The beginnings of an idea

The Survey of English Dialects was first imagined in the 1930s. Two professors, Harold Orton from the University of Leeds and Eugen Dieth from the University of Zurich, were discussing the wide range of dialects in England. These dialects, particularly in rural and remote parts of the country, give language scholars valuable clues about how English was spoken in the past – as far back as the Middle Ages. However, there was a growing concern that because of social changes, and because people were moving around more and more, these dialects might become diluted and change forever. Dieth and Orton decided that a survey was needed to make a permanent record of English dialects as they were spoken at the time. 

The Second World War put things on hold, so it wasn’t until 1946 that things really got underway. Orton and Dieth had to design the survey, test it out and plan fieldwork all over the country. They also had to apply for money to pay for everything. The many letters and telegrams that survive from the time show that Orton and his colleagues at Leeds had to work very hard to convince organisations to fund the project. 

Their hard work paid off and the Survey is still considered to be the most complete study of the dialects of England ever undertaken. Read on to find out more about how the Survey was made and its importance today.

A person and a car

A labour of love

In order to capture the many different aspects of dialect for the Survey, Orton and Dieth designed a questionnaire that investigated people’s words, pronunciation and grammar. It was over 1,300 questions long, and covered all sorts of topics including local trades, farming, domestic life and games.

Out in the field

In order to tackle the huge task of surveying the whole country for the Survey, the team at Leeds divided England into four parts: the Southern Counties; the East Midland Counties and East Anglia; the West Midland Counties; and the Northern Counties and the Isle of Man. They then allocated villages within each of these areas to different fieldworkers to visit. 

The fieldworkers travelled about by motorbike or car. One fieldworker, Stanley Ellis, even had his own dialect caravan! They kept in touch with the Survey’s organiser, Harold Orton, back at the University of Leeds by sending postcards and letters updating him on their progress.

A handwritten postcard

A letter from SED fieldworker Donald Sykes to Harold Orton in 1954.

‘Fieldwork’ (LAVC/SED/1/1/1 )

A caravan and a car

The caravan.

Reproduced with the permission of Martin Ellis, Andrew Ellis and Hilary Templar.

Old men with good teeth

In each village, fieldworkers tried to identify people who had lived locally their whole life and therefore spoke dialect typical of the area. Although they interviewed a range of different people, they were interested in a certain type of dialect informant above all others, namely ‘old men with good teeth’! This was because older males are thought to be the most ‘conservative’ language users – in other words, they tend to hold onto their dialect more than women. The rather strange dental requirement was to make sure interviewees’ speech wasn’t affected by any stray or missing teeth! 

The fieldworkers relied on locals in each community they visited for food and shelter. Since the interviewing process was so lengthy, often involving multiple sittings over the course of several days, they got to know their informants very well and made lasting friendships. Fieldworkers sometimes took photographs of the informants – and often their animals made an appearance too!

A person holding six ferrets

Survey of English Dialects informant Jimmy Marsden with his ferrets, in the garden of his home in Thropton (Northumberland).

‘Jimmy Marsden’ (LAVC/PHO/P1872) by Stanley Ellis

A person with a pig

Survey of English Dialects informant, Jack Swailes, with his pig in the garden of his home in Pateley Bridge (North Yorkshire).

‘Jack Swailes’ (LAVC/PHO/P1873) by Stanley Ellis

A person standing in front of a door

Survey of English Dialects informant, Amos Brown, standing in the doorway of his home in Cuxham (Oxfordshire).

‘Amos Brown’ (LAVC/PHO/P1869 ) by Stanley Ellis

Taking note

The fieldworkers had to be really good at listening to what people said and how. They wrote it all down in their notebooks using a special notation designed to capture pronunciation (people’s accents). This is called the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Handwritten notes in an SED response book

SED response book for an informant from Thropton.

‘Book VI: The Human Body
‘Thropton Response Book’ (LAVC/SED/2/2/1/3/6 ) by Stanley Ellis

Later on, as technology improved and recording equipment became easier to carry around, the fieldworkers began to make sound recordings. You can see an old-fashioned tape recorder and microphone in this picture of Stanley Ellis interviewing Mr Tom Mason of Addingham Moorside (near Ilkley, West Yorkshire). This was actually a mock interview, and the image was taken to be used in publicity about the Survey. However, it gives a good idea of what fieldwork might have been like, and the kind of equipment being used for interviews by the 1960s.

Two people in front of a building

Stanley Ellis mock-interviewing Tom Mason in 1967.

‘Stanley Ellis and Tom Mason’ (LAVC/PHO/P2164)

The audio recordings allow us to learn about the ways of former generations, told in their own voices. Here is an example featuring Harry from Firle talking about his early days as a farm hand in rural Sussex.

Listen here

‘Sound Recordings, East Sussex, Somerset, [Devon] and Kent’

’Harry Firle - School’( LAVC/SRE/A860r )

Sometimes the fieldworkers used pictures as prompts to help find out people’s words and pronunciations. They even made their own sketches of items they encountered on their travels, such as the farming and dairying equipment used by informants.

Handwritten notes in an SED response book

Notes [Lyonshall Response Book] (LAVC/SED/2/2/15/7/10) by Peter Wright.

Behind the scenes at the University: how the Survey was made

Dialect mapmakers

The questionnaire responses were gathered together by the Survey’s editorial team at Leeds University to build a nationwide picture of dialect variation. They worked together in a room at the School of English, which Orton liked to call the Scriptorium.

People sitting at a table

Harold Orton (Left) and members of the editorial team in the Scriptorium.

‘Survey of English Dialects Editorial Team’ (LAVC/PHO/P1985)

Some of the survey results were made into dialect word maps showing the spread of words across regions. This map shows the distribution of words meaning to brew tea. Depending on where you live, you may mash, mask, wet or soak your morning cuppa!

A map

‘SED Word Map: To Brew Tea’ (LAVC/PHO/S006) by Harold Orton.

National treasure

Although the Survey’s key goal was academic and linguistic – the study of language change over time – it came to stand for so much more besides. Fieldworkers described having life-changing experiences and forging life-long friendships, and the ultimate legacy of the Survey – the LAVC – is a rare and precious resource. The collection is extremely varied and useful to a huge range of people for many different reasons. It is not only a mine of dialect information but also a fascinating record of rural culture and ways of life in the late-1800s and early-1900s, and a treasure trove of family history and personal testimony.


‘The survey was characterized very much by a sense of purpose and by an intense humanity’

Fieldworker and student of Harold Orton, John Waddington-Feather

Special thanks

Juhani Klemola and Mark Jones transcribed 297 SED recordings as part of a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust (grant no: F/122/AT). We have used some of their transcriptions within this website.