‘She has one of those cut-glass accents’. ‘He speaks in a cut-glass accent’
WHAT IS A CUT GLASS ACCENT?
The essence of the term ‘cut glass accent’ talks very much about an acoustic resonance in an accent seemingly so sharp it could ‘cut glass’. How could an accent could sound like ‘cut glass?’ Why is the British RP Accent (Received Pronunciation) sometimes described as ‘cut glass’? Certain features come to mind; sharp, clipped, crystal-clear, aspirated, precise, not mumbling, among others. Whatever the analogy, this onomatopoeic term is sometimes used to refer to clearly pronounced speech with a very forward-placed vocal resonance around the teeth and lips with a sharp, clipped rhythm. Given the term ‘cut glass accent’ has often been used to refer to the RP accent, when it comes to the conservative, more traditional RP, this is very much the case. It is spoken with very crystal clear, fronted resonance, with sharp vowel sounds and a forward placed ‘schwa’ syllable. It sounds acoustically sharp. Glass is sharp too. However, can Modern / Contemporary RP also be compatible with the ‘cut glass’ kind of RP?
MODERN RP VS TRADITIONAL RP – WANDERING AWAY FROM CUT GLASS?
Accents are never static, they are always migrating over time. Over the decades Traditional RP has progressively morphed into Modern/Contemporary RP, which is subsequently becoming more and more influenced by Estuary English and London accents. So working along the ‘continuum’ between Traditional RP and Estuary English, how far could the term ‘cut glass’ still be applied? Is RP overall wandering away from cut glass? Which features are changing and which are staying the same?
FROM GLOTTAL STOPS TO HARD ATTACKS TO LINKING AND ‘D TAPS’
Overall, RP is progressively getting more punctuated with choppy glottal stops, ‘clippy’ silences and sudden vocal onsets. The glottal attack or hard attack (a glottal stop, then a sudden voice onset on the following vowel) is becoming increasingly common in modern RP and is becoming a regular form of word linking [or lack of it] in the accent. Try saying ‘Uh-uh’, meaning ‘no’. This sudden onset of voice in ‘Uh-uh’ is an example of hard attack. Another increasingly common trait in RP is the use of the ‘d’ tap or ‘flap t’, where instead of an aspirated voiceless ‘t’ linking two vowels, a soft ‘d’ tap or ‘flap t’ is used, which takes less vocal effort as it avoids the voiceless aspiration of ‘t’.
WORD LINKING – CHOP OR LINK?
Listen to these short sentences, each spoken several times and focus on the different ways the speaker deals with the word linking. Can you spot where the glottal stops and glottal / hard attacks take place? And where the smoother aspirated ‘t’ links and d’ taps occur? Can you decide between audio samples A and B which sounds more like the ‘cut glass’ kind of RP?
- Do you think we could get another cup of coffee at Ealing Broadway?
- They sleep at eight and wake at ten.
- Which car? Oh, I bought it off a second hand car dealer in a moment of panic.
- Uh-oh! Did he really start all that trouble?
- Can you put that app back on the basic plan?
- But also, they can’t have travelled at 8.30am, surely!
- Not only did John get asked about all that artwork again but also sold quite a lot of it.
- A lot of the time everybody always ends up in the kitchen.
Some of the more Traditional RP sentences (Sample B) seem almost semi-whispered they are so sharp, due to the aspiration effect of linking voiceless plosives (p, t, k) to vowels. The Modern RP (Sample A) with hard attacks and a few ‘d’ taps definitely sounds more choppy overall. *Note that Modern RP doesn’t always use hard attacks, only sometimes. It’s often more comfortable for the voice to directly link words with the usual sound-to sound processes. And note also that Traditional RP sometimes uses hard attacks and ‘d’ taps.
‘CUT GLASS’ – A PARADOX FOR LEARNERS?
There are many ways in which the term ‘cut glass’ could potentially be misleading for learners of Modern RP, and to an extent Traditional RP as well. Not only is the accent is getting more and more punctuated with glottal stops and choppy silences, but also far from clearly enunciating everything clearly as the term ‘cut glass’ suggests, both Traditional and Modern RP could in certain ways be described as among some of the ‘lazier’ accents of English. For example, in terms of the way they glue and assimilate words and sounds together, and reduce certain syllables and function words (such as mid-phrase prepositions and certain auxiliary verbs) to almost nothing. This process enables the message/content words to stand out out all the more clearly in the rhythm, considering many of the other words /syllables have virtually disappeared. RP is full of disappearing syllables, even in Traditional RP! The extreme rhythmic reduction and dramatic stretching of syllables play a big part in the character on RP.
What a paradox! Considering many learners of RP often perceive it as being so carefully enunciated in every word and sound, but nothing could be further from the truth. For example, sometimes American, Australian and other actors when they first start learning RP, initially try to carefully over enunciate function words and final voiceless plosives p, t, k. Learners don’t always use assimilation and word linking processes in the same way a native speaker would, thus causing the accent to sound type cast, as these subtle but important native characteristics are missing. ‘Lazy speech’ and ‘cut glass’ are quite conflicting terms when referring to an accent.
TIPS FOR LEARNING RP
- Decide exactly which kind of RP you need to learn for your audition (Modern/Traditional etc) and establish the correct placement (oral posture) for the accent
- Do not overdo or typecast one feature, such as the hard attack. It doesn’t always happen, and tends to happen mostly before oncoming stressed vowels, and much more rarely before schwa syllables.
- Aside from studying the phonological sound system of vowels, diphthongs etc, make sure to use connected speech and rhythmic processes properly for the type of RP you are aiming at learning.
If you’d like to compare some RP and London Accents, just follow these links:
And to read more about the RP accent:
EXAMPLES OF RP SPEAKERS
Examples of RP speakers with a ‘cut glass accent’ are Dame Judy Dench, Stephen Fry and Kate Middleton.
Examples of RP speakers who have the more Modern/Contemporary accent are Hannah Fry, Jack Whitehall and Sienna Miller