Wednesday 4 November 2009

Stanley Ellis

Hard on the heels of yesterday’s blog comes news of another death: that of Stanley Ellis, the distinguished dialectologist, who has died at the age of 83.

Stanley Ellis was one of the principal fieldworkers on the Survey of English Dialects conducted under Harold Orton at the University of Leeds half a century ago. He brought to this work not just accurate observation, recorded in careful IPA notation, but also, famously, a striking ability to establish a good rapport with the informants, who were mostly elderly agricultural labourers in the north of England. Stanley’s own clearly northern accent and way of speaking must have helped in this; but he was also just a very friendly man who could get on well with all sorts.

He was also extensively involved in forensic phonetics, being the first person to give expert evidence on speaker identification in an English Court, at Winchester in 1965.
In later years he and I sometimes used to work together lecturing visiting Americans on speech varieties in England. We did a kind of double act, perhaps slightly exaggerating the difference between our backgrounds: I played the ex-public-school RP speaker, he played the rustic local. (In reality and in contrast, I too am a northerner from a small village and he was a highly educated academic.) I last saw him at a meeting of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, which he helped run.


  1. It occurs to me (too late, obviously) that it would have been instructive if the two of you had switched roles halfway through the act: he fires up the ol' RP engine, while you revert to type. That would have brought home unmistakably the status of RP in England as a non-regional accent, something Americans have little or no experience with.

  2. I very nearly appeared in a court case on the opposing side to Stanley Ellis. It was in the 1980s, so the details are a bit hazy. I do remember it involved aggravated burglary, and that the poor victims were tied up and left by the villains. It even appeared on the Crimewatch programme on British television. One of the criminals had the good grace to phone the police and tell them that the victims were helpless in their house.

    I also remember that I spent a very tedious day in court in Liverpool. Then the case was adjourned. The sometime later, just as I was about to travel back to Liverpool, the accused changed the plea to guilty. All that time and work wasted! I think it was that case which convinced me to have no more to do with forensic phonetics.

    I also remember that Stanley Ellis was a nice chap to talk to.

  3. That is unfortunate news. The SED is quite unique in its scope and its empirical thoroughness. I think it's strange how the details of the regional dialects were put to the test empirically whereas work on RP has always been subjective in comparison.

    One point: the SED was across England and not just in the North of England. (It includes the Isle of Man and a few bordering areas of Wales as well) There were one or two areas that were missed: south Lancashire for example. (Ironically the area that produced Professor John Wells)

  4. Stanley was quite modest about things, and it is only since his death that we (his family) have realised quite how well he was known, respected and liked. I suppose it reflects his ability to strike up a conversation with just about anyone!

    His funeral will be on Thursday 12th Nov at 12.20 Stonefall Crematorium in Harrogate. Anyone who knew him will be very welcome - please contact to let them know you intend to come to help with the planning.

    Thank you for your kind words. Rebecca Ellis (grandaughter)

  5. Dear Rebecca, Stanley certainly was very highly respected indeed. He was THE most brilliant fieldworker on the Survey of English Dialects - he managed to put his informants totally at their ease so that they always used genuine dialect forms; and his transcriptions of their pronunciations were impeccably accurate in a way that no other fieldworker ever quite managed - a truly great figure in the linguistic study of the English language.
    Peter Trudgill

  6. I remember Stanley very well as I was a student at Leeds University. I helped him move out of his office there when he retired and still remember the ladder starting to move under me as I attempted to take down his speakers which were at ceiling height. Nothing to do with Stanley, everything to do with the size and weight of the speakers... I recall him telling me that Harold Orton always thought that the best way for a dialectologist to approach a village or hamlet was on horseback! I always felt that if anyone could pull that off, it would be Stanley.


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