as to the origins of R.P.

In the past, the upper and middle classes sent their children (or, rather, their sons) to public boarding schools, if they could afford it. At these school, dialect levelling took place. In an attempt to both be understood and to blend in, children rid their accents of variants, or differences, which might indicate where they grew up.

The result was an accent with few non-standard forms and no regional forms.

These children then grew up to go to a prestigious university, such as Oxford or Cambridge, where all their contemporaries spoke in a similar accent, only strengthening its prestige and usage.

Upon graduating, some students decided to have a job to pass away their time (as opposed to earning money, which was just something that happened to happen).

They would be educated professionals, where they worked with R.P.-accented colleagues, or they would go on to be a member of the clergy, where they would preach to people in their R.P. accent.

A lot of these graduates would return to the boarding school they had been to as a child, or a similar one, and teach to the children in an R.P. accent, and so the cycle would repeat itself.

According to A. Burrel, “It is the business of educated people to speak so that no-one may be able to tell in what county their childhood was passed.” (A. Burrell, Recitation. A Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary School, 1891.)

Of course, R.P. has changed over time. Vowels have shifted and vocal fry has become cool prestigious, and, thanks to social changes, fewer people speak it, but Burrel’s sentiment still remains. People can tell that you’re upper or upper-middle class, but not where you’re from.

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