About the project

British Accents and Dialects celebrates and explores regional and social variation and aspects of continuity and change in the varieties of English spoken in the UK. The content focuses above all on features of spoken English that can be illustrated and supported by actual examples taken from the Library’s extensive collection of sound recordings of authentic speech. The audio content draws on two internationally acclaimed linguistic surveys: the Survey of English Dialects and the Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects; and one of Europe’s largest oral history archives, the Millennium Memory Bank. These iconic sound recordings from the latter half of the 20th century are complemented by recordings made by British school students between 2007 and 2011.

British Accents and Dialects features recordings of vernacular speech in 70 locations across the UK and over 600 audio clips chosen to illustrate how accents and dialects vary according to place and how spoken English has changed over time. Articles and interpretation notes written by the Library’s Curator for Spoken English, Jonnie Robinson, examine noteworthy features of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation and reflect on aspects of British English that prompt academic research and popular debate. In addition, four varieties of contemporary English are explored in detail: Received Pronunciation, Geordie dialect and English as it is spoken in the UK’s Asian and Caribbean communities. Designed to enhance the study and enjoyment of English language, the site contains a dedicated Teachers’ Area supporting the curriculum for GCSE and A Level students and is relevant to undergraduate syllabuses in English Language and linguistics and to advanced learners of English as a Foreign Language.

This content is supplemented by recordings made by visitors to the Library’s Evolving English exhibition in 2010/11, which includes speakers of all ages from all over the UK and beyond, enabling users to explore well-known British accents, discover familiar and emerging varieties of English around the world and listen to non-native speakers from across the globe.

The British Library is grateful to the following organisations for their contribution to British Accents and Dialects:

Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture (University of Leeds)

Archive of Welsh English (University of Swansea)

BBC Sounds

British Accents and Dialects was previously available as Sounds Familiar, a British Library website launched in 2007 thanks to support from The Innovation Unit which was then funded by the DfES (now DfE).

Collections featured in British 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.

SED 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 into the early 1970s. Interviews were unscripted and unrehearsed, encouraging speakers to use their normal speech forms. The length and quality of recording vary. The 11 extracts presented here were selected as a representative sample of regional dialects in mid-20th century 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 sound recordings

The SAWD sound 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 20th century, especially to traditional domestic, agricultural, and village life. The six 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, 40 BBC local radio stations recorded personal oral histories from a broad cross-section of the population for the series The Century Speaks. 16 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 5,429 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 and SAWD 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 66 extracts presented here were selected to include speakers who are representative of their respective speech communities. Precedence was given to passages demonstrating particularly noteworthy linguistic features.

Sounds Familiar: Your Voices

Teenage voices

From 2007 to 2011 teachers and A Level students in schools and colleges in the UK were invited to submit recordings to be archived at the British Library. Contributors could either record a standard reading passage or a group conversation. The reading passage is taken from Mr Tickle by Roger Hargreaves (© 1971), with the text adapted to include a comprehensive set of vowel and consonant variants and a number of connected speech processes that enable a comparison of accents between speakers. The group conversations feature spontaneous discussions of topics of interest to the students.

Resources consulted in creating British Accents and Dialects

Download a PDF containing a list of sources that were consulted when creating British Accents and Dialects.

Glossary

Explanations of some of the technical terms used on the site are available to download in this glossary.

Image credits

In addition to British Library collection items and photographs, images were supplied by Beautiful England Photos and Getty Images.