The Survey of English Dialects was undertaken between 1950 and 1961 under the direction of Professor Harold Orton of the English department of the University of Leeds. It aimed to collect the full range of speech in England and Wales before local differences were to disappear.[1] Standardisation of the English language was expected with the post-war increase in social mobility and the spread of the mass media. The project originated in discussions between Professor Orton and Professor Eugen Dieth of the University of Zurich about the desirability of producing a linguistic atlas of England in 1946, and a questionnaire containing 1,300 questions was devised between 1947 and 1952.[2]

A map displaying the localities included in the Survey of English Dialects.


313 localities were selected from England, the Isle of Man and some areas of Wales that were located close to the English border. Priority was given to rural areas with a history of a stable population. When selecting speakers, priority was given to men, to the elderly and to those who worked in the main industry of the area, for these were all seen as traits that were connected to use of local dialect. One field worker gathering material claimed they had to dress in old clothes to gain the confidence of elderly villagers.[3]

The Survey was one of the first to make tape recordings of informants. However, the early tape recordings were of such poor quality that they were unusable. Only 287 of the 313 sites had a recording made, and the recording is not always of the same informants that answered the questionnaire. Most of the recordings are of inhabitants discussing their local industry, but one of the recordings, that at Skelmanthorpe in West Yorkshire, discussed a sighting of a ghost.[4] These recordings are now all freely available online through the British Library, together with some transcriptions in the X-SAMPA phonetic alphabet.

Most of the sites were small villages. The literature usually refers to the "four urban sites" of Hackney, Leeds, Sheffield and York, where large parts of the questionnaire were not asked as the residents were unlikely to be familiar with the agricultural subject matter. There were also some small towns (e.g. Fleetwood, Washington) and some suburbs of towns (e.g. Harwood in Bolton, Wibsey in Bradford); although the full questionnaire was administered at these sites, some of the questions focused on agriculture found no answer. It was originally planned to survey urban areas at a later date, but this was plan was abandoned owing to a lack of financial resources.[5] In the Introduction volume, Harold Orton wrote, "For our investigation of the town dialects we contemplate the use of a 'short' questionnaire, which will omit the books relating to husbandry, but on the other hand will include more notions relating to the life of the artisan and the syntactical aspects of his speech."[6] One of the main fieldworkers, Stanley Ellis, later wrote, "The problems of the investigation of town dialects … are so complex as to be insoluble, in the opinion of this reviewer".[7]

Publication of material

404,000 items of information were gathered, and these were published as thirteen volumes of "basic material" beginning in 1962. The process took many years, and was prone to funding difficulties on more than one occasion.[3][8]

In 1966, Eduard Kolb published Linguistic atlas of England: Phonological atlas of the northern region; the six northern counties, North Lincolnshire and the Isle of Man, which mapped variation in the most linguistically diverse part of England. This book is out of print and very rare.

The basic material had been written using specialised phonetic shorthand unintelligible to the general reader: in 1975 a more accessible book, A Word Geography of England was published.[9] Harold Orton died soon after this in March 1975.[10]

The Linguistic Atlas of England was published in 1978, edited by Orton, John Widdowson and Clive Upton.[11] Two further publications have been produced from the survey's material, Survey of English Dialect: the Dictionary and Grammar (1993) and An Atlas of English Dialects (1996), both co-authored by Upton and Widdowson.[12]

It was originally planned to published four "Companion Volumes" of selected incidental material, to correspond with the four volumes of the basic material. These were designed to investigate the development of the chief Middle English sounds, and of certain morphological features and syntactical usages, in each locality.[13]

Archive material

A large amount of "incidental material" from the survey was not published. This is preserved at the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, part of the School of English of the University of Leeds.[14]

Sites for the survey

During the survey, each locality was given an identifying abbreviation, which is given in brackets.



Isle of Man


Isle of Wight
City of York
East Riding
North Riding
West Riding


The output of the Survey was criticised by some linguists as using outdated methodology to research dialects that did not represent the speech of most people in the areas covered. In a review of The Linguistic Atlas of England John C Wells wrote, "the phonetic approach of the survey's scholars is pure nineteenth century: it takes no account of structuralist phonemics, let alone more recent developments in phonological theory."[15] He suggested that the survey should have been The Linguistic Atlas of Working-class Rural England, and said that many well-known features of contemporary urban accents were not recorded in the Atlas.[15] Similar criticisms of the sample were made by sociolinguists such as Peter Trudgill and Jack Chambers.[16]

KM Petyt has highlighted the problem of using several fieldworkers in the same survey and suggested that some of the isoglosses are really "iso-fieldworkers". He gives the subtle distinction between the sounds ɔ and ɒ as an example of inconsistent recording in the survey, where some fieldworkers tended to write ɔ and others tended to write ɒ.[17] Mark J. Jones has noted that the transcriptions for the SED do not always match the tape recordings made, most notably in the under-reporting of glottal stops. He wrote, "This is an unsurprising and expected consequence of impressionistic transcription, particularly when running speech is being transcribed, and in no way detracts from the feat achieved by the SED fieldworkers."[18] Jones also stated that Peter Trudgill had told him that the early dialect research by Alexander John Ellis was "more reliable" for Norfolk than the SED.[19]

The Survey of English Dialects has also been criticised by more traditional dialectologists. Graham Shorrocks, whilst writing on the dialect of Bolton, criticised the lack of questions relating to syntax with five specific points:

  1. Interrogative forms were poorly covered. For example, there was no question to find "couldn't you?", which would have produced /'kɔtnt/ in Bolton.
  2. The use of converting questions led to cases of unanswered questions, irregular responses and pressured responses.
  3. The recording of information was not consistent. For example, pronouns were not recorded at some sites, but the use of contractions for pronouns in some dialects made it difficult to know whether the pronoun had been accounted for.
  4. The distinction between a stressed and an unstressed pronunciation was not always controlled.
  5. As Shorrocks wrote, "there is also a quite disastrous failure to control strictly for number!" Several dialects made a distinction between the second person singular (often a form of thou) and the second person plural (often you).[20]


The German linguist Wolfgang Viereck has argued that critics of the SED often make "superficial" criticisms whilst simultaneously using the SED data extensively for their own work. He has criticised the claims of sociolinguists to have superior methods to the SED and challenged sociolinguists to undertake a new nationwide survey to vindicate their methods as superior.[21]

In an article named The Histiography of Dialectology, Craig Frees defended the SED against a series of criticisms. Frees argues that many of the criticisms ignore the role of the SED within a broader programme of dialect research at the University of Leeds, which included more than 100 separate dialect monographs, and the history of funding difficulties, which led to the abandonment of the plan to investigate urban dialects at a later date.[22] Frees wrote of the SED's co-founder, Harold Orton: "despite everything he did for British dialectology and English cultural studies, there is still no dedicated biography or in-depth critical analysis of his career, and his work is trivialised through misrepresentation, the unchecked repetition of mistakes, and what appears to be a superficial and historically ungrounded critique."[22]

Voices survey 2007-2010

Following the last Survey of English Dialects, the University of Leeds has started work on a new project. In May 2007 the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded a grant to a team led by Sally Johnson, Professor of Linguistics and Phonetics at Leeds University to study British regional dialects.[23][24]

Johnson's team are sifting through a large collection of examples of regional slang words and phrases turned up by the "Voices project" run by the BBC, in which the BBC invited the public to send in examples of English still spoken throughout the country. The BBC Voices project also collected hundreds of news articles about how the British speak English from swearing through to items on language schools. This information will also be collated and analysed by Johnson's team both for content and where it was reported. "Perhaps the most remarkable finding in the Voices study is that the English language is as diverse as ever, despite our increased mobility and constant exposure to other accents and dialects through television and radio."[24] Work by the team on the project was expected to end in 2010.[24]

See also


  1. ^ "Eighty-eight ways of saying left-handed", The Times, September 8, 1970
  2. ^ "Where a snack is nummick - 16-year survey of dialect", The Times, November 1, 1962
  3. ^ a b "Dialect survey needs cash", The Times, September 17, 1969
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ British Library article on the Survey of English Dialects
  6. ^ Survey of English Dialects: Introduction, Harold Orton (1962), EJ Arnold & Son (Leeds), page 46
  7. ^ Stanley Ellis, Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1967 {Part LXVII. Vol. XII}. pp 49-50. Book review, of: Phonematische Analyse des Dialekts von Gateshead-upon-Tyne, County Durham. (Cram, de Gruyter & Co., Hamburg, 1966)
  8. ^ "Is it nessy to make a donkey out of that lovely nirrup?", The Times, October 7, 1972
  9. ^ "Saving gibble-fisted mawkin from extinction", The Times, January 6, 1975
  10. ^ Obituary of Harold Orton, The Times, March 14, 1975
  11. ^ Review of The Linguistic Atlas of England, The Times, September 6, 1978
  12. ^ Recent publications by Clive Upton (School of English, University of Leeds)
  13. ^ Survey of English Dialects: Introduction, Harold Orton (1962), EJ Arnold & Son (Leeds), page 22
  14. ^ Incidental Material Documents (Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture)
  15. ^ a b Review of the Linguistic Atlas of England, John C Wells, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 1 December 1978
  16. ^ Chambers, J.K., and Trudgill, Peter. 1998. Page 35. Dialectology. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
  17. ^ Petyt, K. M. (1980). The study of dialect: an introduction to dialectology. Boulder, USA: Westview Press. ISBN 9780865310605. 
  18. ^ Jones, Mark J. (2002). "The origin of Definite Article Reduction in northern English dialects: evidence from dialect allomorphy". English Language and Linguistics. 6 (2): 334. doi:10.1017/S1360674302000266. 
  19. ^ Jones, Mark J. (2002). "The origin of Definite Article Reduction in northern English dialects: evidence from dialect allomorphy". English Language and Linguistics. 6 (2): 332. doi:10.1017/S1360674302000266. 
  20. ^ Shorrocks, Graham (1999). A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area. Pt. 2: Morphology and syntax. Bamberger Beiträge zur englischen Sprachwissenschaft; Bd. 42. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. p. 185. ISBN 3-631-34661-1. 
  21. ^ Wolgang Viereck, Linguistic Atlases and Dialectometry: The Survey of English Dialects in Kirk, John M.; Sanderson, Stewart; Widdowson, JDA (2014). Studies in Linguistic Geography: The Dialects of English in Britain and Ireland. London: Routhledge. ISBN 9781317931546. 
  22. ^ a b Frees, Craig (1991). "The Historiography of Dialectology" (PDF). Lore and Language. 10 (2): 67–74. Retrieved 11 February 2018. 
  23. ^ Riley, Philip (2007). Language, culture and identity : an ethnolinguistic perspective. London: Continuum. p. III. ISBN 978-08264-86288. 
  24. ^ a b c Mapping the English language – from cockney to Orkney, Leeds University website, 25 May 2007.

Bibliography (selection)

  • McDavid, Raven I. Jr. (1981). "Review of The Linguistic Atlas of England, by Harold Orton, Stewart Sanderson and John Widdowson." American Speech 56, 219–234.
  • Fischer, Andreas; Ammann, Daniel (1991). "An Index to Dialect Maps of Great Britain". Varieties of English Around the World. General Series 10. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Kolb, Eduard (1966). Phonological Atlas of the Northern Region: the Six Northern Counties, North Lincolnshire and the Isle of Man. Bern: Francke.
  • Meier, Hans Heinrich (1964). "Review of Introduction by Harold Orton and The Basic Material, Volume I by Harold Orton and Wilfrid J. Halliday." English Studies 45, 240–245.
  • Orton, Harold (1971). Editorial Problems of an English Dialect Atlas. In: Burghardt, Lorraine H. (ed.): Dialectology: Problems and Perspectives. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee, pp. 79–115.
  • Orton, Harold; Dieth, Eugen (1952). A Questionnaire for a Linguistic Atlas of England. Leeds: Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.
  • Orton, Harold; Wright, Nathalia (1974). A Word Geography of England. New York: Seminar Press.
  • Orton, Harold et al. (1962–71). Survey of English Dialects: Basic Materials. Introduction and 4 vols. (each in 3 parts). Leeds: E. J. Arnold & Son.
  • Upton, Clive; Parry, David; Widdowson, J. D. A. (1994). Survey of English Dialects: the Dictionary and Grammar. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Upton, Clive; Widdowson, J. D. A. (2006). An Atlas of English Dialects. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Viereck, Wolfgang (1990). The Computer-Developed Linguistic Atlas of England. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Viereck, Wolfgang; Ramisch, Heinrich (1997). The Computer Developed Linguistic Atlas of England 2. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Further reading