English After RP by Geoff Lindsay

Review of Geoff Lindsey (2019) English after RP: Standard British Pronunciation Today Palgrave Macmillan

If you teach English pronunciation, you will know that most text books present a model which claims to be either standard American or standard British. The latter is often referred to as RP (Received Pronunciation), and is usually represented by a set of phonetic symbols chosen over half a century ago by A. C. Gimson. Geoff Lindsey makes the point that if a person speaks in exactly the way that these symbols indicate, they will sound comically old-fashioned. His new book English after RP sets out to describe they ways in which standard British has evolved away from RP. He suggests alternative phonetic symbols which would be more appropriate for modern Standard Southern British English, but he also recognises that the traditional set will not be changed overnight, given the number of text books still using them. If we are to stick with the symbols currently in use, we will need to avoid taking them at phonetic face value – the symbols no longer accurately describe the facts.

The main body of the book consists of 31 bite-sized chapters of only two or three pages. They are very readable and more-ish like a bowl of cherries. I’ll just give a few examples which I found particularly interesting.

Lindsey says that pronunciation is moving in the direction of spelling, perhaps because people tend to defer to the authority of the written form. One example is hurricane, where the second syllable is increasingly likely to rhyme with cane, rather than having the vowel reduced to schwa. This perhaps ties in with the point Lindsey makes in another chapter, where he says that vowel reduction is not quite so common. I imagine that both of these features – spelling pronunciation and less reduction – will also become more common in international versions of English, since learners often learn pronunciation under the influence of the written form.

Other chapters challenge the traditional classifications of monophthongs and diphthongs. Some vowels which were traditionally viewed as monophthongs like the vowel in FLEECE are better analysed as diphthongs, while others move in the opposite direction, such as the vowel in SQUARE.

Lindsey points out that in some respects there is a pull towards Americanization – for instance in word stress, there is a leftward tendency – for example, from prinCESS to PRINcess. However, in certain other respects British English is resisting American influence – for example, the /t/ between vowels is rarely being softened to something like a /d/ in words like city.

Seemingly, some forms which were once viewed as parochial or stigmatized have now become accepted as possible standard forms, such as pronouncing the vowel in BATH the same as the vowel in TRAP, or introducing an intrusive /r/ in a phrase like law and order. Lindsey says that pronouncing THING as FING is getting more common, especially among younger speakers, so that while it not yet accepted as standard, it may be in the future.

I think this book will be invaluable for teachers of specifically British English, and teachers of ESOL in a British context. For English teachers in other contexts, it will also be of interest for background insights, but not so directly usable. I feel that today, with English in role as a global lingua franca, we no longer need to be so precise and specific about target models. Lindsey suggests that we mustn’t take Gimson’s symbols too literally because they don’t represent the modern standard. I would suggest that perhaps we shouldn’t take any symbols too literally, since we don’t necessarily need to aim for any standard model.

To show what Lindsey’s suggested symbols look like, I have placed them in the PronPack vowel chart here:

2 Replies to “English After RP by Geoff Lindsay”

  1. Thank you, Mark, for posting this thought provoking review of Lindsey’s book. Let me put in my two cents worth but with the caveat that I have not got hold of the book yet. In fact, after reading your review, I am more than eager to read the book.

    Well, according to Lindsay, “pronunciation is moving in the direction of spelling.” He has also given an example of “hurricane, where the second syllable is increasingly likely to rhyme with cane, rather than having the vowel reduced to schwa.” But I feel that speaking-as-spelled might happen for a tiny percent of words in English. Why? Because even a non-native speaker of English like me learn right from the outset that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the letter and the sound. I distinctly remember my school teacher asking us to repeat after him the letters in isolation and the words containing them; for instance, a – apple, a – ask, a – ability, a – all, etc.

    He also suggests an alternative set of phonetic symbols. I will have to read the book to make informed comments. However, let me just present our situation here in India. For the last decade or so, most teachers and learners of English have easy access to the Internet, and via that, to online dictionaries from international publishers such as Cambridge and Oxford. Most Indian learners of English today (intermediate and above), for instance, do not ask their teachers how a word is pronounced. They find it out on their own. It’s a click away. And the current IPA symbols are deeply ingrained in learners’ psyche. I believe the same is the case where English is not the first language. That means that for majority of speakers of English in the world today, the model pronunciation is what such dictionaries suggest. Introducing a new set of symbols will create an extremely difficult situation since the IPA symbols are so widely used in all fields of knowledge.

    Marks suggests (is that Lindsay’s view also?) that “we don’t necessarily need to aim for any standard model.” Well, that argument is untenable at least in ESL/EFL situations. If we don’t aim at a model, it may affect mutual intelligibility. The importance of a uniform model cannot be stressed enough for a multi-lingual country like India where people in every state have a distinctly different style of speaking English. No-model for language learners (and teachers) may end up in utter chaos.

    I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

    1. Hi Dharmendra
      Thanks for your very interesting observations.
      You may be right that only a few words will drift in the direction of spelling-pronunciation – only time will tell. I definitely do sense however that there is a trend away from reducing every unstressed vowel to schwa, as Lindsey claims. As regards English as a Lingua Franca, many words may, over time, drift in the direction of the spelt form. I try to stop my students saying ‘pear’ to rhyme with ‘ear’, but who knows, in the end that trend may prevail just from the sheer weight of numbers of people using the English they’ve already got, instead of always being in the position of learners of the language.
      I agree with you that changing the set of IPA symbols we use for teaching purposes would be a difficult upheaval. It may also be pointless, given that we don’t necessarily require the precision of phonetic symbols – phonemic symbols are quite sufficient. We only need precision if we are teaching a very specific accent – training actors, for example – or spies!
      Your last point about models: I think there is probably a default model in every classroom, namely the teacher. This has long been the case, and I don’t think is necessarily a problem – I don’t think mutual intelligibility depends on everybody having the same accent (This is my opinion by the way, not Lindsey’s). However, I have no knowledge or experience of the situation in India; there may well be good reasons to aspire to conformity there which I know nothing about. I am aware, for example, that there is a pressure for accent conformity within the United States, leading to the existence of many schools and tutors that advertise so called ‘accent reduction’ courses. Perhaps this amounts to the difference between ‘English as a Second Language’ (which tends to stress accent conformity) and ‘English as a Foreign Language’ or ‘English as a Lingua Franca’, where accent diversity is a fact of life.

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