People outside of the UK often use the term "British accent" to describe the way a native British English person speaks. You might hear phrases like "he speaks with a British accent”. However, this generalization can be irksome to some British people, as the UK is rich in diverse accents and dialects that vary by region. Southern accents, such as Cockney, Estuary, and Standard British English (Received Pronunciation), are distinct, as are accents from other parts of the UK, including Geordie, Yorkshire, Scouse, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish. This is a broad overview, and there are numerous variations within each accent, depending on specific regions.
When we hear someone speaking with an accent from a foreign country, we often don't pinpoint the specific region of that accent. Instead, we might say things like "he speaks with a French accent" or "she speaks with a Spanish accent”. Most people are not attuned to the regional nuances of accents and dialects within specific countries.
So, what exactly is meant by the term "British accent"? When people refer to a "British accent”, they are likely alluding to Received Pronunciation, even if they aren't consciously aware of the term. This becomes evident when looking at the most popular British actors in IMDB, including Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Helen Mirren, Colin Firth, and others. Received Pronunciation is the most widely adopted British accent in global media. In Hollywood films featuring a British accent and news or media aimed at international audiences, you'll likely find actors employing Received Pronunciation, with some exceptions.
Conversely, in domestic broadcasting within the UK, Received Pronunciation has become less dominant. This shift is possibly a result of efforts by domestic television and media to be more inclusive, showcasing a greater variety of regional accents on screens.
The perception of Received Pronunciation differs significantly within the UK compared to outside the UK. Within the UK, Received Pronunciation can sometimes be perceived as elitist and outdated, sparking uncomfortable discussions about background, education, social mobility, and class. Accent reduction coaches often steer clear of employing the term "Received Pronunciation”, even though it is precisely the set of keywords their students are actively searching for.
Those with an RP accent, particularly those from privileged backgrounds, may be hesitant to draw attention to it due to potential negative perceptions. On a global scale, however, the RP accent seems to be more widely accepted as the default standard British accent.