The ‘Voices’ projects: transforming understanding of the nation’s speech
Academics: Professor C. Upton, Dr Bethan Davies, Professor S. Johnson, Dr T. Milani, Dr A. Thompson and Dr W. Turner, Faculty of Arts
A unique collaboration between the University of Leeds, the BBC and the British Library examining language variation has informed understanding of dialect and contributed to the professional practice of public institutions.
A 65-year renowned study of English dialects by Leeds has captured and explored regional language differences and generated new methods for how dialectal variation is recorded, disseminated and analysed.
Jointly with the University of Zurich, in 1948 Leeds initiated the only systematic survey of the dialects of England. This has ultimately led to Leeds collaborating with the BBC on founding the Voices project, exploring language diversity in the UK. By making professional recordings of different varieties of English, and encouraging the public to input material to a Voices website, the BBC produced a most extensive research archive of dialects and speech patterns nation-wide. Subsequent analysis of material from this survey fell to the Leeds-based Whose Voices? team. One of the Leeds researchers also worked on a further project with the British Library to deposit analysed Voices recordings in the Librarys Sound Archive.
The BBC Voices project is the most significant popular survey of regional English ever undertaken in Britain.Professor David Crystal, leading language scholar
Sharing language differences between communities
By encouraging the participation of over 84,000 individuals in BBC Voices, making available an archive of some 730,000 items and reaching an audience of around 45 million through media coverage, dialectology at Leeds has facilitated a better understanding of language varieties and encouraged national debate on local identity and diversity. Through its analysis of languages and dialects unknown to many, the Whose Voices? project has further validated dialectal differences and informed local populations about social structures and identities.
Materials generated by Voices were used in a British Library public exhibition (2010), which was underpinned by Leeds research. Evolving English proved to be the British Librarys most successful winter exhibition, attracting 150,000 visitors, most of whom were new to the British Library.
Influencing new ways of working
Voices has helped the BBC understand the significance of dialectal differences, engage directly with new communities and promote diversity. The central role of the internet in the project, a special focus of Whose Voices?, influenced how the BBC now uses the web to engage audiences. Voices also inspired strategic change in the British Library, as Evolving English led to the institutions increasing recognition of the importance of collaborating with academics and the potential of theme-led exhibitions.
Funder: Arts & Humanities Research Council