Southern British Standard – Notes for Second Language Speakers (And US)


‘S’ turns to ‘Z’ in most words with long vowels or those followed by ‘e’ (There are, as always, exceptions!) So ‘rise’ becomes ‘riZe’ ‘says’ becomes ‘sayZ’.

In English ‘V’ is a consonant and always made by pressing top teeth against bottom lip. It is always sounded when ‘V’ appears and never changes to ‘W’.

‘W’ is a semi-vowel made only with lips and never becomes ‘V’.

Southern British Standard English (RP)

I am defining Southern British Standard English (RP) loosely as the sound used (in slightly differing forms) by modern speakers in Southern England who are not using a dialectical form (like strong Essex or Cockney) and who are not using various forms of ‘hyperlect’ RP or ‘posh’ (like ‘county’, ‘Sloane’, Royals). Like all accents, it changes with the times (and reacts constantly to outside influences) and whether the speaker is in a formal or informal setting. (We could also call it modern media RP. as it is the usual form for professional speakers who are not using a regional variant.) For second language speakers, it is probably the one to aim for, as even if the part requires regional speech, it is easier to move to that from RP)


Make sure you keep voice centred – warm up. Keep moving from your first language to English, checking pitch and connection doesn’t change. This is important as your first language is organic and later languages use the de-coding part of brain – you need to ‘centre’ them emotionally. (There is a short warm up below).

British English uses a very dropped jaw. Massage your face and release tension in your jaw.  Unclench your teeth. (You can practise a little English whilst your hands drop down the sides of your face releasing the jaw – you will hear a more English sound. Try this on ‘ee’ words – ‘need’, ‘steam’, ‘peer’. (Don’t use tension at the sides of your mouth – this will lead you towards Australian or South African English which uses a lateral stretch.)


British English has a ‘forward placing’ (Unlike US and German which is further back.) Tip – put your knuckle and press it gently into alveolar ridge of gum (top palate behind front teeth) so you will feel where it has been when you take it out. Say a sentence with your knuckle there. Take your knuckle out and say the sentence again, sending the sound forward to the ‘tingle’ on your top palate. Feel your sounds are leaving you – release them.

Because of this forward placing – unvoiced sounds are aspirated i.e. – British blow air through ‘t’s, ‘k’s, ‘p’s etc. Put your finger an inch in front of your mouth and say ‘p’ a few times, feeling explosion of breath on finger.


British English uses lip rounding for short ‘o’ (hot) long ‘o’ (home) short ‘oo’ (wood) long ‘oo’ (fool) ‘or’ (pour) but the tongue stays flat at bottom of mouth. It does not raise like it will on ee sound. (US English tends not to round – mouth more ‘letterbox’ shape).

Consonant ‘r’ is only sounded if it links to vowel: ‘r –at’, ‘m-arry’. Does not sound when at ends of words: ‘ca(r)’ ‘Pete(r)’. When words blend into each other (which they do in British English), the r is sounded if it bleeds into a vowel: ‘Mothe-r-and father’ but not if ‘r’ is followed by a consonant: ‘Mothe(r) says’ This is why sometimes British put in ‘r’s that aren’t there like: ‘idea-r of’ (This is not correct!). The British ‘r’ is made with the tongue curled towards the top palate (not with the lips) but the tip of the tongue doesn’t move backwards, like US ‘r’, so sound is more forward.

Have the feeling that you are really driving to the consonants. Another tip – put the end of a pencil between your teeth and say a paragraph – repeat without the pencil and feel consonants zinging. (This is because it is making the tongue work harder.) Especially watch end voiced consonants like d, v, m, n and z and make sure you sound them (don’t de-voice and turn ‘d’ into ‘t’ or ‘v’ into ‘f’ and if you have a Chinese background, watch the differences between ‘n’ and ‘ng’., ‘r’ and ‘l’).

With multisyllablic words, the British break on the vowel, starting the next section with a consonant: ‘ma-rry’, ‘Sa-tu(r)-day’, ‘fu-nny’ (US would break: marr-y, Sat-ur-day, funn-y) This means the consonants ‘ping’ out more as they drive the energy. This little point is quite important for sounding English!

‘S’ turns to ‘Z’ in most words with long vowels or those followed by ‘e’ (There are, as always, exceptions!) So ‘rise’ becomes ‘riZe’, ‘says’ becomes ‘seZ’.

In English ‘V’ is a consonant and always made by pressing top teeth against bottom lip. It is always sounded when ‘V’ appears and never changes to ‘W’.

‘W’ is a semi-vowel made only with lips and never becomes ‘V’.

Standard Southern British English has three ‘l’ sounds: ‘dark l’ (like US ‘l’) for end sounds: ‘pull’, ‘malt’. ‘Light l’ at beginnings and where ‘l’ kicks off a new syllable: ‘light’, ‘fully’. The third, ‘syllabic l’, is vanishing – it is where, for example, an ‘l’ is followed by a ‘t’ and no extra syllable is inserted – like ‘little’ (rather than ‘littal’ with a fully sounded ‘t’ and a schwa before the ‘l’, which is becoming common.) For a syllabic ‘l’, the tongue does not descend from its placing on the top palate for the ‘t until the ‘l’ is completed, so ‘t’ doesn’t release and air is blown out laterally at sides of the tongue. I would not worry too much about this as it is gradually dropping out of even Standard English. (US speakers do use a version of this but because ‘t’ is not aspirated, ‘l’ dark and the sound is further back, speakers seem to find it easier.)

The schwa is a neutral sound made when the mouth just opens without the tongue getting involved and a sound comes out. It is worth perfecting the British version of this neutral sound, as, in RP, unstressed syllables often become schwas. For example: the noun of ‘convict’ is ‘CON-vict’, the verb is: ‘c’nvict’. In the second version, the ‘con’ has become a schwa. The same happens to some small words (but not all, so you need to tune in your ear as to which ones do):

‘Give it to them’ (…but not to the others – i.e. it is stressed so the word stays as ‘them’) ‘Give it to th’m’ (there are no others, the word is not important and becomes ‘th’m’) ‘I’d like to b’t I can’t’ (the word ‘but’ is not important here, so it becomes a schwa.) Using schwas makes you sound like a native speaker.


English is a stress and time based language. Only one syllable in a word is stressed. Again, there is no real rule, although two syllable nouns tend to have the stress on the first syllable: ‘TINker, TAIlor, SOLdier’ and two syllable verbs on the second: ExPORT (the noun would be EXport), deFEND, aTTRACT. We also try to squeeze words into the time-space pattern that has been set up. If you say, without thinking of the meanings, ‘love, loveable, lovability’, you will tend to speed up to try to squeeze the longest word into the time frame you have set up. This is a trick that poets (like Shakespeare) use to produce rhythm.


Just as there is only one stress in a word, only one word in a thought block changes the tune to add stress. This is called the nucleus.

The tune or melody of a language is extremely important. Standard English tends to keep in a straight line, without changing pitch, until it reaches the most important word in the thought block and then it changes pitch on the nucleus, and staying there till the end of the thought-block. (I say ‘thought block’ rather than sentence, as there may be more pitch changes than one within a sentence, depending on what message you want to be received.) Other words may be stressed by emphasis but not with a tune change. The tune traditionally is downwards for a statement and upwards for a question. Recently this has been reversing but I do not recommend that. For example the traditional tune is:

‘Are you going to town’? Upwards – question.

‘I am going tomorrow.’ Downwards – statement.

Increasingly you will hear,

‘Are you going to town?’ Downwards as a statement – speaker doesn’t want an answer (Could be used if role is angry, dictatorial etc.)

‘I am going to town tomorrow.’ Upwards like a question – sounds insecure and as if asking permission (could be used if the role is really checking it’s OK, shy, insecure, not sure etc.)

No one is really clear why this is happening – it may be coming in from Australian or American tunes, but it doesn’t work with the rest of the our tune. It may be a sign of British insecurity. Anyway – I’m sure it will pass and it’s not very useful for actors or professional speakers if they want to seem interested or confident.

On which word the tune changes, gives us the sense of what is important in the sentence and affects the meaning.

If I change tune on the question and move upwards on ‘town’ then the point is that I want to know where the person is going.

If I move upwards on ‘going’ (I’ll then stay up till the end of the thought) then I’m questioning whether this excursion is going to happen or not.

If I move upwards on ‘you’ then someone else might be going.

If I start the rise on ‘Are’ then the whole trip is in question – is it on or isn’t it?

The more time a speaker has at his or her disposal, or when being socially polite, teasing or flirting, the more the tune may move around (also the more public it is the greater the tune-shifts than if it is private). There are more variants to tune than the two I have outlined. The more important or extraordinary the thought is, the greater the distance the tune will shift upwards or downwards. But, the more urgent the message is, the narrower the pitch band will be as the speaker wants to get the message across in the fastest time.

(Again General US English is different and has a straight tune but stresses more words within a thought block with emphasis but not necessarily by pitch change.)


British English often tags onto the end of a sentence a little confirmation, ‘She isn’t going, is she?’ ‘You know that, don’t you?’ ‘You’d have thought so, wouldn’t you?’ These little tags have a downward inflection. So in the first sentence, the tune would rise on ‘going’ but fall on the tag ‘is she’. In the second, it would rise on ‘that’ and fall on ‘don’t you’, in the last example, it would rise on ‘so’ and fall on ‘wouldn’t you’.

The main point for Second Language speakers is not to go up and down too much without a sense reason! Find a speaker you like and listen a lot to assimilate the tune.

Useful sites: for listening to stress and tunes. (It also has some pronunciation pages.)  has some thoughts on stresses. is also an interesting site, is a great site giving voice samples: here some examples for you to listen to:

You will hear little differences between speakers. All of us pick up influences from other places. And yet, they would all be classed as Southern British Standard. That is why I always suggest that you pick one main voice you like as your source when working on accents.

There are pronunciation dictionaries. One of the best is ‘Longman Pronunciation Dictionary’ – author John Wells. (I was one of a team doing accompanying CD Rom for this many years ago!)

There are many more complex books on English pronunciation and structure, one of the best is ‘Gimson’s Pronunciation of English’ (Hodder Arnold Publication)


Warm Up (5 mins)

1. Shrug shoulders & let them drop.  Gently turn neck from side to side.  Check posture – shoulders free, neck lengthening out of back.

Lie on back.  (Or sit comfortably)  Relax feel movement of breath – abdomen releasing upwards up on in-breath, down on out-breath.  Fill in for a count of three feeling stomach rise.  Now consciously pull stomach down to the floor on out-breath trying to use up all breath (keep neck relaxed) – sh sh sh.  Relax stomach and breath will automatically drop in. Repeat again.  Do a few rounds. Alternate voiced and unvoiced fricatives.  Do the same exercise lying on your side.

3. Release jaw by putting palms at sides of face under cheekbones, slowly bring the down face letting jaw drop.  Massage face.

4. Put hands over ears and breathe through open mouth.  Hear breath. Now make breath silent.  Feel throat is open.

5. Hum gently up and down on NG going as high & low as possible.

6. Count 1-10 like a ventriloquist. Now count normally – feel freedom.

Cool Down (2 mins)

1. Sip luke-warm water.

2. Yawn gently & sigh.

3. Hum a tune gently.

4. Go up and down your range gently on NG.

Finally – Don’t lean forwards, breathe, think and never know what’s coming next!

(copyright Mel Churcher 2011)

Author ‘Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second (Virgin Books) & ‘A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD’ (Nick Hern Books).

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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.