Sound and vision blog

23 May 2014

How about a bit of PR for RP?

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Cambridge (one with two young hip-hop artists and one with regulars at a pub), Ely, Peterborough and Wisbech. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Cambridge. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Ely, also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

Unlike previous dialect surveys, the Voices project intentionally targeted speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds and these five recordings from Cambridgeshire represent a particularly diverse set of speaker groups. In Wisbech you can hear localised pronunciation features such as yod-dropping on commuters ['kuhmooters'] and stupid ['stoopid'] and dialect words such as docky [= packed lunch]. Two young Cambridge musicians provide examples of multi-ethnic urban youth slang such as spar [= friend], safe [= great, excellent] and crisp biscuit [= attractive], while elsewhere in Cambridge we hear evidence of polari expressions in bona capella [= nice hat] and I'm gonna get me riah [= hair] done. There's also insight in Peterborough into the code-switching that's typical of bilingual British Asians in forms like khabbu [= left-handed] and the list of pairs used to distinguish between paternal and maternal grandmother such as dadi and nani.

The Voices archive also includes a number of speakers of Received Pronunciation (RP) - the middle-class, geographically neutral accent of England and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the British Isles. Contrary to much recent popular and media opinion RP is neither out of date nor disappearing and has in fact always encompassed a range of speech types. The Voices data set includes examples of upper-class RP in recordings with an aristocratic family in Ingatestone and members of the Arnesby Hunt. RP as manifested in the Armed Forces is captured in Worston, while typical middle-class RP is represented by a group of female golfers in Sevenoaks and a recording with three generations of a long-established family of Devon landowners in Newton St Cyres. Or you can explore Public School RP by comparing former boarding school female friends in Clapham with young students here in Ely.

In common with all accents RP is changing. The recording in Ely, for instance, shows clear evidence of change on one feature - the pronunciation of the <t> sound between vowels.  As young speakers of British English it's not surprising to hear several examples of glottal stops, but pronunciations with a <d> sound occur pretty frequently too - the word little, for instance, occurs both with a glottal stop and with <d>. Although a pronunciation with <d> is  perhaps more readily associated with speech in the USA, it's actually a long-established feature of  RP and other British accents and the presence of both alternatives here shows how adolescent speakers fluctuate between a more 'conservative' <d> and  the innovative variant with a glottal stop.

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