Do we really need a guide to English pronunciation?

The English Pronouncing Dictionary is the classic British guide to pronunciation of the English language.

Written by Daniel Jones, it was first published by JM Dent & Sons in 1917 and is now in its 18th edition, published by Cambridge University Press.

But 100 years on, does anyone really need a guide to “standard” English pronunciation, and whose standard are we talking about anyway?

The original dictionary used PSP (public school pronunciation) as a model, defined by Jones as that which is “most usually heard in everyday speech in the families of Southern English persons whose menfolk have been educated at the great public boarding schools.” Later editions refer to the model as RP (received pronunciation).

The BBC has gradually introduced regional accents to its line-up of news broadcasters

The dictionary was written at a time when the study of phonetics and phonology, with the teaching of pronunciation, were at a turning point. Daniel Jones and his peers, such as Henry Sweet, led the way in the academic study and the practicalities of teaching pronunciation; their work has even been noted as the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. It was, and still is, a dictionary used by native and non-native speakers, and particularly in classrooms around the world where learners are expected to achieve high levels of English proficiency.

However, attitudes towards pronunciation and accents have changed over the past 100 years. Within the UK, and starting with Wilfred Pickles in the 1940s, the BBC has gradually introduced regional accents to its line-up of news broadcasters, distancing itself somewhat from the old-fashioned view of RP as the voice of broadcasting.

There also has been an explosion in the number of people using English as a second language, leading to a huge variety of accents and dialects.

Non-native speakers are now estimated to outnumber native speakers by about six to one, with up to 80 per cent of English conversations occurring between second-language speakers. There’s rarely any need, or for most people any desire, to modify their accents or the way in which they pronounce their words. The ultimate aim for most is to understand and be understood, not to speak like the Queen.

Audrey Hepburn on the set of ‘My Fair Lady’

Some may argue then that 2017 should mark not just the centenary, but also the final chapter of the English Pronouncing Dictionary. However, anyone who has learned (or tried to learn!) a language will know how useful it is to have a single, consistent model when developing speaking skills, and clear pronunciation in particular.

A reference model is not the same as an attainment model. Like most dictionaries, rather than presenting people with a model for how they should speak, the dictionary simply offers a consistent point of reference for how many people do speak. Its purpose is descriptive, not prescriptive. In more recent editions, there has also been a slight shift away from RP towards accents described as “broadcast English” for the British pronunciations, and “standard American broadcast English” for the US pronunciations.

Yes, that’s right, this British classic now includes American pronunciations for every word.

So it seems there’s life if this British (and American) classic yet. And it is likely to be extended somewhat as it’s now also a mobile app, putting the ultimate guide to English pronunciation into people’s pockets. Something that the pioneering Daniel Jones, and perhaps even Professor Higgins, would have approved of.

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