Standardisation and RP


Standardisation occurs when features a dominant variety are established and maintained. This can happen naturally through language contact with speakers of different accents and dialects. Sometimes, it can occur through the efforts a language community to impose their dominant variety.

Received Pronunciation (RP) is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as: 

'The most commonly accepted or standard form of pronunciation; The standard, most regionally neutral form of spoken British English, traditionally based on educated speech in southern England; abbreviated RP.’ [1]

So, what does it mean?

Many people immediately think of a traditional upper class British accent when they hear an RP variety. This might explain the phrase ‘The Queen’s English’ which could suggest that it is the correct way to speak. However, RP only describes pronunciation and doesn’t look at grammatical features. For this reason, it must be described as an accent and not a dialect because Standard English can be spoken with any accent, not just RP.

Who’s to say what I do is right? 

Think about this… would you judge the speakers of these two sentences differently based on their constructions?

(1) I’d buy an expensive car, if I were rich!

(2) I’d buy an expensive car, if I was rich!

You probably had to read the sentences a few times to even notice the difference. Both constructions make sense but might evoke different attitudes. There are standardised sets of rules, passed down and encouraged to become norms and this is where we get the idea that some grammatical constructions are right, and some are wrong.

As we grow up, we acquire language skills and ideas from several areas. (see What is Language Acquisition?) One way in which people decide that languages are correct is through listening to their parents and family opinions. Another way in which standard language is pushed is through the government. They often offer grammar advice such as commenting on the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence. For example, you may have been taught at home or at school that prepositions should never be placed at the end of a sentence. However, as the Oxford Dictionaries Online proves:

 ‘There are times when it would be pretty much impossible to organize a sentence in a way that would avoid doing this, for example such as in some passive expressions: 

(3) a. The dress had not even been paid for.

      b. *Paid for the dress had not even been.

(4) a. The match was rained off.

      b. *Rained off was the match.[3] 

Attempting to adhere to certain rules without exception can actually make expressions ungrammatical. As society changes and adapts, it would seem very strict language rules are becoming more and more of an outdated concept.

RP in broadcasting

One of the most noticeable influences of RP seems to be in broadcasting. ‘Lord Reith, the very first General Manager of the BBC adopted the accent as his broadcasting term, which also describes another name for the term RP; BBC English.’ He was said to believe that ‘it was the most far-reaching accent to relate to people both here, and overseas.’[2] 

Nowadays, regional accents are more common in broadcasting, but a standard remains. For example, you don’t often hear informal language during the news. Below are two video clips comparing the BBC headlines read in a standard RP accent in 1980, and the news read today by a presenter with a regional accent. 

Presenter: Angela Rippon

Accent: RP

Date: December 1980

Presenter: Hugh Edwards

Regional accent: Welsh

Date: July 2003

Do you see one as more successful than the other at delivering the headlines? 

Times are constantly changing and nowadays it is very rare to find an RP accent on the television or in everyday life! In fact, although it is still recognisable, it is thought that only a very small number (2%) use this accent.[2] Even the Queen is said to not speak in RP anymore (see Varieties of English in the media). If that is the case, then surely it is less appropriate to associate RP with the term The Queen’s English anymore?

Want to find out more? 

This journal article by James Milroy (which can be downloaded as a PDF) discusses language standardisation and it’s ideologies. Milroy goes on to further look at how the idea of a standard has influenced the work of linguists, looking both an non-linguist and linguist attitudes to the term:

Next, look at our section on The North South divide for an insight into how attitudes are influenced by geographical location. 


[1] OED, Third edition, June 2009 “Received Pronunciation, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. 2009. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Available at:

[2] British Library; Sounds Familiar. Available at: 

[3] Oxford Dictionaries, 2012. Cambridge University Press. Available online. 

A global reputation

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.