The Historical Sociolinguistics of Elite Accent Change: On Why RP Is Not Disappearing

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ABSTRACT

There is a perception common in the UK today, especially amongst journalists, that the RP accent is disappearing: for example, Public School pupils and younger members of the Royal Family are now often said to be speaking Cockney instead of RP. This claim is totally erroneous, but it is possible to point to a number of factors which can account for this perception. This paper attempts to elucidate what these factors are; and it uses evidence from the history of English to argue that the linguistic events currently affecting RP are sociolinguistically nothing new or modern, and indeed are the result of sociolinguistically inevitable processes of diffusion and change which have persisted for very many generations.

1. Introduction

There is a perception common in the UK today, especially amongst journalists, that RP is disappearing, even if these journalists are not actually familiar with the term "RP". For example, younger members of the Royal Family are said to be speaking in a lower-class manner. And Public School pupils are said to be speaking Cockney. Indeed, even the phonetician John Wells has written a paper called "The Cockneyfication of RP?" (1994), although he was very careful to append a question mark to his title.

There are a number of reasons for this erroneous but understandable misperception. First, non-RP accents are now found in public situations from which they would have been excluded only a few decades ago, as I pointed out in Trudgill (2001). It is a matter of common, and certainly correct, observation that the RP accent is no longer the necessary passport to employment of certain sorts that it once was. Non-RP accents are very much more common on the BBC than they were forty years ago. And telephone sales companies now think about which regional accents will be most effective rather than automatically employing people who speak non-regional RP. It is therefore easy to gain an impression that there are fewer RP speakers around than formerly.

Secondly, although discrimination on the grounds of accent still unfortunately occurs in British society, it is no longer permitted to be seen to discriminate against someone on the basis of their accent--it has to masquerade as something else. This hypocrisy is a sign of progress, of an increase in democratic and egalitarian ideals. And this has also had the consequence that an RP accent can be more of a disadvantage in certain social situations than was formally the case. In many sections of British society, some of the strongest sanctions are exercised against people who are perceived as being "posh" and "snobbish". Many fewer people than before are now therefore speakers of what Wells (1982) has called adoptive RP: that is, many fewer people than before who are not native speakers of RP attempt, as adolescents or adults, to acquire and use this accent. Even Conservative Party politicians no longer have to strive for RP accents. Since the kind of people who in earlier generations would have been speakers of adoptive RP no longer are, there really are fewer RP speakers around than formerly, even though there are no fewer native speakers.

However, the third and by far the most important, reason for this perception has to do with linguistic change. RP, like all other accents, is subject to change. The middle-aged journalists who are proclaiming the demise of RP are observing some of the currently ongoing changes in the accent, and are emerging with a faulty analysis of what is happening. This is because they are being misled by the nature of some of these changes.

The interesting question for linguists is why exactly this misperception is occurring; and the explanation would seem to have to do with the nature of the changes, and more especially with their source.

2. Change from below

A historical perspective helps us to see what the source of changes in modern RP is likely to be. …