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: