The history of Received Pronunciation

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This chapter will present a sociolinguistically focused overview of the history of Received Pronunciation, probably one of the most widely recognized varieties of spoken English in the world. The sociolinguistic community for whom it is a vernacular is a small one numerically in the larger picture of global English, but its form of speech had an outsized historical and sociolinguistic impact for a century of British history, from approximately 1870 to 1970 (Agha, 2003; Mugglestone, 2007). Fundamental sociological and historical change has upended the sociolinguistic status of the elite sociolect in Great Britain and across the world, and it is a transformed variety partly as a result of this, and partly as a result of endogenous linguistic shifts, such as vowel chain shifts in the short vowel system (Fabricius, 2019). In attempting to place Received Pronunciation within the overall history of the English language, its development as a vernacular has often been overshadowed by and confused with its putative status as a kind of ‘standard accent’ in certain contexts and settings. The sociolinguistic discussion here will treat these aspects quite distinctly, and focus on the variation and change of a vernacular elite sociolect over time. The chapter will therefore cover a range of perspectives on this well-known and much-studied accent variety, whose nature as a sociolinguistically-anchored vernacular has historically been somewhat neglected in the past (Britain, 2017). These perspectives include innovative vocalic and consonantal productions (Ferragne & Pellegrino, 2010; Hannisdal, 2006; Harrington, 2006; Harrington et al., 2000; Hawkins & Midgley, 2005; Wikström, 2013) and the sociolinguistic perception of RP, including issues of accent prejudice (Cardoso et al., 2019; Coupland & Bishop, 2007). Finally, it will also examine RP as a ‘construct’ and its performance, including stylizations (Coupland, 2007; Fabricius, 2006; Fabricius, fc). Issues of sociolinguistic fieldwork on the accent will also be discussed briefly. In this way, the variety’s sociolinguistic status will be placed in a historical perspective, with a particular focus on the changes and evolutions that took place in the post-World War II period in Great Britain. The chapter will also discuss recent and ongoing historical corpus projects documenting this accent over historical time.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Cambridge History of the English Language : Volume IV: Varieties of English in Britain, Ireland and Europe
Place of PublicationCambridge, UK.
PublisherCambridge University Press
Publication statusSubmitted - Aug 2021


  • sociolinguistic history
  • phonetic change
  • Sociolinguistics
  • dialectology

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