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 Library’s 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 Library’s 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 institution’s  increasing recognition of the importance of collaborating with academics and the potential of theme-led exhibitions.

Funder: Arts & Humanities Research Council