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Opening a treasure trove of our evolving language

 March 27, 2020 | Simon Jenkins


In 1946, researchers from Leeds set out in search of “old men with good teeth” to take part in the country’s most comprehensive language and dialect survey.

They travelled the country to painstakingly record dialect variations – initially in handwritten notebooks, later with cumbersome reel-to-reel audio recorders that were sometimes hooked up to car batteries because of a lack of mains electricity. The picture shows fieldworker Stanley Ellis recording an interview with Mr Tom Mason, near Ilkley, in 1967.

Over 30 years, they uncovered a rich and diverse linguistic landscape, meticulously mapping the use of ‘brunny-spots’, ‘ferntickles’, ‘murfles’ and ‘summer voys’ (all variants for freckles), among Britain’s other dialectal delights.

Now, more than 70 years since research first began, this invaluable resource is due to be digitised and updated, thanks to renewed funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund – as well as support from five partner museums, the Footsteps Fund and individual University donors.

While the original project focused on older male participants, the renewed survey is open to all, no matter their age, background or gender. It even hopes to reach younger participants through activities with families and schools. Volunteers are asked to make new oral history recordings which will aim to accurately record present-day dialect across the UK, creating a new “cultural legacy for future generations”.

Three of the fieldworkers who set out on the project all those years ago have already been tracked down, and researchers are keen to locate descendants of the interviewees from the original survey.

Others to have come forward include the children and grandchildren of original survey respondents, and those who remember Werner Kissling, the famous ethnographic photographer who worked on the project during the 1960s. Kissling captured everything from sheep washing and wallops (a variant of skittles, pictured), to the ancient custom of ‘bartle burning’ where a straw-stuffed effigy is paraded through the village of West Witton before being set alight.

“These amazing memories allow us to touch history and reach into the past,” says Dr Fiona Douglas, from the School of English, who is leading the project.

In addition to funding for the Dialect and Heritage project, since 1996 the University has benefited from a number of grants by the National Lottery Heritage Fund which have helped us to unlock and share our cultural treasures. These include gifts to support the Marks In Time Exhibition of material from the Marks and Spencer Archive, the purchase of Sir Herbert Read’s vast collection of rare books, and the creation of the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.

Opening a treasure trove of our evolving language