Affected Accents: From RP to Mid-Atlantic, Does an Accent Indicate Your Social Class?

If you want to climb the social ladder, you’d better develop the accent for it.

All kidding aside, accents often suggest a certain social class and give the – wink – to those in yours.

Thing Gatsby’s affected British accent in The Great Gatsby.

In Great Britain itself, accents have long been a way to differentiate between the aristocracy and those of the working-class population.

Inference in Accents

George Bernard Shaw wrote in his book, Pygmalion

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

Through accent and dialect, a listener can infer several things:

  • Where the person is from
  • What his social standing is
  • His general background

And when you can infer things about a person, prejudices or stereotypes associated with those inferences might move you to pass judgment based solely on the way someone speaks.

Received Pronunciation & Mid-Atlantic Accents

Regional accents in Great Britain were quite static up until the late 20th century, because many English people were working class and couldn’t afford to travel.

Their isolation forged broad regional accents and dialects, like Cockney and Brummie.

However, those who belonged to the upper echelons of society – the aristocracy and noble classes – had the opportunity to move freely…to a point.

They were mainly mixing with only those of their own social class.

This created a distinct neutral accent called Received Pronunciation (RP), which is largely spoken by Westminster politicians.

The U.S. – or, more specifically, the Golden Age of Hollywood – comparatively produced the Mid-Atlantic accent.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are well-known speakers of it: an affected accent that nobody actually speaks, named for the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where nobody actually lives.

Similarly, RP became an affected social accent used at prestigious schools and universities in the 19th century, so much so that it is said to be the native accent for about 3 percent of the UK’s current population.

Like the Mid-Atlantic accent, the “r” sound is dropped, conveying a sense of refinement and wealth.

Order becomes “awdah.”

Work becomes “wuhk.”

RP also splits off into various distinct accents based on certain social categories.

Mainstream RP is commonly used by BBC journalists, for instance.

Conservative RP is used by the aristocracy and older generations.

Contemporary RP is used by younger generations and is similar to Estuary English (spoken in southeast England’s Home Counties region).

Because the upper social classes largely socialize with only each other, their accents were allowed to grow in isolation from regional accents and dialects.