Received Pronunciation (RP) is a form of pronunciation used in British English.
RP, then, is simply a particular accent of English.
Although it has changed over the years, it can be heard listening to Queen Elizabeth, Brian Sewell and others (see the video below for an example of this); generally this means people of higher social class in the UK.
RP as an Accent
Most accents in the UK are regional, that is people from one area will speak with a particular accent whilst people from another area speak with a different accent. If you listen to British people it’s often easy to tell where in the country they come from: a person from Liverpool will often sound very different from a person from London, for example.
However, RP is slightly different in that it is non-regional. This means an RP speaker from the north of England will sound the same as an RP speaker from the south of England and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to identify where an RP speaker grew up.
While many British accents are regional then, RP is social. It is spoken by what used to be called “the upper classes” in Britain and it’s spoken by people who have attended expensive fee-paying schools like Eton and Harrow and come from old aristocratic families. It suggests a privileged social and educational background.
Some characteristic features of RP are the long vowels in words such as bath, path, ask or the diphthongs in words such as so, go, no, flow. It is, perhaps, closest to the accent spoken in south-east England.
RP originated in the East Midlands among the merchants who migrated towards London to make their fortunes several hundred years ago. However, as the higher classes slowly but surely appropriated it, RP lost its geographical characterization and became simply the way upper class people spoke (the Royal Family, the wealthy aristocrats, the landed gentry, etc).
For much of the twentieth century, RP represented the voice of education, authority, social status and economic power, characterizing the nobility and the higher classes. The Queen spoke RP; in this 1940 video when she was Princess Elizabeth before she became queen, she is giving a radio broadcast.
With the economic and culture changes which ensued after the end of WW II the middle classes gained more opportunities of educational and social advancement within the establishment. To gain immediate recognition and acceptance they too adopted RP.
Nowadays, virtually every accent is represented in all walks of life to which people aspire — sport, the arts, the media, business, even former strongholds of RP England, such as the City, Civil Service and academia. As a result, fewer speakers with regional accents consider it necessary to adapt their speech to the same extent. Indeed many commentators even suggest that younger RP speakers often go to great lengths to disguise their middle-class accent by incorporating regional features into their speech.
Today RP is not so common, instead it has been replaced by “standard English” which is sometimes known as “BBC English”.
In contrast, the following clip shows an interview with British singer Cheryl Cole; she is from working class roots in the north of England and where she grew up can easily be guessed by the accent she has.