Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Received Pronunciation: Sociolinguistic Aspects. (Linguistics)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Received Pronunciation: Sociolinguistic Aspects. (Linguistics)

Article excerpt

1. RP as a minority accent

An often cited statistic has it that in Britain RP speakers constitute only 3 percent of the population. When this statistic first became commonplace in the sociolinguistics literature, it was not unusual for people to dispute it. It certainly, at least in the 1970s, seemed as if there were many more RP speakers around than that. However, a little reflection showed that this impression was due to the fact that it was much easier to hear speakers of the RP accent in the media than their proportion in the population would indicate. If people disputed the 3 percent figure, it was only necessary to ask them how many RP speakers they had had face-to-face contact with recently. Since most readers of sociolinguistic literature were not members of the Royal Family, the point was, in the end, well taken.

Perhaps, therefore, it will be as well to discuss where this statistic came from. The guilty party was myself. I popularised the 3 percent figure in Trudgill (1974). (Incidentally, I also suggested that only 12 percent of the population were speakers of Standard English, implying that 9 percent of the population normally speak Standard English with a regional accent.) I did not, however, pick the 3 percent figure out of thin air. It was, on the contrary, rather carefully considered. The figure was arrived at in the following way. My sociolinguistic urban dialect study of the city of Norwich, some of the findings of which were presented in Trudgill (1974), was based for the most part on interviews with a random sample of 50 people taken from the population of the city. This sample was a genuine random sample in which the entire voting-age population, at that time people aged 21 and over, had an equal chance of selection. As is normal with such random samples, a small number of people refused to help me, and on e person had died. These were replaced in the normal way by others also selected randomly. I also rejected from my sample people who had not been brought up in Norwich and its vicinity. There was no point in investigating the phonology of Norwich English by talking to Lancastrians. The number of people rejected in this way was also very small -- it would certainly have been much larger today. Now, out of this sample of 50 people, only one was an RP speaker. (None of the rejected out-of-towners was an PP-speaker either). In other words, the evidence from my random sample was that the population of Norwich contained only 2 percent of RP speakers.

In considering to what extent I could generalise from this finding to Britain as a whole, I had to bear in mind a number of factors: sampling error could have meant that the true proportion of PP speakers in Norwich might actually have been as high as, say, 5 percent; then I had to consider it probable that there were more PP speakers in some places, such as Cheltenham or Bath, say, than there were in Norwich; equally, though, I also had to consider that there were probably yet other places, such as Glasgow or Hull, where the proportion might have been lower. In the end, I decided that 3 percent was probably about right, but if anybody wishes to say that we should raise the figure to, say, 5 percent, I would have no objection. The point is that PP speakers have always represented a very small proportion of the population of native speakers of English in Britain.

This raises the interesting question: if RP is so very much a minority accent, why do we spend so much effort teaching it to non-native speakers RP, especially since, as David Abercrombie (1956: 55) pointed out, it would make much more sense on purely phonetic grounds to teach, for example, Scottish pronunciation? My own response to the of issue of "why teach RP" is "why not?". We have, after all, to teach something.

2. The sociolinguistic origins of RP

It is widely agreed that from a sociolinguistic point of view, this minority accent -- very much a minority accent -- is rather unusual, and indeed it is perhaps unique. …

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