Survey of English Dialects

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The Survey of English Dialects was undertaken between 1950 and 1961 under the direction of Professor Harold Orton of the English department of the University of Leeds. It aimed to collect the full range of speech in England and Wales before local differences were to disappear.[1] Standardisation of the English language was expected with the post-war increase in social mobility and the spread of the mass media. The project originated in discussions between Professor Orton and Professor Eugen Dieth of the University of Zurich about the desirability of producing a linguistic atlas of England in 1946, and a questionnaire containing 1,300 questions was devised between 1947 and 1952.[2]

A map displaying the localities included in the Survey of English Dialects.


313 localities were selected from England, the Isle of Man and some areas of Wales that were located close to the English border. Priority was given to rural areas with a history of a stable population. When selecting speakers, priority was given to men, to the elderly and to those who worked in the main industry of the area, for these were all seen as traits that were connected to use of local dialect. One field worker gathering material claimed they had to dress in old clothes to gain the confidence of elderly villagers.[3] Most of the recordings are of inhabitants discussing their local industry, but one of the recordings, that at Skelmanthorpe in West Yorkshire, discussed a sighting of a ghost.[4]

The literature usually refers to the "four urban sites" of Hackney, Leeds, Sheffield and York. The survey does seem to have been generally more urban-focused in West Yorkshire. Some other sites had become suburbs of towns (e.g. Harwood in Bolton, Wibsey in Bradford) and many of the agricultural questions brought no answer at these sites. It was originally planned to survey urban areas at a later date, but this was plan was abandoned owing to a lack of financial resources.[5]

Publication of material

404,000 items of information were gathered, and these were published as thirteen volumes of "basic material" beginning in 1962. The process took many years, and was prone to funding difficulties on more than one occasion.[3][6]

In 1966, Eduard Kolb published Linguistic atlas of England: Phonological atlas of the northern region; the six northern counties, North Lincolnshire and the Isle of Man, which mapped variation in the most linguistically diverse part of England. This book is out of print and very rare.

The basic material had been written using specialised phonetic shorthand unintelligible to the general reader: in 1975 a more accessible book, A Word Geography of England was published.[7] Harold Orton died soon after this in March 1975.[8]

The Linguistic Atlas of England was published in 1978, edited by Orton, John Widdowson and Clive Upton.[9] Two further publications have been produced from the survey's material, Survey of English Dialect: the Dictionary and Grammar (1993) and An Atlas of English Dialects (1996), both co-authored by Upton and Widdowson.[10]

Archive material

A large amount of "incidental material" from the survey was not published. This is preserved at the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, part of the School of English of the University of Leeds.[11]

Sites for the survey

During the survey, each locality was given an identifying abbreviation, which is given in brackets.



Isle of Man


Isle of Wight
City of York
East Riding
North Riding
West Riding


The output of the Survey was criticised by some linguists as using outdated methodology to research dialects that did not represent the speech of most people in the areas covered. In a review of The Linguistic Atlas of England John C Wells wrote, "the phonetic approach of the survey's scholars is pure nineteenth century: it takes no account of structuralist phonemics, let alone more recent developments in phonological theory."[12] He suggested that the survey should have been The Linguistic Atlas of Working-class Rural England, and said that many well-known features of contemporary urban accents were not recorded in the Atlas.[12] Similar criticisms of the sample were made by sociolinguists such as Peter Trudgill and Jack Chambers.[13]

KM Petyt has highlighted the problem of using several fieldworkers in the same survey and suggested that some of the isoglosses are really "iso-fieldworkers". He gives the subtle distinction between the sounds ɔ and ɒ as an example of inconsistent recording in the survey, where some fieldworkers tended to write ɔ and others tended to write ɒ.[14]

The German linguist Wolfgang Viereck argued that these criticisms had caused an unnatural separation between traditional dialectology and sociolinguistics. He argues that the criticisms of the SED are "superficial" as sociolinguists have often used the data from the survey extensively in their own work and they have not made any steps to undertake a new nationwide survey to vindicate their methods as superior.[15]

The Survey of English Dialects has also been criticised by more traditional dialectologists. Graham Shorrocks, whilst writing on the dialect of Bolton, criticised the lack of questions relating to syntax with five specific points:

  1. Interrogative forms were poorly covered. For example, there was no question to find "couldn't you?", which would have produced /'kɔtnt/ in Bolton.
  2. The use of converting questions led to cases of unanswered questions, irregular responses and pressured responses.
  3. The recording of information was not consistent. For example, pronouns were not recorded at some sites, but the use of contractions for pronouns in some dialects made it difficult to know whether the pronoun had been accounted for.
  4. The distinction between a stressed and an unstressed pronunciation was not always controlled.
  5. As Shorrocks wrote, "there is also a quite disastrous failure to control strictly for number!" Several dialects made a distinction between the second person singular (often a form of thou) and the second person plural (often you).[16]

Voices survey 2007-2010

Following the last Survey of English Dialects, the University of Leeds has started work on a new project. In May 2007 the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded a grant to a team led by Sally Johnson, Professor of Linguistics and Phonetics at Leeds University to study British regional dialects.[17][18]

Johnson's team are sifting through a large collection of examples of regional slang words and phrases turned up by the "Voices project" run by the BBC, in which the BBC invited the public to send in examples of English still spoken throughout the country. The BBC Voices project also collected hundreds of news articles about how the British speak English from swearing through to items on language schools. This information will also be collated and analysed by Johnson's team both for content and where it was reported. "Perhaps the most remarkable finding in the Voices study is that the English language is as diverse as ever, despite our increased mobility and constant exposure to other accents and dialects through television and radio."[18] Work by the team on the project was expected to end in 2010.[18]

See also


  1. ^ "Eighty-eight ways of saying left-handed", The Times, September 8, 1970
  2. ^ "Where a snack is nummick - 16-year survey of dialect", The Times, November 1, 1962
  3. ^ a b "Dialect survey needs cash", The Times, September 17, 1969
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ British Library article on the Survey of English Dialects
  6. ^ "Is it nessy to make a donkey out of that lovely nirrup?", The Times, October 7, 1972
  7. ^ "Saving gibble-fisted mawkin from extinction", The Times, January 6, 1975
  8. ^ Obituary of Harold Orton, The Times, March 14, 1975
  9. ^ Review of The Linguistic Atlas of England, The Times, September 6, 1978
  10. ^ Recent publications by Clive Upton (School of English, University of Leeds)
  11. ^ Incidental Material Documents (Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture)
  12. ^ a b Review of the Linguistic Atlas of England, John C Wells, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 1 December 1978
  13. ^ Chambers, J.K., and Trudgill, Peter. 1998. Page 35. Dialectology. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
  14. ^ Petyt, K. M. (1980). The study of dialect: an introduction to dialectology. Boulder, USA: Westview Press. ISBN 9780865310605. 
  15. ^ Wolgang Viereck, Linguistic Atlases and Dialectometry: The Survey of English Dialects in Kirk, John M.; Sanderson, Stewart; Widdowson, JDA (2014). Studies in Linguistic Geography: The Dialects of English in Britain and Ireland. London: Routhledge. ISBN 9781317931546. 
  16. ^ Shorrocks, Graham (1999). A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area. Pt. 2: Morphology and syntax. Bamberger Beiträge zur englischen Sprachwissenschaft; Bd. 42. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. p. 185. ISBN 3-631-34661-1. 
  17. ^ Professor Sally Johnson biography on the Leeds University website[dead link]
  18. ^ a b c Mapping the English language – from cockney to Orkney, Leeds University website, 25 May 2007.

Bibliography (selection)

  • McDavid, Raven I., Jr. (1981). "Review of The Linguistic Atlas of England, by Harold Orton, Stewart Sanderson and John Widdowson." American Speech 56, 219–234.
  • Fischer, Andreas; Ammann, Daniel (1991). "An Index to Dialect Maps of Great Britain". Varieties of English Around the World. General Series 10. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Kolb, Eduard (1966). Phonological Atlas of the Northern Region: the Six Northern Counties, North Lincolnshire and the Isle of Man. Bern: Francke.
  • Meier, Hans Heinrich (1964). "Review of Introduction by Harold Orton and The Basic Material, Volume I by Harold Orton and Wilfrid J. Halliday." English Studies 45, 240–245.
  • Orton, Harold (1971). Editorial Problems of an English Dialect Atlas. In: Burghardt, Lorraine H. (ed.): Dialectology: Problems and Perspectives. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee, pp. 79–115.
  • Orton, Harold; Dieth, Eugen (1952). A Questionnaire for a Linguistic Atlas of England. Leeds: Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.
  • Orton, Harold; Wright, Nathalia (1974). A Word Geography of England. New York: Seminar Press.
  • Orton, Harold et al. (1962–71). Survey of English Dialects: Basic Materials. Introduction and 4 vols. (each in 3 parts). Leeds: E. J. Arnold & Son.
  • Upton, Clive; Parry, David; Widdowson, J. D. A. (1994). Survey of English Dialects: the Dictionary and Grammar. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Upton, Clive; Widdowson, J. D. A. (2006). An Atlas of English Dialects. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Viereck, Wolfgang (1990). The Computer-Developed Linguistic Atlas of England. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Viereck, Wolfgang; Ramisch, Heinrich (1997). The Computer Developed Linguistic Atlas of England 2. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Further reading

  • Sounds Familiar? – Listen to examples of regional accents and dialects from across the UK on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website
  • The Survey of English Dialects (University of Leeds)
  • The Survey of English Dialects (Yorkshire Dialect Society)
  • Extracts from the survey (British Library)
  • Dialect researchers given a 'canny load of chink' to sort 'pikeys' from 'chavs' in regional accents, The Independent, 1 June 2007, Page 20. McSmith, Andy. Includes a list of regional words and expressions from the BBC Voices project which is currently being studied by the Leeds University team(2007-2020).
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