Can you explain the concept of ‘Received Pronunciation’ as it pertains to Standard English?

Received Pronunciation, often abbreviated as RP, is a term that is deeply ingrained in the study of the English language and its various accents. Traditionally, it has been viewed as the standard or ‘proper’ form of British English pronunciation. Despite this, only a minority of Britons naturally speak with this accent. Its status as a de facto standard, therefore, comes more from its historic use in specific societal and media contexts than from its prevalence in everyday conversation.

In its origins, Received Pronunciation was primarily associated with the upper classes and educated individuals in Southern England, particularly those who had received a certain kind of education at prestigious institutions. As such, it was often referred to as ‘the Queen’s English’, ‘Oxford English’, or ‘BBC English’, hinting at its affiliation with elite, authoritative, or influential sectors of society.

The defining characteristics of RP involve specific phonetic and phonological traits. From a phonetic perspective, RP pronunciation includes particular vowel and consonant sounds, while from a phonological perspective, it encompasses particular stress patterns and intonation contours. For instance, in RP, the ‘r’ sound is typically not pronounced at the end of words or before a consonant – a feature known as ‘non-rhoticity’. Similarly, words such as ‘bath’ and ‘grass’ are pronounced with a short ‘a’ sound.

It’s important to note that Received Pronunciation has evolved over time and there is not a single, monolithic form of it. Variations of RP do exist, influenced by individual, geographical, and generational factors. Contemporary RP, often heard in today’s media, tends to be less regionally marked and more accommodating of features from other accents.

Despite the prestige often associated with RP, it’s also crucial to understand that no accent is inherently superior or more correct than another. Each accent, including RP, is simply a different way of speaking that carries its own social meanings and cultural affiliations.

In the context of PSLE English, understanding Received Pronunciation can be useful for students, particularly in helping them develop a more global or international accent that can be understood by a wide range of English speakers. However, as per the MOE’s and SEAB’s guidelines, students are not penalized for using Singapore English or other local varieties of English, as long as their pronunciation does not interfere with effective communication.

In the global arena, the understanding of RP has a practical advantage. As English is increasingly used as a lingua franca in global communications, having a neutral accent that is easily understood by speakers from various geographical backgrounds can aid effective communication. That said, the global use of English today is characterized by diversity and variation, and English learners should also be exposed to a range of English accents, including those outside of RP.