About the Site

The recordings on the site are taken from three large audio resources held in the British Library Sound Archive: the Survey of English Dialects, the Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects and the Millennium Memory Bank. The audio and text content of the website was selected and written by Jonnie Robinson, Curator of English Accents and Dialects.

The Survey of English Dialects

Changing Voices

The Survey of English Dialects (SED) was a groundbreaking nationwide survey of the vernacular speech of England, undertaken by researchers based at the University of Leeds under the direction of Harold Orton and Eugen Dieth. By the late 1940s, Orton and Dieth thought it vital to survey spoken English because, they believed, the linguistic landscape of post-war England would be drastically altered by increased social and geographical mobility and by wider access to broadcast media and education. Their findings, published between 1962 and 1971, continue to be used by linguists worldwide.

Collecting evidence

From 1950 to 1961, a team of fieldworkers collected data in 313 mostly rural locations, initially in the form of transcribed responses to a questionnaire containing over 1300 items. Survey sites were selected according to a number of criteria. Almost all were rural, since small communities in isolated areas with historically stable populations were considered most likely to preserve traditional dialects. Urban areas were intended for inclusion later, but that plan was abandoned on economic grounds. Criteria for choosing informants were also crucial to the goal of comparability. There is a considerable body of statistical evidence suggesting men are more likely to use local forms of speech, so priority was given to older males.

Making sound recordings

Advances in audio technology during the 1950s made it increasingly possible, and indeed desirable, to record informal conversations on site. Several localities were revisited to record original informants or replacements with similar profiles, a process that continued until 1974. Interviews were unscripted and unrehearsed, encouraging speakers to use their normal speech forms. The length and quality of recording vary. The 11 extracts chosen for this website were selected as a representative sample of regional dialects in England.

The Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects

Dialectology and Sociolinguistics

The Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects (SAWD) was instigated by David Parry in 1968 as an investigation into the English speech of Wales. The first, rural phase of SAWD sought to record the oldest living varieties of folk-speech, and the fieldworkers used a questionnaire resembling as closely as practicable the one prepared for the SED (see above), with the aim of making possible direct comparison between the material collected in England and that collected in Wales. Elderly informants were interviewed and tape-recorded in a network of 90 localities throughout rural Wales and speakers were encouraged to use their most natural form of English speech. Work continued during the 1980s in an attempt to investigate speech in more densely populated areas, such as the Rhondda and later still a number of urban areas, including Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham were investigated using an original questionnaire and a more sociolinguistic methodology in interviews with young, middle-aged, and elderly informants.

SAWD recordings

The SAWD recordings date from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s and much of the material recorded refers to rural life in Wales during the first half of the twentieth century, especially to traditional domestic, agricultural, and village life. The 6 extracts chosen here complement the SED recordings from England. They give a good insight into the methodologies used in conducting linguistic fieldwork and a sense of the rich variety of English spoken in Wales.

The Millennium Memory Bank

20th Century Life

The Millennium Memory Bank (MMB) is one of the largest single oral history collections in Europe. It was a joint project between BBC Local Radio and the British Library Sound Archive to create an archival ‘snapshot’ of ‘ordinary’ Britons’ opinions and experiences at the turn of the century.

The Century Speaks

During 1998 and 1999, forty BBC local radio stations recorded personal oral histories from a broad cross-section of the population for the series The Century Speaks. Sixteen themes were conceived and developed to frame the whole project, including such topics as ‘where we live’, ‘getting older’ and ‘beliefs and fears’. From the outset, the project sought to focus on local, everyday experiences. Interviewees were encouraged to reflect on events and change at a community level rather than on the wider world stage. Although the primary objective was to record thoughts and attitudes rather than speech patterns, the English spoken has an extremely strong community and place-based resonance.

Choosing contributors

Contributors were either recruited from established groups within the community, such as local history societies, or chosen from respondents to appeals broadcast over the radio. In contrast to the Survey of English Dialects, the Millennium Memory Bank set out to be inclusive: 56% of the contributors were male and 44% female, ranging from five to 107 years old and drawn from a diversity of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. A wide range of minority groups was included, among them the homeless and members of the travelling community. The result was 640 half-hour radio documentaries, broadcast in the final weeks of the millennium, and an archive of 5429 interviews on minidisks.

A sense of place

The speakers in the MMB archive were not selected for the purposes of a dialect survey and are therefore not strictly comparable with the SED speakers. Nonetheless there is a similar geographic spread and the sense of locality is strong in both collections. Rich in local history, they reflect not merely ways of speaking but also ways of life. The 47 extracts featured on this site were selected to include speakers who are representative of their respective speech communities. Precedence was given to passages demonstrating particularly noteworthy linguistic features.


This website was made possible thanks to support from The Innovation Unit which is funded by the DfES.

The British Library acknowledges the support of the copyright holders of the three collections: The University of Leeds (SED), Robert Penhallurick (SAWD) and the BBC (MMB).

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The site was designed and developed by Cimex, an award-winning interactive agency that specialises in producing elearning content.