Letting our Standards Drop

This article first appeared in the EL Gazette Magazine May-June 2019: https://www.elgazette.com/elg_archive/ELG1906/mobile/index.html

Everybody has an accent. Nobody is exempt, although many of us perhaps feel we are. That’s because we tend to perceive other people’s accents relative to our own, which we perceive as neutral and accentless.

An accent may come to be considered as ‘standard’, and again this may be perceived as neutral and accentless by the people who speak it. Hence the nonsense phrase, ‘getting rid of your accent’. On the face of it, this is impossible – but clearly, what it means is developing an accent which is more like the one which is considered ‘standard’.

Speaking with a ‘standard’ accent confers advantages – opportunities may be denied to people ‘with an accent’. This is what lies behind the one time popularity of elocution lessons – people seeking to improve their life prospects by modifying their speech. However, we should remember that ‘standard’ does not mean better: as Linguist John Wells puts it, ‘… a standard accent is regarded as a standard … not because of any intrinsic qualities it may possess, but because of an arbitrary attitude adopted towards it by society…’ (Wells 1982 p34).

In Britain, the accent long seen as standard is ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP), where the word ‘received’ is used in the sense of ‘accepted’. In elocution lessons, RP is typically the target model, and ELT has followed the lead: pronunciation teachers have been expected to present the RP model to their students. But can RP be plausibly described as ‘standard’ in the sense of ‘widespread’ today? Geoff Lindsey of University College, London, argues that it can’t.