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BASIC RULES OF THE “BRITISH RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION” ACCENT OF ENGLISH

Updated: 5 days ago




This tutorial will cover the basics of a British RP accent of English. It’s one of the most valuable accents actors can have in their repertoire, and this beginner’s guide is meant to serve as a simple jumping off point in your exploration of the accent. But before we jump in, let's first explore the history of the accent.



HISTORY

British RP, or “received pronunciation”, is a “learned” accent – meaning it is typically taught, rather than acquired naturally. RP is an upper/middle class accent that was popularized over the course of the 19th century. It was taught in boarding schools and places of higher education, spoken by royalty (earning it the nickname “The Queen’s English”), and was required for many years by the BBC, the UK’s national source of news.


Though the accent has largely fallen out of fashion in modern times (some estimates say only 2% of people in the UK still speak it), it is still used as a worldwide standard for teaching English (along with a General American Accent). Plus, it frequently appears in films and television as a way of indicating a character’s higher status–think the Empire in Star Wars or the elves in Lord of the Rings.


In this guide, you will find some simple “rules” for speaking English with a British RP Accent. I put “rules” in quotes because there will always be exceptions. Also, please note that in order to better demonstrate the accent’s unique sounds, we will be comparing the British RP vowels and consonant shifts to their American counterparts.


Let’s begin by exploring some of the unique vowels of the British RP accent.



VOWELS SHIFTS 

1) [æ] as in BATH might move to [ɑ] as in LOT

"Half the class needs a bath."

But not: "The fat cat sat on my lap."

Tip: This change is often spelling based; if more than one consonant followed the letter “a” within a syllable, the vowel is more likely to make the shift.


2) [ɑ] as in LOT is lip-rounded, closer to [ɒ]

"I thought of calling Shaun this fall."

Tip: Round your lips on this sound, almost like you’re making a kissy-face


3) [oʊ̆] as in GOAT has a more relaxed start, closer to [əʊ̆]

"Don’t go roaming all over the globe."

Tip: If you have trouble finding this sound, sing it in slow motion and progressively speak it faster.


4) If the sound [u] as in DUKE, follows a <T, D, S, Z, or N> in spelling, it may change to a "liquid-U" sound, [ɪ̆u]

"I took the tube to the dukes new studio."

But not: He put the blue shoe on Cooper the goose.


5) Optional: <Y> ending sounds, such as in HAPPY, may reduce to [ɪ]

"The silly elderly kitty was nearly twenty."

Tip: This sound change is good for older or more pompous characters, particularly in period pieces.


6) Optional: If the [æ] vowel did not change to [ɑ] as in rule 1, it may change to [ɛ]

"The fat cat sat on my lap."

Tip: As with rule 5, this change is good for older or more pompous characters, or in period pieces.



CONSONANT SHIFTS

1) All <R> sounds that come after a vowel within a syllable are dropped.

"The perturbed surfer rode over the river."

Tip: Cross out all eliminated <R>s in your script.


2) If an eliminated <R> sound is followed by a vowel sound within the phrase, we can put the <R> back in; this is called a “Linking-R”

"Father is mad at brother and I for setting off the car alarm."


3) Sometimes, an <R> may insert itself between two words if one word ends in a vowel and the next one also begins in a vowel; this is called an “Intrusive-R”

"The idea of meeting the Shah of Persia is exciting."


4) Every single <T> sound should be present and crisp.

"A tutor who tooted a flute tutored two tutors to toot."

Tip: Be extra careful to hit final <T> sounds, which Americans tend to drop.



MUSICALITY

Now that we’ve covered the important one-to-one sound changes of the accent, let’s explore the musicality. Compared to General American, British RP may feel generally higher pitched. There’s an old saying, “Every American man thinks he’s a baritone, every British man knows he’s a tenor.” I find this to be true regardless of gender. Don’t be afraid to explore your higher register.


British RP can also feel much more fluid and connected compared to American speech. The words can seemingly run into each other. Words that begin with a vowel may feel connected to the previous word in a sentence. Take the example sentence:


“All Americans eat every ounce of avocado.”


Most American speakers may separate the words there to a degree. However, the RP speaker may sound more like this:


“AllAmericanseatevery ounceofavocado.”


These are of course generalizations, and you will absolutely hear RP speakers that don’t fit these standards. There’s no reason at all that you couldn’t have an RP character that speaks with a “choppy, low pitched voice”. In other words, don’t let the standard musicality limit your acting choices.



UNIQUE WORD PRONUNCIATIONS

As with every accent, British RP has many unique word pronunciations, which don’t necessarily fit into any sort of logical set of “rules”. While it would be impossible to capture all of the unique pronunciations here, here are some of my personal favorites:


-zebra: /ZEH.bruh/ instead of /ZEE.bruh/

-aluminum: /aa.loo.MIH.nee.um/ instead of /uh.LOO.mih.num/ (notice the extra syllable)

-lieutenant: /lef.TEN.uhnt/ instead of /loo.TEN.uhnt/

-been: might sound like “bean”, especially when stressed

-schedule: /SHEH.juhl/ instead of /SKE.djuhl/

-Z: the letter “zee” is pronounced as /zed/


Again, these are just a few unique pronunciations. I always encourage my actors to keep a running list of new ones that you may hear when listening to resources. And of course this doesn’t even account for unique vocabulary that accompanies different dialects of English, such as “lorry” for truck or “lift” for elevator–there are plenty of lists readily available online that outline such unique vocabulary words.



CONCLUSION

British RP is an invaluable accent for actors, and has a distinct set of rules that one must adhere to. Practice the sound shifts on the example sentences provided in this tutorial, then try it out on your own text. I’ve also provided some links to example speakers below; be sure to give some a listen to hear the accent demonstrated properly.



EXAMPLE SPEAKERS:

Note, Scott Alan Moffitt, The Actor's Dialect Coach claims no ownership of the material in the following links--they are provided for educational purposes only. Certain links may contain language or content not suitable for children.


Attenborough, David (secondary) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tvA3Ezqjl8

Christmas, Eric (secondary) - https://youtu.be/iZnQPLJi2t4

Sanders, George (secondary) - https://youtu.be/0J2NOKiFlUE


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