Language in use  
English Language & Linguistics

English Language



The Sounds of Language

The sounds of English consist of some 48 different phonemes which are required to pronounce English with an RP accent.

RP, or Received Pronunciation, is a standard accepted accent. Although only spoken by a very small proportion of the population, perhaps as small as 3%, it has great prestige and therefore a significant number of people either aspire towards it or their speech approximates towards it. However RP itself is changing, as Kerswill describes (below).

In his very readable essay Standard English, RP and the standard–non-standard relationship, Paul Kerswill (Department of Linguistics and English Language Lancaster University) covers the following areas.

1. ‘Standard English’ and spoken English as opposing norms
2. Understanding ‘Standard English’
3. Standard English and Received Pronunciation: the descriptive approach
(includes Eight Changes in RP - p13)
4. Dialect levelling, social mobility and "Estuary English"


Extending the sounds of English to all the accents of Britain would expand the number of phonemes well beyond 48, although the characteristic sounds of a regional accent come more from the position of familiar phonemes in unfamiliar places than unfamiliar phonemes themselves.

Identifying the individual sounds of English is a great skill and involves a lot of listening practice. Conveying or presenting those sounds in writing is a further skill which involves learning the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA.

Listen to the sounds of IPA here.

The Speech Accent Archive shows a read passage and its IPA equivalent while you listen to a sound recording in a variety of accents.

Examples of RP, 1923
- Lord Reith, Director-general of the BBC
- Vita Sackville-West

Misheard Conversation