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Updating the most comprehensive dialect survey ever

Updating the most comprehensive dialect survey ever

A National Lottery grant is allowing the University to update the most comprehensive survey of the dialects of England ever undertaken.

The University is in line for a £798,000 National Lottery grant to conduct the Dialect and Heritage: the State of the Nation project.

The project will open up the extensive Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture to the public and continue the work of the Survey of English Dialects (SED) and the Leeds Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies.

The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture contains records and artefacts relating to more than 300 English dialects and the traditions and lifestyles of their speakers. They were collected through some of the most extensive and detailed dialect work ever conducted.

Now, thanks to a National Lottery grant, that work will resume, and the archive will eventually be opened up to the public. The project has just been awarded £65,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and is in line for a full grant of £798,000.

The Survey of English Dialects was conducted between 1946 and 1978, with fieldworkers travelling the country and recording the language and lifestyles of hundreds of different people. Some of this took place before portable recording equipment was available, so evidence was meticulously recorded in notebooks, which still sit in the University’s Special Collections.

Other fascinating items held in the archive include audio recordings, photographs, newspaper cuttings, hand-drawn diagrams of tools and farming devices, pronunciations for thousands of dialectal terms, and word maps tracking boundaries for the use of different words.

This is a fantastic opportunity to take language and heritage back to the communities it came from – and where it truly belongs.

Dr Fiona Douglas

Dr Fiona Douglas is a Lecturer in English Language at Leeds’ School of English and is leading the project.

She said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to take language and heritage back to the communities it came from – and where it truly belongs.

“We will be able to help people uncover their own dialect inheritance and cultural heritage and invite them to add their own memories, language, and stories for the benefit of current and future generations. Dialect and heritage are incredibly important today, just as they were in the past, and they belong to all of us.

“We’d love to hear from people with family or personal connections to the Survey of English Dialects or the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Study.”

Completed draft phonological, morphological and syntactical maps produced for 'The Linguistic Atlas of England' (LAE): 'scraps', 1974-78

Completed draft phonological, morphological and syntactical maps were produced for The Linguistic Atlas of England.

The  four-year project will make the contents of the archive publicly available online, and work with partner museums across England to display parts of the archive in the regions to which they are relevant for the first time.

Five partner museums – Avoncroft Museum in Worcestershire, Dales Countryside Museum and Ryedale Folk Museum in North Yorkshire, Suffolk’s Museum of East Anglian Life, and Weald and Downland Living Museum in West Sussex – will incorporate the archive content into their existing displays about rural English life.

The project will also continue the work begun by Harold Orton and Eugen Dieth in the 1940s, recording present-day dialects, memories and cultural information from descendants of participants in the original survey.

Children playing wallops (nine-pins) in the street at Castle Bolton in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, 1964. A group of men can be seen sitting on a bench, watching men from the village playing quoits on the grass verge.

Children playing wallops (nine-pins) in the street at Castle Bolton in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, 1964. At the same time, a group of men can be seen sitting on a bench, watching others playing quoits on the grass verge.

Ros Kerslake, Chief Executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), said: “Dialect and Heritage: the State of the Nation explores a truly fascinating aspect of English heritage. Everybody uses language particular to their local area and family, and thanks to National Lottery players, people across England will be able to explore this more fully, and our many dialects will continue to be recorded into the future.”

The project will begin development work early next year. Researchers would like to hear from descendants of those involved in the original Survey of English Dialects; they should contact dialectandheritage@leeds.ac.uk.

More regional variations

  • Do you call it a ‘spelk’, ‘spell’ or ‘splinter’?
  • Would you take ‘bait’, ‘jock’, ‘snap’ or a ‘packed lunch’ when going out for the day?
  • Do you ask for ‘scraps’, ‘craps’, ‘bits’ or ‘scratchings’ with your fish and chips?
  • Do you pull ‘couch grass’, ‘scotch’ or ‘twitch’ out of the lawn?
  • Would you call someone acting strangely ‘daft’, ‘silly’, ‘gormless’ or ‘barmy’?

Notes to Editors

Journalists with further questions or interview requests should contact Gareth Dant in the University of Leeds press office on 0113 343 3996 or email g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk 

Top photo shows Stanley Ellis, a fieldworker for the Survey of English Dialects, with microphone, with 'informant' Tom Mason, near Ilkley in 1967.

Heritage Grant applications are assessed in two rounds. Dialect and Heritage: the State of the Nation has initially been granted round one development funding of £65,600 by the Heritage Lottery Fund, allowing it to progress with its plans. Detailed proposals are then considered by HLF at second round, where a final decision is made on the full funding award of £798,000.

University of Leeds Special Collections holds some of the most outstanding rare books, manuscript and archive collections in the UK. Five collections have been Designated by the Arts Council for their international significance. The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture is available to any researcher visiting the Special Collections reading room. A catalogue is available online.

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