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I'm reading: Can you speak English?

From 1946 to 1978, intrepid Leeds researchers left behind lives of comfort to capture the language and lifestyles of rural England before they changed forever. They returned with the country’s largest collection of dialects, meticulously recorded in notebooks and on tape recorders.


This world-famous Survey of English Dialects originated when English Professor Harold Orton wanted a record of people talking about everyday things.


He handpicked fieldworkers to travel the country and speak to natives of rural communities. They preferred those who had spent little or no time away from their home village, males (who, the researchers believed, were less inclined to correct their speech), those who were intelligent and those who had a good set of teeth.

Donald Sykes (English 1954, MA 1956) worked his way through Shropshire whilst Michael Barry (English 1958, MA 1960) compiled the dialects of the Isle of Man, Kent and Sussex. Seven others covered the rest of the country.


To this day, their results are a linguistic gold mine of words that changed from county to county, and sometimes town to town. Leeds, with its luvs, summats and nowts, became the place to study dialect and its students found a home in the University’s Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies from 1964 to 1983.


It wasn’t until 2002 that the complete set of boxes and bags from the Survey of English Dialects were

finally dusted off, catalogued and organised in a manner that opened their contents to the world. The University’s Special Collections maintains The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture for posterity.


Like language itself, the Archive has developed through the years. It now includes more than 300 English dialects and artefacts relating to the traditions and lifestyles of their speakers. Fascinating items 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.

"spelk, spell, or splinter?"

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Dr Fiona Douglas, a current Lecturer in English Language, now spearheads a project called Dialect and Heritage: The State of the Nation, which is taking the words back to where they truly belong.


“Dialect and heritage are incredibly important today, just as they were in the past,” says Fiona. She and her team work with museums across England to enrich displays with locally relevant material from the Archive of Vernacular Culture – some items being displayed in public for the first time ever.


“We help people uncover their own dialect inheritance and cultural heritage,” says Fiona. “We invite them to add their own memories, language, and stories for the benefit of current and future generations.”


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

The latest project has been made possible through the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and alumni donations. Ros Kerslake, Chief Executive of HLF says: “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.”


In true Leeds tradition, Fiona and team will record the memories and cultural information to chart how language has changed in England. Dialects, this time current ones, are being recorded with a special emphasis on finding descendants of participants of Harold Orton’s original survey.

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In September, alumni and former staff attended a celebration of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture. They were treated to the presence of Donald Sykes, one of the original nine Survey of English Dialects fieldworkers, who answered questions about his work on the ambitious project.


“Orton was a good talent spotter, clearly,” said Dr Fiona Douglas, who heads the project Dialect and Heritage: the State of the Nation. Two of those talents, Donald Sykes and Michael Barry, were the subject of filmed interviews which were launched at the event. In the films Donald and Michael, both in their 80s, talk about touring the country and recording the dialect spoken more than 60 years ago.


Left: 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.

Would you like to take part in our Dialect and Heritage Project?

“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,” says Fiona. “I hope that alumni will get in touch with their memories of this fascinating subject.”

If you have a passion for dialect and would like to help compile the archive, please get in touch.

Contact dialectandheritage@leeds.ac.uk