Thursday, January 01, 2009



Deconstructing RP



Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak translates Derrida's "sous ratures" as "under erasure" and in this short essay I would like to put British (more correctly "English") RP--Received Pronunciation--under erasure. I think it is clear that a text (and here I am using "text" in the semiotic sense of any meaningful code which communicates a message) is most easily put "under erasure" when we do not take it at face value: we do not automatically accept its own claims for itself. Instead, we reveal hidden inconsistencies and weaknesses, points of strain and rupture until the true text begins to reveal itself. A simple example would be the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism. According to this, history possesses an immanent motion that is sure to propel the proletariat to political power and eventually subsume all classes into one. One might begin a critique by asking lots of awkward questions: "Is God behind history?", "If not, what is the active agent that propels the motion of history?", "What about the many instances where the theory refuted itself, such as the peasant takeover of Russia in 1917? (rather than the bourgeois revolution predicted by Marxism"). It is by asking such questions that we can begin to "open up a text", put it "under erasure" and see the cracks appear that will eventually lead to the collapse of the whole edifice.

What are the initial awkward questions then that we should ask about RP? "From what historical context does RP arise?", "What claims does RP make for itself?", "In what sense is RP correct?", "Who speaks RP and who is excluded?", "What are the assumptions that underlie RP?" "Are these assumptions true?" Perhaps these are enough questions to be going on with. Let us try to answer some of them at least.

1. FROM WHAT HISTORICAL CONTEXT DID RP ARISE? Daniel Jones, the linguist who first labeled RP, initially called it PSP or "Public School Pronunciation". These "Public Schools" originally developed after 1870 and in the wake of the Arnoldian revolution. The typical features of the public school--boarding facilities, emphasis on games, prefects, etc.--only developed after this time. Previously, traditional grammar schools had based themselves on familial models and were mostly local, taking students only from their immediate areas. Between 1870 and 1900 the basic system that we now know as "public school" was established, with its emphasis on educating the sons of the aristocracy and upper classes in Spartan environments far away from home. John Honey, in his book "An Historic Tongue" makes clear the reasons for the rise of RP:

"Around 1870 the question "Where did you go to school?" began to become crucial for appointment to jobs, commissions in the army, entry to clubs, and in terms of general social acceptability. Biographical reference books began to record details of schooling, and (for example) Oxford University matriculation registers suddenly , for the first time, began in the 1890s to take note of entrants' previous schooling. One of the curiosities of the situation was the great imprecision about which schools actually constituted the "public school system", so that reference books, school registers, and the newly invented device of the Old School Tie could only confirm the credentials to public school status of those who had attended the better-known public schools. The other recognition device invented by the public school system, a specific accent, served by its absence to exclude all those who could not have been to public schools, but gave the benefit of the doubt to those who, having gone to some trouble to acquire it elsewhere, advertised their identification at second-hand with that system."

But why was it suddenly so important that members of the aristocracy and upper classes should distinguish themselves from the rest of society? There were two important historical reasons. Previously, most British children had not received an education so those who could read and write, possessed social graces and cultural aptitudes, easily recognised one another in spite of their regional accents. However, with the passing of the 1870 Education Act, in theory at least, all children were to have the right to an education--and in these circumstances the ruling classes, afraid of the potentiality for new literacy amongst the general population, dedicated themselves to creating ways in which they could easily recognise each other while excluding the mass of the population. A second cause for the development of RP was the spread of the British Empire in the late 19th century. The hundred years between 1815 and 1915 are often referred to as Britain's "Imperial Century" and, at its height, more than a quarter of the globe's population lived in an English dominated territory. The administrators for this huge enterprise were mostly taken from the public schools and the old universities, so RP began to be more aggressively associated with political power. John Honey is again informative about this relationship between RP and political power:

"The degree of prescription of English pronunciation exercised first by the public schools and then by their imitators in the rest of the school system for at least a century after 1870 has been one of the great unexamined aspects of our social history. In 1895 a Rugby master asked a colleague about the newly appointed Head: 'Tell me, is James a gentleman? Understand me, I don't mean, does he speak the Queen's English but--had he a grandfather.?' It would be the achievement of the public school system to substitute for ancestry as the criterion of 'gentleman' status, first, membership of that public school caste itself, and secondly, the ability to speak the Queen's English with the specific accent and intonation which the public school system was now establishing as a standard. It is salutary to reflect that it is barely two decades since the death of a well-known Englishman--diplomat, politician, and author: public school and Oxford--who once declared that he found himself unable to take seriously anyone who spoke with what he called a 'common voice'. It takes an effort to recollect that Sir Harold Nicolson was a member of the Labour Party."

The upshot of this placing of RP in its historical context is to show that RP has no long and famous history and, moreover, that the original reasons for its acceptance and spread no longer exist.

DIDN'T FAMOUS ENGLISH PEOPLE ALWAYS TALK RP? Not at all. Up until the rise of RP in the public schools (for the reasons we have already looked at) nearly everyone spoke in their local accent (and often their local dialect too). Let's look again at Honey for more information about this:

"(People) outside London, were still influenced, in varying degrees, by pronunciation forms which reflected local dialects...This was true of Sir Robert Walpole, despite Eton and Cambridge, the 14th Earl of Derby (Eton and Oxford), the 15th Earl of Derby (Rugby and Cambridge) who, according to Disraeli, 'spoke a Lancashire patois'; and it was even to a slight extent true of Gladstone himself (Eton and Oxford), of whose speech Disraeli wrote tersely 'Gladstone was provincial, but a very fine voice.' Sir Robert Peel (founder of the police force) grew up in Staffordshire and attended Harrow and Oxford. Disraeli's account suggests he pronounced 'put' as 'putt': 'to the last he said 'woonderful' and woonderfully...' A good number of later Victorian public school headmasters as well as leading Oxford and Cambridge dons who had attended their public schools before 1870, retained marked traces of regional accent....We are required to envisage a transitional stage (say 1870-1900) in which boys with non standard accents entering a given school in the public school system are induced to adapt to the standard (the evidence suggests this was done...by the ruthless shaming of those who spoke otherwise...) Such a process would certainly have to allow for the continued presence in the school of masters--even a headmaster--who spoke with marked non standard features: we have evidence that this was the case, and that the boys adopted various degrees of tolerance to accommodate that fact.

WHAT CLAIMS DOES RP MAKE FOR ITSELF? That it is "correct". As anyone who has studied linguistics will know, phonology is value free and sounds are neutral. Even dialects are "correct" when their own rules of pronunciation and grammar are followed. If more people decide to pronounce a particular sound in a short, rather than a long, way then that is a social event. It says nothing about "correctness". Of course, the claim of RP to be "correct" has now been seriously challenged by, in particular, American English. The long term decline of RP in competition with American pronunciation has been going on for years and is likely to continue in the future.

ISN'T RP AND BBC ENGLISH THE SAME? The BBC established its rules at a time when the influence of RP was strong. Most of its newsreaders, producers and directors came from the same public school backgrounds. In recent years there has been a considerable relaxation concerning RP pronunciation and this is likely to continue in the future.

CONCLUSION: From this discussion it can be seen that the rise of RP coincided with important historical events such as the growth of empire and the establishment of new educational ideals. It did not drop from the skies ready-made and it does not, even today, have a history of much more than a hundred years. Famous people (indeed, all people) spoke, to a greater or lesser extent, with regional accents before 1870. Today, the empire has gone and universal education is well-established in Britain. This is to say, that the philosophical and historical factors that underpinned the creation and success of RP are no longer with us. Within Britain itself (or only England really) RP still has some faded luster (though that is counter-posed by a virulent dislike of the accent in other quarters). It is clear that a more neutral English accent is in the process of developing--and in the long run, this must signal the eventual demise of RP. If Britain once ruled the waves then today the USA might be thought--at least in some quarters--to rule the world. In consequence, it is the mix of regional, Irish, Scottish and European accents that went into the creation of American English that is slowly emerging as the new standard.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fascinating history.

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Atilla said...

RP was just a means by which the ruling classes knew each other. The empire is dead, and RP is destined to die with it. Even RP itself is well known to have changed considerably in the last 100 years. RP from the late 19th century would sound ridiculous to everyone now.

5:05 AM  
Anonymous Oliver said...

Shakespeare and the British Council have become the last international bastions of RP. Shakespeare will survive beyond it--but I'm not so sure about the British Council!

5:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once heard the poet, Robert Browning, speak on an early phonograph recording--and he consistently used "me" for "my".

9:16 AM  

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