St. Jerome reading, Georges de la Tour
St. Jerome reading, Georges de la Tour
August 31, 2005 | Permalink
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Amid the rich variety of British regional accents one always stood apart as the benchmark by which all speech should be judged - Received Pronunciation, the accent of "educated south-eastern England". But RP is little heard these days. So how do people react when confronted with a cut-glass English accent of old?
Long before the likes of Jonathan Ross, Kirsty Wark and Terry Wogan graced our TV screens, BBC presenters spoke in the clipped, defined tones known as Received Pronunciation. So synonymous was Received Pronunciation (RP) with the broadcaster that it also came to be known as BBC English. Now, of course, the airwaves are crackling with regional accents which are celebrated as a reflection of British diversity. But as the BBC embarks on its Voices week, billed as an exploration of the UK's countless dialects, it seems RP has slumped from being the voice of the nation to minority, even endangered, status. Amid the trend for regional inflections and the seemingly unstoppable spread of the classless so-called Estuary English, even the Queen - once the gatekeeper of RP - is said to have changed her pronunciation.
SPEAKING UP There are variations of RP Its key characteristics are clipped consonants and elongated vowels Practising with a cork between the teeth can help.
Given that it is so little heard these days, how do people react on hearing this almost antiquated accent? Not being a native RP speaker - despite my upbringing in leafy Surrey - I first needed a little coaching. The Central School of Speech and Drama, one of the country's best and most respected acting colleges, seemed a natural place to go for help. Performance coach Darren Smallridge, and head of professional development Bruce Wooding, gave me a crash course in learning the basics of this cut-glass accent, although their techniques were somewhat unorthodox. For example, wedging a cork in my mouth and attempting to read lines from Julius Caesar was invaluable, helping me keep the tongue flat and speaking with restricted lip movement, but I did feel like a snake who had tried to open a wine bottle with his fangs, only to get stuck. Darren and Bruce were, however, remarkable tutors. After only a short time I had at least grasped the basics of RP. But how would it go down with the public?
I headed for London's Covent Garden to road-test my new accent on the assembled mix of locals and tourists. Spying a group of Japanese visitors I introduced myself with a slow drawl and a closely clipped stiff-upper lip. "Good day," I began, and several camera-phones were thrust in my general direction. After a few minutes an excited circle formed - and soon drifted away.
I was fairly sure they had mistaken me for some kind of street theatre. A few attempts later though, I was on a roll. American tourists in particular seemed to love it, perhaps mistaking me for a Hugh Grant impersonator. A few were slightly scared by my over-enthusiastic use of the phrase "Dear fellow", but a woman named Judy seemed especially enamoured with the accent. "Can I take you home to the ranch?" she said in a rich Texan drawl. I declined, graciously, but among the tourists it seemed I was a hit. It was a different matter with my fellow countrymen. The group of builders I tried to befriend with the phrase "Ah, working gentlemen. How awfully nice!" did not appear to be impressed. I escaped with a quick "Toodle-pip," but couldn't help feeling disheartened. But perhaps the most surprising trend was the very lack of reaction my accent caused in most cases.
Despite trying my best to be obnoxiously RP to David Green - a distinctly wise man I met in Leicester Square - he simply replied "Its not where you come from it's where you're going," and shook me warmly by the hand.
The policemen I pounced on were also unperturbed, as were a further four or five Londoners who, after a slightly wary start, soon addressed me as normal. It seemed that even though RP is little heard on the streets of London, neither does it provoke the resentment and ridicule I had expected. It was only on the Tube ride home that the place of RP in today's Britain became clearer. For the first time I realised that the well-spoken warnings of the Transport for London public address system were, in fact, delivered in Received Pronunciation. I was elated - and in my joy I started to think. Perhaps we expect RP where we expect authority. The class system has drifted away in the main, but in the accents of those we allow to speak to us (the Tube, the BBC, the Royal family and so on) we maybe appreciate this hangover of colonial-era Britain. I, however, won't be carrying my RP techniques into daily conversation, although I hope to retain the basics for when I next visit Texas. I could use a place to stay.