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Sociolinguistics: sound recordings

We have a large collection of spoken voice recordings that can be used for a variety of sociolinguistic research purposes. Most oral history collections, for instance, contain recordings that are particularly appropriate for studying accents, dialects, discourse or language variation and change. The following are the most significant collections for studying British English.


Survey of English Dialects

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. From 1950 to 1961, a team of fieldworkers collected data in 313 mostly rural localities, initially in the form of transcribed responses to a questionnaire containing over 1300 items. The informants were mostly farm labourers, predominantly male and generally over 65 years old. 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 make sound recordings with original contributors or replacements with similar profiles, a process that continued until 1974. The original fieldworker’s notebooks, open reel tapes and gramophone discs are held at The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture and digital copies of the sound recordings are held at The British Library Sound Archive on 69 VHS cassettes. The interviews were unscripted and unrehearsed, encouraging speakers to use their natural speech forms. The length and quality of recording varies and the content focuses on memories of younger days including work, village and family life and traditional farm practice and domestic routine in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Sound Archive collection includes recordings from 288 SED localities across England, additional recordings from Harold Orton’s pre-SED Northumbrian corpus and several pilot recordings from non-SED localities.

C1314 Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects

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. The Sound Archive holds digital copies of SAWD and SAWD-related audio recordings donated to the British Library by Robert Penhallurick in February, 2008. 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. In addition, the collection includes recordings made for the second, urban phase of SAWD, collected between 1986 and 1991 in Cardiff, Caernarfon, Wrexham, Carmarthen, and Swansea.

C900 Millennium Memory Bank

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. The result is one of the largest single oral history collections in Europe, the Millennium Memory Bank: a set of hour-long interviews with a range of speakers from across the UK contained on 5429 minidisks. Contributors were either recruited from established groups within the community or chosen from responses to appeals broadcast over the radio: 56% of the interviewees were male and 44% female, ranging from five to 107 years old and drawn from a diversity of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. From the outset, the project sought to focus on local, everyday experiences and 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. The catalogue records for this collection include detailed interview summaries.

C1190 BBC Voices Recordings

The Voices recordings constitute a survey of regional English around the UK, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. 312 conversations involve a total of 1,312 people talking about accent and dialect, the words they use, and their attitudes to language. The vast majority of conversations are conducted in English, but the collection includes 31 interviews in Scots, 10 in Welsh, 6 in Scots Gaelic, 3 in Irish, 3 in Ulster Scots, and 1 each in Manx and Guernsey French. All the recordings were conducted according to the same loose methodology, developed with the advice of Dr Clive Upton of the School of English at the University of Leeds and drawing from the Survey of Regional English (SuRE). The recordings were made between October 2004 and May 2005 by fifty BBC radio journalists - one from every BBC local radio station in England, and one each from Radio Scotland, Radio Wales, Radio Ulster, Radio Cymru, Radio Nan Gaidheal and the Asian Network. Manx Radio recorded conversations in the Isle of Man.

C898 Opie Collection of Children's Games and Songs

A series of 88 cassettes and open reel tapes recorded by Peter and Iona Opie, a couple who dedicated their working lives to documenting children's play, folklore, language and literature. Their research led to three publications focusing on specific areas of children's informal play: Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969), The Singing Game (1985) and Children’s Games with Things (1997). The archive features recordings of children across the UK between 1970 and 1983. Transcriptions of the recordings and other supplementary material are housed at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

C897 British National Corpus

The British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language recorded between 1991 and 1994 from a range of sources and designed to represent a wide cross-section of British English. The Sound Archive holds all the recordings from the spoken corpus, which features 124 randomly sampled volunteers from 38 locations across the UK. The demographic recordings (approx. 700 audio cassettes) feature unscripted informal conversation, recorded by volunteers selected from different age, region and social classes in a demographically balanced way. The context-governed recordings (approx. 500 audio cassettes) represent speech collected in all kinds of different contexts, ranging from formal business or government meetings to radio shows and phone-ins. The catalogue records for this collection are currently extremely limited.

There are also a number of smaller collections that focus on specific parts of the UK or feature languages other than English, the most important being:

OIOC/S2 Linguistic Survey of India Gramophone Records

The Linguistic Survey of India, set up in 1894 under the supervision of George Grierson, sought to document every known language and dialect in an area extending from Baluchistan in the west to Assam in the east (the provinces of Madras and Burma and the states of Hyderabad and Mysore were not included after consultation with the local governments). The survey itself consisted of a number of 'specimens': a standard passage, a short narrative and a list of test words and sentences. The informants came from a range of backgrounds, reflecting the fact that the aim was to capture long-established literary and prestigious languages alongside minority languages and dialects. The results of the Survey, including the various transcriptions of each specimen, were published in 11 volumes in 1927 as 'The Linguistic Survey of India'. The first sound recordings were made in 1913 and continued until 1929 and most feature a rendition of the 'Parable of the Prodigal Son', together with a local story or song. A collection of 242 discs is held by the British Library's Asian and African Studies and The India Office Records is also home to a substantial archive of uncatalogued correspondence files and original research data relating to the Survey.