Tuesday, 10 May 2011

English RP seminar

Next week I’ll be at the Università degli Studi della Tuscia to conduct a half-day English phonetics seminar entitled Received Pronunciation: Changes in Recent Times and in Progress.

The idea of hosting this conference was pretty much my own, to be honest. About a month ago, I asked lecturers and professors at the university if they were interested in offering their students a seminar on the phonetics of current RP. My proposal was immediately welcomed enthusiastically by everybody there and so I started working on it, trying to think about what I could discuss during my talk.

As my readers will remember, in one of my earlier posts I have already dealt with the importance of teaching English phonetics and phonology in schools and universities – and I’ll make sure I reiterate this argument during next week’s conference, too. Unfortunately, as I complained back in June, in Italy teachers of EFL prefer to invest all their efforts in teaching mainly grammar and vocabulary, relegating pronunciation to a less important position. That’s because most of them are of the opinion that English phonetics is difficult, that students don’t understand it, and therefore that it is useless for them to teach it. My impression is, though, that they refuse to teach it simply because they don’t know anything about the subject and this may be due to the fact that they didn’t get the chance to study phonetics and phonology when they were language students at university. Students, on the other hand, tell their teachers that they don’t like IPA symbols because they look strange and obscure. Most of them are not even aware of the existence of a standard form of British pronunciation (RP or whatever you want to call it), which is what they are used to listening to in class – at least in Italy. Furthermore, they are not taught to use pronunciation dictionaries since, they argue, these don’t contain the meanings of words – only mysterious symbols you have to decrypt. And that takes time, of course, and can be incredibly daunting. Finally, some students/teachers are not aware that adjectives like neutral or standard relating to accents can be synonymous from a sociolinguistic point of view.

Against this gloomy and depressing background I can confidently state that there are also some teachers out there in Italy who are interested in English phonetics and who think that teaching students pronunciation in order to communicate successfully with native speakers and – more importantly – understand them is absolutely essential.

English phonetics is fun and incredibly interesting – and I’ll try to make this clear, too.

One last point I’ll be discussing is language change and the fact that 50 years ago RP sounded differently than it does now. (This may be obvious for most of my readers though not generally for Italians, whose language hasn’t changed much phonetically in the last half a century or so.)

To take an example: how do you pronounce Honduras? Is it hɒnˈdjʊərəs or hɒnˈdʒʊərəs? Well, I have to admit that I use both, contrary to a BBC weatherwoman who on Sunday I heard pronounce it as ˈhɒndʒʊrəs. Now, was this a mere slip of the tongue on her part or does that indicate a stress change in progress in contemporary RP? Well, I don’t know if I’ll be able to provide an answer to that during my seminar...


  1. Hi Alex, It is facinating how pronunciation evolves over time.
    Your readers might be interested in an interactive phonetic chart that I made that works in YouTube. Here is a link to it.

  2. Thanks, very interesting indeed!

  3. I'm fascinated by your claim that Italian "hasn’t changed much phonetically in the last half a century or so".

    Why is this? Is it because nearly everyone speaks a regional dialect/language rather than "real Italian"?

  4. Italian tends to be much more conservative than, say, English, from a phonetic point of view. One reason is that it isn't as widespread as English is around the world. (If you watch some Italian newsreels dating back to the 1950's you won't notice much difference in the pronunciation compared to today.)
    Maybe one important difference is the much darker quality (similar to a schwa)of final vowels in words spoken by people coming not only from the centre or south (as it is traditionally). But that is not yet considered as RP Italian, if you will.
    Finally, it's the stress patterns essentially that tend to change from one generation to the other, but these changes have always been around, and most of them just can't be explained.
    If you're really interested,I could do a post on that...