Reporter 416, 9 March 1998

Centenary celebrations at Leeds put English dialects on the map

How do you make your tea? If you come from Yorkshire you probably ‘mash’ it, but people in Cornwall are more likely to ‘steep’ it or ‘soak’ it and southerners often ‘wet’ their tea. These regional differences were charted fifty years ago in a pioneering study by a Leeds professor. An international conference being held at the University later this month will dissect the continuing richness and variety of the English language.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s dozens of field-workers, most of them Leeds graduates, roved across the country interviewing elderly residents in small villages. They were frequently mistaken for burglars, beggars and, on one occasion, an escaped convict from Dartmoor. In reality, they were a team of highly trained researchers sent into close-meshed villages to interview those who had rarely left the community and whose natural dialect was little influenced by formal education.

Among the questions asked were many concerning farming such as “Where do you keep the birds that lay eggs for you?” They were on location for a week at a time and fieldwork continued into the 1960s. Meticulous notes and phonetic transcriptions were kept from each interview and they are now housed in the Brotherton Library. Sound recordings were also made of the subjects speaking and they are the only systematic tape-recordings of dialects in England.

The project was initiated by the celebrated dialectologist Harold Orton. In the 1920s he embarked on a study of Northumbrian dialects which developed into the ambitious idea of producing a linguistic atlas of Britain, showing boundaries marking the different word for common phrases such as ‘left-handed’ or ‘making’ the tea.

On his appointment as Chair of English Language at Leeds in 1946, he set up a unit to process questionnaire results; the final version contained around 1,300 questions covering 313 locations in England and Wales.

Some of the best recordings were transferred to 12-inch gramophone records – a costly exercise in the days before cheap recording equipment and cassettes. The resulting Survey of English Dialects (SED), co-founded with Professor Eugen Dieth of Zurich, is the only detailed nation-wide dialect survey ever conducted in England.

Orton hoped that one day the recordings would be transformed in a more permanent form so that scholars all over the world could use them. Forty years on his dream is about to be realised. Dr Juhani Klemola, on a three-year appointment from Finland in the School of English, has secured a £50,000 grant from the Leverhulme Trust to transcribe in conventional spelling and edit the surviving recordings into CD-ROM format as the Leeds Corpus of English Dialects.

One voice Dr Klemola has heard again and again on the recordings is that of Stanley Ellis who covered almost half of the 300 localities by car and in his own caravan. He retired from the School of English in 1983 but is still active in the promotion of dialect studies. As Vice-President of the Yorkshire Dialect Society he has become a consultant forensic phonetician, helping to identify suspects in police and legal inquiries concerning speech recordings.

The School of English is carrying on the tradition by conducting an up-to-date survey of regional spoken English. Carmen Llamas, awarded a three-year White Rose studentship, will work with former Leeds PhD student Dr Clive Upton, who worked with Harold Orton 20 years ago on the Linguistic Atlas of England. Dr Upton teaches dialectology in the School of English and is overseeing a new MA in English Language and World Englishes starting in September. (See Reporter 410.)

He says he expects there to have been changes in regional dialects, but a surprising number of words have survived and flourished. Yorkshire speakers still use ‘spell’ for ‘splinter’ and ‘parky’ for ‘cold’ and new expressions are constantly entering localised colloquial speech – for example, people can be said to be ‘one sandwich short of a picnic.’

Regional accents remain remarkably resilient in this age of mass media and standardised English. Orton believed rural speech to be the ‘purest’ kind of regional dialect, but he noted himself that many different strands still exist in England, from marked rural speech through to the ‘BBC’ accent of upwardly mobile city-dwellers.

“Television and radio may have spread a standardised English,” says Professor Katie Wales, “but through soaps and advertising they have also exploited regional variation for ‘realism’ and so encouraged an awareness of the diversity of our English, if admittedly rather stereotypically.” She gives the examples of Tetley tea-bags, Hovis bread and Cellnet phones being sold on this basis. The use of localised speech in programmes such as Emmerdale and Eastenders acts as a badge of social solidarity and identity.

The newly reprinted volumes of the SED materials and the CD-ROM version will be an invaluable resource. Students will be able to find out from the CD-ROM that country folk had 40 ways of describing the act of belching, or that ‘awkward’ traditionally means ‘clumsy’ in Somerset but ‘stupid’ in Nottinghamshire.

The conference organised by the School of English celebrates the centenary of the birth of Harold Orton (1898 – 1975) as well as the half-centenary of the Survey of English Dialects. Members of his family will attend a special exhibition of SED materials in the Brotherton Library. Special Collections in the Brotherton also contains other rich sources of information about our social history, such as 4,000 recipe books from the 16th to 20th centuries.

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The Harold Orton Centenary Conference runs from 24 to 26 March. For more information contact Dr Upton, email

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