An Island of Accents
Britain is full of regional accents, in fact it’s hard to travel more than 50 miles in any one direction without noticing some key changes. There’s Northern, West Country, Welsh, Scottish, Scouse, Geordie, Cockney to name a few, and you’ll find plenty of variations within these.
But unless you are an actor, or you have a keen interest in accents, you don’t want to learn to produce all of those as you learn English, so it’s important from a teaching and learning perspective to use a model for your studies. The problem is, which one?
The Queen’s English, Upper RP & Posh
The most famous accent is probably ‘The Queen’s English’ – many would say that the Queen speaks ‘correctly’, but the accent itself is very old-fashioned and somewhat idiosyncratic. You would certainly have heard something similar 50 years ago on the BBC, but it is rarely heard these days. It is generally referred to now as ‘Upper RP’ or CGB (Conspicuous General British), and whilst it is certainly fun to explore this kind of accent, few students genuinely want to emulate it.
RP, BBC & Oxford English
RP (Received Pronunciation), sometimes termed ‘BBC’ or ‘Oxford’ is reportedly spoken by 2% of the English population, largely in the South. Traditionally popular also with actors and presenters, it is somewhat ironically recognised as a ‘standard’ English accent.
All of these terms though are starting to feel very outdated. RP in particular has strong middle/upper class associations and the accent is very fixed; it doesn’t allow for modern influences, particularly in connected speech.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that you will not hear RP very often on the BBC anymore, so the need to update the terminology is clear. This article on the BBC website gives a good indication of the problems associated with the RP/BBC connotations.
GB English – A Modern Standard
GB English is the modern RP/BBC/Oxford. It’s a ‘standard’ model, but it is not old-fashioned. There are 2 main reasons we use the term instead of RP:
1. It gives us freedom to teach and learn a model that is more widely spoken now.
2. The term makes sense as an international alternative to General American.
The range of sounds and intonation in GB English is identical to RP, the key differences can occur in connected speech (particularly with /t/,/r/ & /l/) and some areas of sound selection. Effectively, RP is an old-fashioned, rigid form of GB, and you may see the terms used interchangeably, at least for the time being.
Advice for learners.
Although the terms are hotly debated by academics, the reality for learners is that the name used for the accent model is not really significant. The subtle differences between RP and GB will only concern the most advanced of students; most will simply choose between an American or British model, to this end it makes sense to use the terms General American and General British.
In class, Pronunciation Studio teachers will model GB English and explore any relevant differences between accents, this is particularly important when we cover connected speech in Level 2. The key is for learners to gain control over the way sounds are produced and joined. In the end, once you have the toolbox of sounds and intonation, the choice of accent to aim for is up to you.