For most of the 20th century, Received Pronunciation (RP), also known as "BBC English" or "the Queen's English", was the most prestigious accent in Britain. This non-regional accent originated in the upper-middle class of southern England. It was seen as the epitome of refined speech and social standing. Its adoption by the BBC further cemented its standardisation. Why is this no longer the case? 

Accent and class

RP was more than just a way of speaking. It was a symbol of social class, education, and cultural refinement. Those who spoke RP were perceived as intelligent, sophisticated, and well-bred. Those who did not were often seen as being from lower social circles. The accent's prevalence in broadcasting, politics, and the arts further reinforced this.

But in the mid-20th century, social change began to erode RP's unchallenged dominance. There was an expansion of education, increased social mobility, and the rise of television and radio. This challenged the traditional linguistic norms that had long favoured RP.

The expansion of education exposed people from diverse backgrounds to a wider range of accents and dialects. As more people from working-class and non-southern England entered professions like broadcasting and politics, their accents gained prominence. They challenged RP's monopoly on formal speech. Multicultural London English (MLE) was on the rise. 

The rise of MLE

Peter Trudgill covered this in a 1983 study. He examined the social factors shaping accent distribution in England. MLE's rise reflected London's growing multiculturalism. Trudgill's work highlights the dynamic nature of language and its link to social change.

Multicultural London English (MLE) is a sociolect of English that emerged in the late 20th century among young people in London. Particularly in areas with high levels of immigration. It is characterised by a mix of features from various BAME languages and dialects. Plus traditional London dialects such as Cockney. MLE is still evolving, but it is already considered to be a distinct form of English.

Here are some of the key features of MLE:

  • Vocabulary. MLE incorporates words from a variety of languages. This includes Jamaican Creole, Caribbean English, and South Asian languages.
  • Grammar. MLE has some unique grammatical features. For example, the use of the word "like" as a quotative marker ("He was like, 'I'm not coming.'") 
  • Pronunciation. MLE has some distinctive pronunciation features. These include the glottal stop (a stop in the flow of air produced by closing the vocal cords). 

Here are some examples of MLE phrases:

  • Wagwan? (What's going on?)
  • Big up (To show respect or appreciation)
  • Peng (Good looking)
  • Blud (Friend)
  • Mandem (Group of friends)
  • Bare (Very)
  • Ting (Thing)
  • Suttin (Something)
  • Innit (Isn't it?)
  • You get me? (Do you understand?)

Accents in the media

The rise of television and radio further accelerated this linguistic transformation. Popular television shows and radio programmes featuring diverse accents normalised non-RP speech to a vast audience. Viewers and listeners became accustomed to hearing accents other than RP in positions of authority and influence. This gradually chipped away at its perceived exclusivity.

As immigration increased and cultural exchange flourished, new linguistic influences emerged. These enriched the linguistic tapestry of the nation. 

A cultural shift

The decline of RP has different implications for different people. For some, it represents a loss of a linguistic tradition. A symbol of British identity and culture that is slowly fading away. Others, however, view it as a positive development. It reflects a more inclusive and diverse society where linguistic norms are no longer dictated by a single social class.

The changing linguistic landscape of Britain is a testament to the dynamic nature of language. It reflects the social, cultural, and technological shifts that shape a nation's identity. RP may no longer hold the same prestige it once did. But its legacy continues to influence the way we speak. It's part of the rich linguistic tapestry that forms the fabric of British society.

Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable and has been building websites since the early 90s. He’s one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.