What are the key differences between RP & Estuary?
One topic that frequently arises when teaching pronunciation & accent, is which accent to model in class. Most students aim for a neutral accent model – referred to as RP (Received Pronunciation) or BBC English, but the reality is that a lot of native speakers in the South of England (including most of our teachers) tend to switch constantly between RP and an accent closer to ‘estuary’. The issue is certainly a talking point; there have been plenty of column inches on Prince William and Kate Middleton’s varying levels of ‘RP’ recently, with some bloggers claiming William has ‘quite a bit of Estuary’ in his speech.
So what are the features of Estuary and how can you spot Estuary and RP? Here are some key differences:
1. Glottal Stop /ʔ/ & /t/:
RP An RP accent is very clear about when a speaker can produce a glottal stop – it can replace a ‘t’ only before another consonant sound for example in ‘football’ and when produced is accompanied by an alveolar stop (the tongue touches the alveolar ridge as if it were making a /t/.
Estuary In Estuary English a glottal stop is not accompanied by an alveolar stop, and will appear at the end of syllables: (foot, what) as well as before consonants (football). It may also appear before weak vowels (water), but this is more typical of cockney.
foot, what, football, water
2. Dark /l/
RP In RP, an /l/ appearing at the end of a syllable will produce a dark /l/ sound /l̴/, which means that the tongue is raised at the back of the mouth towards the velum as well as touching the alveolar ridge. It gives a soft, almost muffled sound – eg ‘ball‘ /bɔ:l̴/ and ‘feel‘ /fi:l̴/.
ball /bɔ:l̴/, feel /fi:l̴/
Estuary Dark /l/ does not appear in Estuary, instead it is replaced by a syllable final /w/ sound. So ‘ball’ sounds like /bɔ:w/ and feel would be /fi:w/.
ball /bɔ:w/, feel /fi:w/
3. Intrusive /r/
Intrusive /r/ is a joining /r/ sound between one word ending in /ə/ or /ɔ:/ and another word beginning with a vowel. (EG ‘China_and India’ or ‘law_and order’).
RP An RP speaker would not add an /r/ sound in order to join two words, instead placing a pause.
China_and India, law_and order
Estuary An Estuary speaker would use intrusive /r/ making all words and sounds join together.
China/r/and India, law/r/and order
4. /h/ dropping
RP An RP speaker may never drop an /h/ sound, even in function words such as ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘have’ etc.
he, her, have
Estuary Estuary speakers would certainly drop the /h/ in function words, particularly where they appear in the middle of sentences such as ‘Where’s he gone?’ and ‘It’s in her handbag’.
Where’s he gone? It’s in her handbag.
This article uses English IPA symbols – learn each of them with pronunciation notes, diagrams and audio in Pronunciation Studio’s free Starter Pack.
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