top of page
Austen Home.png

Modern R.P.

Jane Austen's Hampshire Cottage in Chawton © 2024 JANE AUSTEN’S HOUSE

This accent breakdown was created by Voice & Dialect designer Natalie Blackman for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's 2024 production of Sense & Sensibility (by Margaret Dashwood) by Quetta Carpenter. Please do not reproduce or share without the permission of the author.

People (a bit of cultural context)

Received Pronunciation or RP is an accent that historically was learned by and only accessible to the upper class. The term received pronunciation was coined by British phonetician A.J. Ellis in 1869 to refer to an accent used “all over the country, not widely differing in any particular locality…as the educated pronunciation of the metropolis, of the court, the pulpit and the bar.” The definition of received in his use of received pronunciation conveyed the word’s adjectival meaning of “accepted” or “common,” as in the expression received wisdom.

By the turn of the 20th Century, the name and the accent had begun to take on a specifically hierarchical connotation. British phonetician Daniel Jones codified a more exacting version of the accent in his English Pronouncing Dictionary of 1917 in which he called the accent "Public School Pronunciation." Unlike in North America, "Public Schools" in Britain are expensive and elite institutions associated with the upper class. Jones was a student and devotee of William Tilly. Tilly was an Australian phonetician and elocutionist educated in Germany who ran the notoriously strict Tilly Institute.  At the institute, students were seated hierarchically, like classical orchestral seating, according to their facility with a pattern of English pronunciation Tilly believed to be inherently superior to all others. Jones would later say of his teacher: "''Tilly ruled them with a rod of iron and taught them how to work; they often didn't like his methods at first, but m the long run most of them came to have unbounded admiration for him," In the second edition of his English Pronouncing Dictionary, Jones termed his strict pattern of English pronunciation "Received Pronunciation." 

Today there is a wide spectrum of versions of RP primarily spoken in the Southeast of England in London and the surrounding areas. Due to the increasing awareness of RP as a classist and oppressive force, there has been a movement away from the most extreme features of the accent, creating a distinction between "Conservative RP" and "Modern RP." Conservative RP is the accent described by Daniel Jones, the official accent of the BBC from 1922 until the mid 1960s, spoken by the aristocracy, and generally the older generation. Modern RP is generally spoken by the younger generation in Southeast England. Many young Brits are well-versed in dialing their accent up or down depending upon what they feel is most appropriate for the situation.

There have been many, many, terms used to describe the "upper" end of RP accents including the "Queen's English", "BBC English", and "Oxford English." There are just as many terms for the "lower" end including "Standard Southern British English (SSBE)", "Modern BBC English," and "Contemporary RP". For our purposes, we are going to settle on the terms Conservative and Modern when discussing the two ends of the RP spectrum.

We cannot know exactly what Jane Austen and her community would have sounded like, and even if we did, it likely would not square with the expectations of a contemporary audience. Therefore, we have chosen to focus on the sounds of "Modern RP" for the majority of the characters because it offers a slightly more flexible playground within which to create character choices while maintaining the world our audience will likely expect.

 

For those of you playing characters with a vested interest in class and status, I have included a few additional Conservative RP Options that you can find throughout in purple that may be fun to play with.

Here are five native speakers whose accents exemplify the sounds of the world we aim to create. You will notice they are by no means identical. I have ordered them from what I perceive as most Modern RP all the way to approaching Conservative RP. We encourage you to find where you believe your character lives along the spectrum.

David Harewood

(Content Disclosure: Mental Health PSA in which he refers to a psychotic episode but does not describe it further).

Emma Thompson

 

 

 


BBC Anchors Mishal Husain & Jon Sopel

 

 

Lord Boateng 

Posture

Oral posture is often the magic ingredient that makes an accent sound truly authentic. Oral posture is the pattern of movement native speakers employ with their tongue, lips, jaw, and soft palate. Despite the term “posture” seeming quite static, it may be helpful to think of oral posture as the center of gravity around which the articulators move. The oral posture of an accent serves to make the sounds of that particular accent most convenient. So, once the speaker finds the accent’s center of gravity, the sounds of the accent will flow more easily and naturally.

 

Center of Gravity

In my American accent, my center of gravity is central in the mouth. To shift into an RP accent, I need to move the center of gravity forward. Actors often find it helpful to think of the focus of this accent on the upper lip, between the teeth, or even on the tip of the tongue.

 

It may be helpful to thing of sucking on a sour candy on the tip of your tongue, or wiggling a tickly mustache to find this forward center of gravity.

 

Articulator Shifts

The following are the specific shifts I find most helpful to focus on for each moveable articulator. These shifts come from my experience as an accent coach and from my particular American accent, so you may need to make adjustments to appropriate to your own oral posture settings.

 

Lips

More movement! The lips are very active. There are more rounded vowels in RP than in my American accent as you’ll see in the “Rounded Vowels” section below. This specifically means the lip corners come forward and together with much more energy much more often than in my American accent.

 

Tongue

Agile, active, and specific use the tip of the tongue during articulation. Tongue rests slightly more forward in the mouth than in my American accent.

 

Jaw

The jaw drops further open more often than in my American accent. However, as you’ll see in the  sample videos, this does vary from person to person.

 

Soft Palate

Often remains fairly lifted to decrease nasal resonance, however, this also will vary from person to person.

Prosody

Prosody is the musicality of an accent. This may include features like pitch, rate, volume, duration, intonation, quality/timbre, and silence.

 

Pitch

The most notable prosody shift from my American accent to RP is the utilization of much greater pitch variety. RP speakers primarily use a change in pitch for emphasis, whereas American rely primarily on volume.

Here is Lord Boateng using pitch variation to great effect:

 

 

 

Duration

RP speakers will also lengthen words for emphasis, often in combination with a pitch change.

 

RP also has a more smooth, flowing, and legato quality in comparison to my American accent.

Timbre

Many RP speakers use a round and resonant tone that results in balanced chest, mask, and head resonance with minimal nasal resonance due to the lifted soft palate. However, timbre is a quality that can vary significantly from person to person.

 

Conservative RP Options:

Pitch

Extreme pitch glides and jumps.

Timbre

Some very conservative RP speakers will lift their soft palate so much that the resonance becomes primarily head resonance, resulting in a "hooty" tone. While other conservative RP speakers may lower the soft palate so much that their tone takes on a distinctly nasal, "pointy" tone.

Pronunciation

We are lucky to be working in a language for which we have Lexical Sets. These are lists of words that tend to behave the same way in terms of how the vowel or diphthong with primary stress is pronounced in a given accent. This means that although these lists of words are not pronounced the same way in every accent of English, the words on the list will be pronounced with the same vowel or diphthong in any given accent. As you have likely already gathered, this is helpful when learning accents because once you know how to pronounce one word on the list, you probably know how to pronounce them all.

 

The lexical sets for the English language were created by British phonetician, John C. Wells. Each list has a representative keyword that also serves as the name of the list. You can access all of the lists here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

For each sound change that involves a vowel or diphthong, I will start with the Lexical Set List keyword, so you can reference other words that use the same sound on the lists. I will then give the target sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet [in brackets], then I will give a representative spelling of the sound in quotations which I will call my “Faux-netic” representation.

1) R-Dropping

 

All RP accents are non-rhotic, meaning the “R” or [ɹ] sound is dropped when followed by a consonant or pause.

heard → [hʌd]  "huhd"

murder → [ˈmɜdə]  "muh-duh"

trifle → [tɹaɪ̆fl]  "trifle" (no change)

Richard → [ɹit͡ʃəd]  "Richuhd"

When the "R" is between two vowels, it is attached to the second vowel and does not impact the first.

horrible → [ˈhɒɹɪˌbl] "haw-rible"

terror → [ˈtɛɹə]  "te-ruh"

For some actors, just knowing when to drop the “R” is enough. For others, it may be helpful to know what sound to make in place of the “R”. The following is a list of sounds to target instead of “R” in all the lexical sets in which there would be an “R” in an American accent.

 

lettER →[ə] “uh”

Daughter, father, mother, paper, leather, calendar

 

NURSE → [ɜ] “UUH” or “ER” without the r-coloring

Person, burst, further, work, earth, birth

 

START →[ɑ] “AH”

Part, farm, marvelous, harsh

 

SQUARE → [ɛə] “EH-uh”

Air, care, share, their, wear

 

NEAR → [iə] “EEE-uh”

Fear, dear, career

 

NORTH/FORCE & CURE → [ɔː] “AW”

Fortune, short, snort, absorb, force

 

Conservative RP Option:

A Conservative RP speaker would distinguish between the NORTH/FORCE and CURE lists. The CURE list words have their own particular diphthong:

Cure → [ʊə] “OOO-uh”

Poor, your, sure, pure, mature, allure, assure, secure, tour

1a.) Linking “R”

 

When a word ends with an “R” that would normally be dropped and the following word begins with a vowel, the RP speaker will attach the “R” to the beginning of the following word that starts with a vowel.

 

Mother and I → [mʌðə ͜  ɹənd aɪ̆]  “Mothuh Rand I” 

 

Example phrases: There is, far away, never ever, steer over, lower angle

 

 

2) BATH List

 

BATH → [ɑ] “AHH” 

 

In American English, we merge the TRAP and BATH lists, meaning that we would pronounce all the words on both lists with the vowel sound [æ] as in the first sound in the word “ash” (which also happens to be the name of the symbol: [æ] ). However, in RP, they differentiate these words and pronounce the BATH list words [ɑ] as in the doctor’s “AHH” or the first vowel sound in “father”. There are some patterns to be found in which words belong to which list, but it can be rather unpredictable, which is why I recommend using the "ASK LIST". The following PDF is a fairly exhaustive list of all the words that change to “AHH” in RP.

The list was compiled by mid-20th century American speech teacher, Edith Skinner.

 

 

Here’s David Harewood making this sound when he says “look after our mental health” 

Commonly missed BATH List words: Can't, ask, last, chance, laugh, dance, class, pass

  1. He asked if there was any chance he could pass the class.

  2. I demand an advanced dance master.

3) Differentiated and Rounded Vowels

 

Similarly, in American English we may merge the LOT, CLOTH, and THOUGHT lists, meaning the vowels in all three of these words may sound the same. RP speakers distinguish between LOT/CLOTH and THOUGHT list words. The words on all of these lists are also rounded in RP, meaning the lip corners move in and forward.

 

3a. LOT/CLOTH → [ɒ] “aw”

For this list, the lip corners move slightly in and forward, leaving a small round opening between the lips.

 

  1. It’s posh to stock a lot of sox in the shop.

  2. She lost her hot chocolate.

 

3b. THOUGHT → [ɔː] “AWWW”

 

For this list, the lip corners move extremely far in and forward, moving towards a “kissy lips” shape.

 

  1. We were exhausted after talking until dawn.

  2. All of us thought it was awkward.

 

David Harewood offers a great example of the subtle but distinct difference in the amount of rounding in these two sounds when he says “It’s important that we talk about mental health”. “Important” is a CLOTH list word, while “talk” is a THOUGHT list word, so “talk” gets even more rounding.

4) Relaxed GOAT

GOAT → [əʊ̆] “uh-OOO”

 

The lips stay relaxed and delay rounding at the beginning of this diphthong, resulting in an “uh-OOO” or [əʊ̆] sound.

 

Here’s a great exchange between BBC Reporters Mishal Husain and Jon Sopel where you can hear this change realized in several subtly different ways, but all clearly with the delay in rounding at the beginning of the diphthong.

 

Mishal: “I know she looks”

Jon: “Who would have known

Mishal: “I know she looks so much younger than that”

Jon: “So, on Global today…”

Conservative RP Option: Instead of relaxing the lips, a conservative RP speaker may slightly spread the lips to begin this diphthong with the sound “EH” or [ɛ] as in DRESS resulting in “EH-OOO” or [ɛʊ̆].

 

  1. Oh no, don’t go alone Flo!

  2. Be bold, you own the whole old load of gold.

5) Forward and Open TRAP & STRUT

TRAP [æ] as in the word "Ash" & STRUT [ʌ] "UH" as in the word "Up"

Both of these sounds will feel different due to the oral posture of an RP accent. In many American accents, these sounds become flattened. However, due to the increased opening of the jaw and forward placement, both of these sounds may feel more "forward and open" than in an American accent.

In many American accents, the TRAP vowel may be so impacted by the consonant that follows it, that it may change to an entirely different sound. This happens most frequently when it is followed by an "R" or an "NG" sound. However, an RP speaker would maintain the TRAP vowel.

Here is Emma Thompson maintaining the TRAP vowel in the word "languid."

 

Words to practice maintaining the TRAP [æ] as in "Ash" vowel:

Before "R": character, carriage, marry, marriage, arrogant

Before "NG": thank, bank, drank, frank, anxious, language, vanquish

  1. Mother loved nothing more than money.

  2. The arrogance of his character was apparent. 

 

6) Liquid U

RP speakers insert a “yuh” or [j] in front of an “oooh” or [u] sound after the consonant sounds: T, D, S, Z, N, and L. This is often called a “liquid u.”

 

T

tune → “tyune” [tjun] Tuesday, tutor, tunic, importune, tube

 

D

during → “dyuring” [djʊɹɪŋ]     duty, dubious, duet

 

S

suitor → “syuitor” [sjutə]    super, sue, pursue

 

Z

Zeus → “Zyeus” [zjus]     exude, Zurich, exhume

 

N

new/knew → “nyew” [nju]   nutrition, avenue, nuisance, neutral, renew

 

L

ludicrous → “lyudicrous” [ljudɪkɹəs] elusive, alluring, illuminate, lucrative, delude

You can hear Emma Thompson use the liquid u in "express their gratitude"

RP speakers also use this sound in contractions when many American speakers would change it to a "CH" following a 'T' or a "J" as in "Judge" following a 'D.'

"T" + you instead of "CH"                                         "D" + you instead of "J" as in "Judge"

can’t you  [ˈkɑntju] instead of [ˈkɑnt͡ʃu]             could you [ˈkʊdju] instead of [ˈkʊd͡ʒu]

won’t you [ˈwəʊ̆ntju]instead of [ˈwəʊ̆nt͡ʃu]         would you [ˈwʊdju] instead of [ˈwʊd͡ʒu]

 

 

7) Crisp Medial and Final 'T'

RP speakers tend to make a very crisp 'T' sound in every position in a word. Whereas an American speaker may change the sound to more of a 'D' in the middle of a word between two vowels, or drop the 'T' altogether at the end of a word, the RP speaker would keep a clear, crisp 'T'.

  1. A little bit of butter is better.

  2. The meeting is getting more heated by the minute.

 

8) Forward Flowing ‘L’

To form an RP “L”, allow the back of the tongue to relax while placing the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge. Allow the airflow and sound to flow easily forward. Sometimes it helps to think of a string of silver silk flowing forward out the tip of your tongue.

 

An RP ‘L’ does not have the tensing or bunching of the back of the tongue that is common in many American accents. It also does not have the labialized, or lip-rounded 'L' that creates a kind of 'W' sound common in Cockney and other British accents.

  1. Lily was full of turmoil.

  2. Loyal people always tell the whole tale.

 

 

9) DRESS List words stay DRESS

 

Words in the DRESS lexical set maintain the vowel sound [ɛ] or “EH” as in “mess,” “bread,” or “head”.

 

In many American accents, these vowels would shift toward an “IH” or [ɪ] as in “kit” or “miss” when followed by a nasal consonant like “N” [n] “M” [m] or “NG” [ŋ].

 

Words and phrases to practice maintaining the [ɛ] or “EH” as in DRESS vowel:

When, went, intention, depend, center, meant, many, then, them, men

 

  1. Then it would depend on how many men are in the center.

  2. It cost ten cents when I went to Independence Hall.

 

 

10) Avoid Cockney Changes

The following three lexical set lists maintain the same sound as in most American accents. Due to the oral posture shift they may feel slightly different, but the pronunciation does not change.

PRICE stays [aɪ̆] as in the word "I"

FACE stays [eɪ̆] as in the word "Hey"

FLEECE stays [i] as in "EEE"

BONUS Conservative RP Option: "HappY Tensing" 

happY (-y Endings) [ɪ] "ih"

Conservative RP speakers will often change the "EEE" or [i] sound of a -y ending into an "ih" or [ɪ] as in KIT.

An extension of this same tendency can be found in words that end in

-ary -ery -ory → [ɹɪ] "rih"

 

Necessary  [ˈnɛsəˌsɹɪ] “NecessRIH”

Category  [ˈkætəˌgɹɪ] “CategRIH”

This BBC special from 1957 on the "Spaghetti Harvest" features lots of Happy Tensing in words like "Italy", "simply", "memory", and "spaghetti."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Knight, Dudley. “Standard Speech: The Ongoing Debate.” The Vocal Vision, Marian Hampton and Barbara Acker, eds. Applause Theater Books, 1997.

 

Meier, Paul. Accents & Dialects for Stage and Screen: An Instruction Manual for 27 Accents and Dialects Commonly Used by English-Speaking Actors. Paul Meier Dialect Services, 2020.

 

Payne, Laura. "Received Pronunciation". Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Feb. 2024, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Received-Pronunciation. Accessed May 2024.

 

Seiple, Tyler. Accents in ActionTM - SAmE, 2024.

Screen Shot 2024-05-14 at 12.48_edited.jpg
bottom of page