As one of the world’s leading voice coaches, in The Need for Words: Voice and the Text, Patsy Rodenburg describes practical ways to approach language, Shakespeare, Romantic poetry, modern prose and a range of other texts to help us discover our own unique need for words.
In Part One, Rodenburg debunks the myth that there is only one correct way to speak by clearing away the blocks that can make language inaccessible. In Part Two, she connects the voice to the shape and quality of individual words and phrases through a series of language and text exercises.
Drawing on Rodenburg’s time spent coaching in the worlds of business and politics, this edition reflects on how the way we use words has changed since the book was first published. It brings a renewed focus on the language of power, spoken in the worlds of politicians and company directors.
With a brilliant foreword by Antony Sher, this book gives readers an insight into the potency of clear, direct communication. Language and text exercises provide readers with unmediated access to this new research, allowing them to practice and master the language and words that drive the modern world.
Below offers a glimpse into Patsy Rodenburg’s bold writing and illuminating tips on accents.
RP or Not RP
One of the major barriers that many speakers encounter is the choice of accent. Accent correctness is a barrier we often come up against. The professional speaker or actor, for instance, must eventually come to terms with Received Pronunciation (RP), or what is variously termed Standard English.
What is RP? In Great Britain it is a term we give to a standardized pronunciation of British English based on educated speech in southern England. All variants of English (including forms of the language spoken in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere in the world) strive for standard, consistent phonetic sounds. So what have evolved as derivatives of RP in each part of the world are such forms as Standard American, Standard Black English, Standard Canadian, even such variants as Standard Caribbean and Standard International English. With so many varieties can there be one ‘standard’ form of English? It clearly depends on where you come from and how rigidly you interpret phonetic strictures.
One of the great barriers to speaking in public and to speaking the great classical texts is a fear of RP. There are so many misconceptions surrounding this accent, so many competing opinions. Let’s explore a few. In actual fact, speaking RP should result in your speaking a neutral accent that reveals neither the class nor background of the speaker except that you have learned RP. A clear, well-defined and energized variant of spoken English is usually the result. No one should have their mother sound mocked, no accent is irrelevant and, for some people, RP is their mother sound.
The British royal family and aristocracy do not speak RP but versions of high-status, conservative accents which are often unclear and incomprehensible. We all imitate this ‘snob speak’ in jest and frequently mistake it for RP. These are, in fact, habitual modes of speaking, both highly affected and artificial which clutter the basic sound of accent. Speaking RP does not necessarily mean you are trying to sound posh. That is a different subject altogether: one that should fall under the heading of vocal masks.
Only a small percentage of the British population naturally speak RP. Those who do probably originally learned it for any one of the following reasons: education at a public school where numerous variants of RP are spoken (for ‘public’ read ‘private’ in the USA); the speaker has been brought up in a middle- or upper-middle-class, university-educated family based in the south of England; or the speaker’s parents are actors! RP’s southern English bias revolves around London, the seat of power since the eleventh century.
Like all accents, urban and regional, RP is constantly changing. The sound of it is always on the move. You can classify shifts in the accent just about every decade, so it is possible to detect an RP as spoken during the 1920s that differs from the RP of the 1950s, 1990s or today.
This fluid change in accent is important to remember, especially when RP is taught. In the 1990s RP was taught too rigidly and had become quaint. Now it is often not taught at all although many roles in theatre need it and many leaders want a more neutral sound.
Nobody speaks a perfect form of RP, and as we become emotionally engaged or excited our pronunciation of the accent slips radically. And if in such fervent moments it doesn’t, then we are not feeling the need to speak naturally and without inhibition. We can usually identify a non-English speaker if his or her accent sounds too perfect. A rigidly taught RP can sound unnatural. Quite alien, really. We must allow life experiences to colour and touch our voices.
An educational debate swirls round the teaching of RP in schools, an effort to create a more widespread, educated accent for the general populace. If RP does carry such power and influence over regional accents, then perhaps we should all learn it to dupe the very system that supports RP.
Among many younger British actors today, the requirement to speak RP can induce responses of rage and fear. I understand this anger. For many years RP has been taught in British drama schools from entirely the wrong perspective. It has been taught as an elitist accent which a student must learn and master as the ‘proper’ and only way to speak. A lot of our trouble with RP stems from this kind of dictating. This attitude naturally negates and makes other accents seem inferior.
Personally I think it an act of violation of any speaker’s right to tell them that their mother accent is not good enough to speak the great texts, especially when common sense tells us that Shakespeare’s actors did not speak his texts in RP but in their own mother accents, which were rougher and thicker by today’s standards. On this point alone the argument for and against RP rages and rages.
Every day, on whatever side of the Atlantic I happen to be, I come across actors who sound frigid and disconnected from their voices. They have learned to speak RP (sometimes against their will) but sound unnatural. Investigate their voice training and the horror stories emerge. ‘I was told my accent was ugly and lower class and that from now on I was only to speak RP.’ This is an instance of RP being embraced for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps the speech sounds are clear but not connected to the voice. Here is an instance where the voice is actually rejecting the accent because it creates a barrier.
A sound fastened onto the speaker from the outside can be damaging. At its worst this vocal enslavement can obliterate the speaker’s imaginative response to language and words, and encourage an emotional disconnection through the voice. The need for a word is short-circuited by a greater need for an accent. Speech teachers seeking an elitist ideal often fail to recognize the implications of cutting a voice off from its expressive roots. Any voice or speech teacher who thwarts, neutralizes or ridicules a student’s mother sound plays a very dangerous game. Do any of us have the right to oppress another human being’s background, family, class or culture? I think not.
Today I have so many people ask to learn RP. There is little resistance. The pendulum has swung back. You can clarify your speech with a knowledge of RP but still maintain the shades and colours of your mother tongue.
RP is a Choice
Teach or learn RP as a choice, as an accent that can exist and flourish alongside other native accents. It is a useful accent for any speaker to have – particularly actors; one of an arsenal of different vocal tools. Clarity is, perhaps, the chief reason for using RP. Everyone tends to understand RP.
RP is so clear an accent because it is placed very far forward in the face. Vowel and consonant sounds are not lost. The consonants define the word and the vowels launch the sound into the world. These factors make it an ideal accent to support in space.
British actors need RP for commercial reasons. Its acquirement improves their work opportunities (as does keeping their mother accent!). RP is also an accent understood by all English speakers throughout the world. Many regional accents are not. RP is easier for the listener to decipher.
Choice remains the key word in my mind when it comes to speaking RP. I must always recognize that learning RP can be excruciatingly painful for some speakers. It might mean taking on the sound of their historic oppressors. For instance, Irish- or Welsh-speaking students have centuries of aversion to encounter as they mouth RP. The same is true for non-white speakers. In parts of the world where speech accents are a battleground, speaking RP can raise a red flag. So RP can lead to vocal schizophrenia. Choose to use it when you must.
Bearing all these provisos in mind, let me finally link RP to the whole voice and maybe offer a proper perspective on the accent. When the voice is supported, free, resonating with balance and allowed to leave the body – not contained within it – then RP is a minute shift away from any native accent. It ought not to complicate the need for a word but enhance it.
When you carry that free position of natural speech into the world – sustaining and moving the sound always forward, finishing each word out of you (not dropping syllables or clipping sounds but voicing the complete word), maintaining a full vocal energy on the breath and using the consonants to cleanly define the vowels and words – then you will find that 80–90 per cent of RP sounds are in place. Some clearing-up might have to be done among vowels, consonants, rhythms and stresses, but the accent is there in essence. Remember the times you have heard a well-produced voice in a theatre? Well, chances are, even if the actor was not attempting strict RP, the accent was closer to it than to the actor’s everyday accent.
RP, well taught and sensitively urged from the speaker, is a dynamic, energized and clear way of speaking. It aids the clear communication of any text or any speaker’s thoughts and feelings. We can teach and learn a dynamic, energized and clear way of speaking that contains all the richness of other accents and dialects. RP can and should always suit the speaker’s unique vocal personality.
RP should be thought of as one tool but not the voice’s only accent.