"The Historiography of Dialectology"

LORE AND LANGUAGE 10:2 (1991), pp. 67-74

Craig Fees

Although it appeared after, Robert Penhallurick's "The Politics of Dialectology" (Lore and Language 9.2 (1990), 55-68) was written before the publication of my study of Harold Orton and the English Dialect Survey (Fees 1991), and consequently neither takes account of the other. The latter is the first historical study of any length which is based on original English Dialect Survey source materials. It corrects a number of mistakes which have crept into the Survey's history, and particularly into condensed summaries. I would like to use Penhallurick's article to address some of these; and then, as an outsider to dialectology, to make one or two comments.


The English Dialect Survey, or EDS, was an information-gathering project created by Harold Orton and Eugen Dieth. Concrete planning began in 1946, and over the next four years Dieth and Orton devised, tested, redevised and tested their Questionnaire. Formal fieldwork began in October 1950 and continued until October 1961.

The Survey of English Dialects, or SED, was the publication programme which Harold Orton launched in 1962 to publish the results of the English Dialect Survey. He saw it then as comprising five separate projects: The Introduction (1962); four volumes (twelve books) of Basic Material (19631971); four volumes (twelve books) of Selected Incidental Material; the Linguistic Atlas of England (1979); and Phonetic Transcriptions of Survey tape recordings.

In subsequent usage "SED" has come to stand for both the English Dialect Survey and the Survey of English Dialects, but for the purposes of this discussion I would like to maintain the distinction.


2. "After Dieth's death in 1956, Orton became the Survey's driving force". (Penhallurick, 57)

The implication of this statement is the frequently stated belief that until his death Dieth was the driving force behind the Survey. There is a companion idea - widespread, though it does not appear in Penhallurick - that the Survey was Dieth's idea. Neither is true.

The idea for a survey of English dialects predated the 1939-45 War. Indeed, Harold Orton had been appointed to a committee to prepare a memorandum on a linguistic atlas of the British Isles at the Second International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in London in 1935, and he and others began picking up the threads as soon as the war was over. Dieth became aware of this, and resuming a friendship and correspondence which had been interrupted by the war, he wrote to Orton in 1945 asking for more details. In an exchange of letters Dieth proposed a collaboration on the project which, in effect, Orton already had in hand, and together the two men began the long and difficult process of creating an English Dialect Survey (see Orton, Sanderson and Widdowson, 1978, Introduction). It was a full partnership, into which each brought his own talents, skills and personality.

Based at the University of Leeds, financed largely by Leeds, and ultimately conducted almost entirely by fieldworkers trained at Leeds, the practical execution of the Survey clearly owed a tremendous amount to Orton's administrative drive, leadership and fieldwork ability. But Dieth's drive certainly expressed itself in the rigour and detail of the fundamental instrument of the Survey, which was the Questionnaire. Orton recognised this and the importance of the partnership by insisting that Dieth share the SED masthead as co-editor of the series with Orton, despite the fact that it was Orton who founded the SED, and despite the fact that Dieth, who died in 1956, had little practical input into the Survey's editorial side. I have made the case (Fees 1991, pp. 107-110) that without Dieth there could and probably would have been an EDS, but that without Orton there would not have been. You could go on to argue that Orton was therefore the main driving force behind the Survey, but this is not how Orton wished to present matters, and it would not do justice to the fullness and completeness of their collaboration.


3. Informants: "working-class" (Penhallurick, 57)

The Survey used agricultural labourers, but its sample was not exclusively "working-class", nor was "working-class" a criterion for selecting informants.

If anything, Orton tended to present the informants as farmers (see, for example, Orton and Wright 1974, 1; Orton, 1953, 275; Orton, 1960, 337), or as persons "associated with the farming community" (Orton, 1951, p. 66). This was because the Questionnaire had to be applicable to all parts of the country and, because it is a reasonably universal industry, large sections of the Questionnaire are given over to farming. Beyond this, the informants "(and preferably their parents too) had to be natives and natural dialect speakers" (Orton, 1951, p. 66), with as little outside influence on their speech as possible - e.g., through education, travel or wartime service. Furthermore, because it was the older vernacular which the Survey was aiming for, "informants had to be at least sixty years of age, and normally not above seventy-five years, although some were actually eighty and over" (Orton, 1951, p. 66). The rest of the criteria were practical: "Besides being knowledgeable, they had to have good heads, good mouths, good hearing, and good eyesight. Further, they had to be people who were willing to spare the necessary time for the interviews..." (Orton, 1951, p. 66).

Orton had no illusion that these people spoke a pure or "uncorrupted" dialect, as might be inferred from Petyt 1982 as quoted by Penhallurick, 57-58. The SED, Orton wrote in 1970, "contains information chiefly about the dialect spoken by the older members of the community alive at the beginning of the second half of this century, and further that this type of dialect derived from the vernacular in existence at the beginning of its first half, though subsequently modified continuously by educational influences, the printed word, broadcasting and the disruption of family life due to general mobilization in World War I". (Orton, 1970, 81, cp. Orton, 1940).


4. "the decision to publish the four volumes of BM [Basic Material]... was taken out of economic necessity" (Penhallurick, 57).

This has been said before (e.g., Chambers and Trudgill, 1980, p. 22: "This format was determined out of economic necessity, as a less expensive way of publishing the results than the usual set of maps with responses overlaid"...) but as far as I am aware it is without foundation. The decision to publish in Basic Material form was taken as early as 1955 (Orton, 1957, 316-317; Orton, 1960, 332), but not as an alternative to The Linguistic Atlas of England (LAE) which was from the beginning and remained the ultimate goal of the Survey. The Questionnaire for the Survey, published in 1952, was, after all, entitled A Questionnaire for a Linguistic Atlas of England. Both the Basic Material and LAE were original components of the SED as announced in 1962 (Orton, 1962). Publication of the Basic Material was completed in 1971, and the LAE itself was finally published in 1979. Furthermore, though the Atlas turned out in the end to be fairly expensive, it was not initially conceived that way. In Orton, 1971, p. 81, and elsewhere, for example, he detailed his proposals "for an interpretive, smallsized, simple, clear and inexpensive atlas, one that must not be beyond the pocket of the private individual, the scholar, the teacher, the student or the interested amateur". He went on to note that "our printed books of basic material serve all the purposes of the factual atlas", of which he observed in Orton, 1970, 85, "Only the professional can understand its significance..."

The evidence therefore suggests that the Basic Material was regarded as precisely that: a necessary stage of collation and editing to provide a clean and reliable data base upon which further work (both inside the SED programme and outside) could build. It was "basic" because it provided the foundation for subsequent work, including the Atlas. The idea that the "basic" format was forced on them as an economic expedient in my view underrates the experience, thought and foresight that Orton and Dieth brought to their work.


5. Word Geography of England/WGE

This was not an SED project, though based on SED material and co-authored by Orton.


6. "After the final volume of BM appeared in 1971, the publication programme of the SED became increasingly fragmented, a process definitely influenced by Orton's death in 1975 and eventual disintegration of the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies at Leeds by 1983". (Penhallurick, 57)

The history of the SED is complex, but I am not sure that "fragmented" describes it, nor that Orton's death in itself had the major impact Penhallurick assumes. More important was the expense of the SED, the University of Leeds' reluctance to put more money into it after 1969, and the increasing difficulty of raising outside funds in an inflationary economy.

When Orton retired from the University of Leeds in 1964 only one of the four Volumes (twelve books) of Basic Material had been published, but he had already begun something of a second academic career in the United States, and over the next several years was away from Leeds for up to eight months at a time. He had assembled a trained and efficient editorial team which carried on quite well without him, however, and from 1967 this was led by Martyn Wakelin, with full powers to act as leader of the editorial team in Orton's stead. Orton had also ensured, in the setting up of the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies in 1964, the existence of a formal unit within the University which had among its core and founding tasks the completion of the SED programme. The Director of the Institute, Stewart Sanderson, had formal responsibility for this, and indeed shepherded the LAE into publication following Orton's death. Had the editorial team been maintained under Wakelin's direction as was initially foreseen, and/or had the Institute survived and been fully funded (on which see below), the SED programme would almost certainly have carried on project by project, unimpeded by Orton's death. It was not his death which broke up this steady progress, but lack of money.

The University's initial commitment to support the publication of the Basic Material came to an end in 1963. Using every diplomatic tool at his command, Orton won promise of support for a further five years, to run from his retirement in 1964. He had told the University that this would be enough to finalise the publication of the Basic Material volumes, but the series was still not complete by October 1969, and the University agreed to extend its support for one more term. The final book in the four volumes was published in 1971, with help from outside.

Orton began his fundraising campaign for the LAE as early as 1966, but it was already clear that the University, which had spent £90,000 to £120,000 on the EDS and SED up to 1971 (Orton 1974, 6) - a sum which would look a great deal larger in current terms - would not spend any more. The LAE was completed through outside grants, voluntary help and commercial subsidy. Other plans, such as that to computerise the findings of the Survey, foundered through lack of money (see Orton 1971, p. 82).

The Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies did not "disintegrate": it did not simply come apart and drift into nothingness. The Institute was a victim of the first round of financial cutbacks which hit British universities in the 1980s, which came on top of a decade or more of chronic underfunding of the dialect and folklife programme, as the financing history of the LAE indicates. The Institute went, taking with it the only organisational structure dedicated to the completion of the SED.


7. Town dialects/urban speech

I am not a dialectologist and do not fully understand some of the criticisms made of the EDS. Would it affect that criticism to know that Orton and Dieth initially conceived of a survey which would take in the dialects of towns and cities? The idea was quickly put away for reasons of economy, but it was only slowly let go, and was still hanging quietly about as late as 1953 (Orton, 1947, 38; Orton, 1952, 7; Orton, 1953, 274). Indeed, a comment from Orton led Maureen Courtney to carry out a study of The Living Dialect of Leeds (B.A.) in 1955 - it explicitly being the study of a town dialect - "and so contribute to his task of compiling the Linguistic Atlas of England". (Courtney, p. 1)

Over 100 student theses on dialect were completed during the course of Orton's life and work at Leeds. Orton considered these theses to be part of the work and as complementary to the EDS. A full understanding of the latter therefore calls for a full analysis of the former, preferably by a dialectologist who can assess them in terms of Penhallurick's "politics of dialectology". Certain later theses explicitly deal with town/urban dialect (e.g. Beryl Goldsack, "The Phonology of the Dialect of Spitalfields in the London Borough of Stepney" (B.A. 1962); Robert Bowyer, "A Study of Social Accents in a South London Suburb" (MPhil., 1973); Gerald Knowles, "Scouse: The Urban Dialect of Liverpool" (PhD 1974)). It may be that these were exceptions to the rule, or owed nothing to Orton's direction (though see Orton, 1960, 334, where he urges that town dialects "should certainly be studied by somebody soon"), but it is clear that a full and balanced politics of dialectology involving Orton/Leeds/or the EDS must take them into account.


8. General Comment

Penhallurick regards the EDS/SED as "one of the major achievements of British dialectology this century" (Penhallurick, 56). Harold Orton must be considered one of the major British dialectologists of the twentieth century, and not simply because he co-founded, directed, and found the funding for the EDS and the SED. Wolfgang Viereck said some years ago that, "Without his indefatigable efforts dialectological research in England would no doubt still be in its infancy" (Viereck, 1968, 32), and if we look back over Orton's career we can see something of what Viereck meant. In 1929 Orton wrote that, "The organisation of ... a school of dialectologists would be an event without parallel in this country" (Orton, 1929, 132), something he achieved at Leeds; and Dieth noted in 1946 - the year in which Orton began his career at Leeds - that there were only twenty eight monographs on particular English dialects, of which only eight (one of these Orton's) had been written by English scholars. As we have noted, SED aside, by the time Orton died over 100 dialect theses had been produced at Leeds alone, and the Leeds programme had spawned further work and surveys both in England and abroad. He had been an adviser to the BBC between the wars, a broadcaster and an enthusiastic pioneer and exponent of the mechanical/taperecording of informants (see Adams, Barry and Tilling, 1976, pp. i-ii; Orton, 1974, 7-8). He was by all accounts an inspirational teacher, he was instrumental in establishing the first course in folklife studies in any British university, and he was also the prime mover in the founding of the Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies. And yet, despite everything he did for British dialectology and English cultural studies, there is still no dedicated biography or in-depth critical analysis of his career, and his work is trivialised through misrepresentations, the unchecked repetition of mistakes, and what appears to be a superficial and historically ungrounded critique.

Surely dialectology of whatever form - and I am speaking now as an outsider - is mature enough to respect its various founders to the extent of actually looking at them for what they were, and what they did within the world in which they lived, rather than as figures in a political landscape where their reality must necessarily be skewed. And surely dialectology could learn something of value about itself by doing so. But more than this, a meaningful politics must be based on a sound historiography. The evidence, at least as far as Harold Orton and the English Dialect Survey/Survey of English Dialects are concerned, suggests that the historiography of dialectology still has a long way to go.



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Chambers, J.K. and Peter Trudgill, Dialectology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Dieth, Eugen, "A New Survey of English Dialects", Essays and Studies, 32 (1946), pp. 74-104.

Fees, Craig, Harold Orton and the English Dialect Survey. Part 1 of The Imperilled Inheritance: Dialect and Folklife Studies at the University of Leeds 1946-1982, London, Folklore Society Library, 1991.

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Viereck, Wolfgang, "Guy S. Lowman's Contribution to British Dialectology", Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, 12:68 (1968), 32-39.