The Reference Accents: RP/BBC & GenAm

In order to be able to discuss the features of particular accents of English, it is useful to have one or more reference models to compare this accent to. For both of the major dialects of English, the British and the American one, such models exist. However, one has to bear in mind that these models are not really, as is often assumed, based on features such as better intelligibility, etc., but often only on the prestige associated with them. Furthermore, the English Language Teaching (ELT) and Language Testing industries have always had a major influence on the propagation of certain beliefs about which accents should be preferred over others.

British English

The reference accent for British English is called Received Pronunciation (RP), nowadays (again) somewhat more neutrally also referred to as BBC (English). The term was originally coined by Daniel Jones and was supposed to reflect the speech of educated Southern schoolboys, i.e. students attending public schools. It is often also referred to as ‘the Queen’s English’ or ‘Oxford English’, but both of these terms are rather inapplicable because both accents show clear differences, at least in comparison to mainstream RP.

John Wells’ Accents of English gives an excellent (though more than 20 year-old) overview of the different types of RP, which is especially illuminating because it also makes one realise that RP is not something clearly tangible and eternally fixed, but an accent that keeps on changing and shows a high degree of variability, just like any other. One of the main and most important facts about RP, however, is that is an accent that is only spoken by about 3-4 % of the British population.

A more recent and updated, but in parts slightly controversial, description by Clive Upton can be found in the Handbook of Varieties of English. For this course, we will adopt a transcription model that is in between the ones proposed by Wells and Upton, but mainly reflecting the recent changes described by Upton.

American English

The reference accent for American English is called General American and is to some extent based on the speech of the more prestigious New England states, but also shows considerable variation. It is therefore often rather defined as an accent with few or no particularly strong regional features.

Further Note on Reference Accents & Models

In an ideal world, all reference models would be based on a thorough and objective comparison of the actual variation occuring in everyday speech, at least within a certain group of slightly more educated speakers. I have proposed a methodology for creating such a model in my PhD thesis, but implementing such a method on a larger scale is unfortunately always a problem of financial and other resources. Nevertheless, I believe that in the long run, there will be no way around finding more objective ways of evaluationg the speech of both native and non-native speakers against some form of model that is based much less on existing ideologies, rather than actual usage.

Sources & Further Reading:

Knowles, G. (1997). A Cultural History of the English Language. London: Arnold.

Wells, J.C. (1982). Accents of English. Vols. 1 & 2. Cambridge: CUP.

Upton, C. (2004). Received Pronunciation. In Schneider, E., Burridge, K., Kortmann, B., Mesthrie, R. & Upton, C. (Eds.). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Vol. 1. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.