Quick! Grab the tea and terrible weather! It’s time to do a British accent and fast! For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be doing a Southern Standard British accent, a modernised version Received Pronunciation, somewhere in the region of Steven Fry and David Attenborough. You see, there are hundreds of regional dialects all around the British Isles, from the hard-nosed, rhotic ‘r’s of Scotland to the soft ‘t’ of the southern Irish accent right on down to the fanciest of upper-class English accents, Received Pronunciation which we are going to practice today! It is important to know that one does not simply do a perfect accent on the first go. This takes years of work, practice and coaching from experts in your area! Consider this a starting point for how you can make some British accent sounds and know in your heart that if you want to get this really spot on, it’s going to take a lot more work than this!
NOTE: Before you begin any accent work, we always recommend doing a vocal warm-up first up, to really get those articulators working and that breath nice and grounded.
Every accent or dialect has its own unique placement of the jaw, tongue, lips and mouth. If you are able to alter your own default placement and acquire that of another dialect, even if you slightly miss the signature sound of that accent you should be at least in a similar position that hopefully, it won’t stand out too badly. It also puts you in the best position to make the sounds correctly. Now I should mention at this juncture that I am not a voice coach or a dialect coach, I am merely an Aussie actor with fairly good proficiency in accent work. So I would also say if your voice or dialect coach tells you to do this in a different way, you should listen to them! Again, this is a fast and nasty way of getting to an RP sound!
So here’s what I would like you to try, take your tongue and put it behind your top teeth, feel the hard palate. Good. Now move it back and feel the soft palate, nice – now lift the back of your tongue and feel the roof of your mouth at the very back there. Now take that back part of the tongue that you have lifted, and drop it down in your mouth as far down as it can go.
Imagine, that you have an egg in the back of your mouth, sitting on top of the very back of your tongue, you should feel a lot of space in the back of your mouth. Good – now – think about your upper lip, make it tight and set in stone. Know in your heart that all of the sounds that you make from here on out will use a lot of lip rounding. We want to keep the sound coming forward, with a stiff upper lip and absolutely no width in the mouth. This is not an accent that you smile with, it is an accent that you stoically, bear the universe with.
Finally, take a breath in, and really contact your chest resonance, try and work for a nice baritone sound encapsulating all of that chest power you have. Keep it supported and try and say the following sentence.
‘Absolutely Sir Peter, that is a capital idea.’
You should hopefully sound a little something like this:
How did you go? It may not have been perfect, but like any new skill, it takes time and practice. So keep at it!
Every accent or dialect comes with their own dialectal features which make it unique, this article should be the start of your journey of discovery with RP. This is not an exhaustive list but again here to start you on the right track to making a good RP accent happen! Here are some of the signature sounds for RP that you should keep an eye out for. I give more detail on my source, Paul Meier’s Accents and Dialects for Stage and Screen below.
The aspirated, released, plosive ‘t’
Did that sound like gibberish? I know, but it’s less complex than you might think. Aspirated means there is a lot of air moving through it, released means we aren’t holding it in and plosive means it is at the front of the mouth exploding outwards as you say it. English RP speakers treat this sound more sharply than almost any other group of English speakers. Some words to think about: Better, Lot of, shatter, motive etc.
Fancy or Farncey. Dance or Darnce, Plant or Plahnt?
Yes, the inexorable question or the short or long ‘a’ sound. The overarching rule here is that if your ‘a’ sound, sounds weird – it is probably weird. Carrhhht, for example, isn’t going to be right for ‘cat’ so have a play around with it. Dance for example would need a longer and more open ‘a’ sound as opposed to the short ‘a’ you would get in General American for the same word. It is also a question of class. RP being an upper-class accent my general advice would be to experiment with elongating rather than shortening sounds. However, if you are ever confused check with a pronunciation dictionary or ask a real-life RP speaker. Googling Steven Fry or listening to one of his audiobooks is a great place to start. Words like: cant, plaza. Plant, dance all have the longer sound versus cat, lamp, bag or parrot which have a shorter sound.
Watch the lot and cloth
If you’re an American – this is going to feel super weird but you want to make the vowel sound in words like lot and cloth in the back of your mouth rather than the front with lots of lip rounding. You may feel very silly here but give it a go! Knowledge, collar, want, fox etc are all good practice words.
The linking ‘r’
This is very tricky, especially for Americans. What if I told you that RP speakers may not say every ‘r’ in a word as written but will also occasionally add an ‘r’ sound where there is not one written? Wild right. For example, an RP speaker would say library as: “Li-bry” as opposed to a General American speaker who would say: Li-bra-ry. While at the same time an RP speaker would say ‘Here is’ as: ‘Here-r-is’ using an ‘r’ sound to link the flow of one word into another. While the American speaker would say: “here -is’ as separate sounds. Now you can get into the weeds as to why by digging into some linguistics (if that is your jam) what you need to know is there is a small linking ‘r’ sound in these words and phrases: there are, her eyes, fear of etc. (This is one you might want to work on with a voice coach, it can get a little tricky! )
#1 Don’t get too fancy – fancy pants! Listen, it’s not 1932 and you are not Katherine Hepburn. I know, I know – I wish I was too but at the end of the day we are going for a more modern approach here so record yourself on your phone and listen to yourself! If you sound like Kate McKinnon in the video below. Keep practising!
#2 Those nasty ‘r’s: If you have a rhotic dialect yourself you are going to find it very tricky to drop it. ‘R’s and ‘L’s are arguably the toughest sounds to deal with as an English speaker. I would highly recommend you seek out a voice coach to give you a hand on this front if you’re struggling.
#3 Emphasis: Remember that the RP speaker tends to emphasise fewer words in a sentence than an American. Also usually, they use a higher pitch to show the significance of certain words, rather than more volume like you would see an American do. Check out Steven Fry here:
You can hear how he emphasises ‘Princeton’ not with volume, but with a slightly higher pitch on the word to give it significance. Going the other way will give you away as a non- RP speaker!
In my humble opinion, there is one person who stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to teaching dialects in book form. His name is Paul Meier and his book Accents and Dialects for Stage and Screen is absolutely fantastic. I will mention at this stage I am not endorsed by Paul and neither is StageMilk. His book is simply the best resource for learning dialects that I have come across. He goes through each signature sound of an accent, builds it into words and from words into full monologues. He also runs the Idea website which stores audio recordings of real-life dialect speakers and allows you to practice saying what they do. It is a really wonderful resource and you should check it out.
All of these come from Paul Meiers excellent book. Try the following sentences in your new RP accent!
- A lot of better writers print a lot of little words
- An enormous tornado tore up the store this morning
- In Paris, Harry shot a sparrow from his carriage with an arrow
- The Shah of Persia insists that Maria is never to abandon her uncle
- Snow flurries fall fast and always when the ground is frosty
- I assume we all concur on the importance of the matter.
You can listen to me have a go at them here:
As you can hear I am not quite perfect, but I am working on this accent all the time and I hope this inspires you to do the same!
There you have it, folks, a quickfire run down of the RP accent! As you can see, it isn’t as simple as just barging in! Any accent takes a lot of work, practice, repetition and is best done under the supervision of a great dialect coach. Have a google for great dialect teachers in your area. In my humble opinion, Linda Nichols-Gidley at Voco Vox is one of the best in Australia as well as Amanda Mitchell, Paige Walker and Felicity Jurd, but there are many others around the world who can help you achieve your dialect dreams! If you want to practice working in accents with StageMilk check out our online scene club – where you can work on scenes and monologues every month with great actors from around the globe!