Tuesday 15 March 2011

Harold Orton

Last Thursday’s Guardian had a “from the archive” item republishing its 1975 obituary of Harold Orton, creator of the Leeds Survey of English Dialects. (To read it, follow the link.)

I never actually met Orton. At the ICPhS held in Leeds in 1975 he was due to chair a session at which I was to be the speaker, so that I would certainly then have made his acquaintance. But he died a few months before the conference.

In Orton’s heroic method of collecting dialectological data, the informants were all locally born, almost always over 60, and mostly working-class men from small villages. The data was collected from over three hundred different locations by fieldworkers operating on the spot, recording the answers to a 1300-item questionnaire in handwritten IPA and in some cases on bulky gramophone discs.

By the mid-70s the sociolinguists, inspired by Labov and Trudgill, were already demonstrating more modern models of dialectology data collection, better but also arguably more limited (certainly more limited in geographical coverage).

As the sociolinguists rightly asked of SED-style surveys, what about the under-60s? What about speakers who were not manual labourers? What about the bulk of the population, who live not in villages but in towns and cities? And most importantly, what about women?

Nevertheless, despite its limitations, Orton’s survey remains a magnificent monument to English dialectology.


  1. I think that Harold Orton, much like Joseph Wright before him, was concerned that he had to record the "broadest" possible speech before it died out forever. There was less of a hurry to collect the more mainstream forms of speech. When you listen to some of the recordings on the British Library's site, you can see the value in this. For example, look up Dent in Yorkshire or Mendlesham in Suffolk. Many (most?) people cannot even get the jist of these recordings any more, so I'm glad that they were recorded when these dialects were still in living memory.

    One thing I've always found an incredible omission from the SED is that they didn't consider -ook forms much. I have found myself arguing with people about which areas the long u: occurs in or used to occur in, and I wish I had SED to prove that it was much more widespread than it is now. Some people insist to me that it's only ever heard in Lancashire or in the Potteries.

  2. Another point. It's funny how the few urban sites in SED don't seem to stand out against the more rural sites around them in terms of phonetics and phonology, although they don't have the wealth of dialect words for agricultural equipment. Leeds, Sheffield and York have pronunciations that fit in with the other, more rural, Yorkshire sites in the SED, and Hackney's dialect was not that different from the sites in south-west Essex.

    I don't suppose that anyone knows what's happening with the Survey of Regional English, do they? That was supposed to be an SED Mark 2, but I've not heard much about it recently.

  3. Yes, I'd always understood that there was a desire to record these traditional dialects before they died out, hence the choice of speakers who were considered particularly likely to speak them.

    I think the -ook thing reflects how recessive the GOOSE versions are. In north Staffordshire they're not really recessive at all: I have friends from that area with really quite mild ("near RP", even) accents who use them. But in other parts of the North they are much more recessive/stigmatised.

    It would be interesting to have something like the Atlas of North American English for the UK, and that would be one feature which could be looked at.

  4. @ JHJ: Yes the Atlas of North American English is awesome, but its problem is that it only includes fairly large cities, i.e., it's the opposite of the SED.

  5. It is accurate to say that most of Orton's subjects were over 60, but it might be important to note that a LARGE percentage were much older (in their late 70s or 80s). I don't know much about Orton's intentions, but it seems his focus was on dialects that were all but guaranteed to be extinct within a few years. That's quite an achievement. I have reservations about "old white farmer" studies as much as anyone, but Orton's work was invaluable.

  6. @ JHJ. I agree. The pronunciations with u: seems to be very common around the Potteries. I have occasionally heard it from speakers from the Birmingham area, but have not heard it from the East Midlands. In addition, I don't think that I've heard it very much from people in the far north, where some words have a form involving a jod (e.g. "cook" as [kju:k]). I just can't work out the geography of it!

    From my memory, SED only has "look". I wish they had included more -ook words.

    Joseph Wright's "English Dialect Grammar" shows that not all -ook forms had the same pronunciations, but his geography is very vague.

  7. ^ yod, not "jod". Now there's a hypercorrection!

  8. "I have reservations about "old white farmer" studies as much as anyone..."

    I think it's understandable to have reservations about 'farmer' studies, but why worry about the 'old white' part? The population of the UK is over 90% white and over 50% old (defining 'old' as in the top half (over 40) of the normal life expectancy of about 80 years). So a balanced dialect survey would devote at least 45% of its time to old white people.


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