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Still whanging? Dialect hunt aims to update prized English language archive | Language


Was you or were you having your tea, dinner or supper last night? Before it, were you feeling clammish, clemmed, starving, hungry, leary or just plain clempt?

Are you still whanging in Yorkshire? Haining in Somerset? Hocksing in Cambridgeshire? Hoying in Durham? Pegging in Cheshire? Pelting in Northamptonshire? Yarking in Leicestershire? Or do you throw now?

How do you pronounce scone?

Researchers from the University of Leeds are interested in answers to all such questions as they embark on a heritage project to help explore and preserve England’s dialects.

Details have been announced of how the university plans to use its prized archive of English life and language that was gathered by Leeds University fieldworkers in the 1950s and 1960s. The results remain the most famous and complete survey of dialects in England.

The university said it was making its extensive library of English dialects accessible to the public through the launch of The Great Big Dialect Hunt. It said researchers would be searching for “new phrases and expressions to bring the archive into the 21st century and preserve today’s language for future generations”.

A fieldworker talking to a man in North Yorkshire for the original survey. Photograph: University of Leeds

Fiona Douglas, from the university’s department of English, who is leading the project, stressed they were not trying to repeat the scale of the original survey, in which fieldworkers went out to interview people over the age of 65 in more than 300 mostly rural communities. “It was very, very big and there were many, many questions,” she said.

The results, which include many photographs and audio, amount to a fabulously rich snapshot of how people in England lived and talked.

If you want a regional map of what a cowhouse or freckles or chip pan scraps were called across England, they are in the archive. In the case of scraps, there are 50 variants from craps and cratchings to scratch and scratchings.

Yorkshire man describes ‘mischief night’ in archive of English dialects – audio

Leeds researchers want to know whether some words are out of date. So do you give someone a piggyback or a pick-a-pack, cuddycaddy, callycode, colliebucky or backy?

If you are from East Anglia, would you describe a lop-sided shelf as being “slightly on the huh”, and would you refer to more than two of something as a “couple of three”?

An interactive audio sound map of England allows people to hear how people talked in different areas when the survey was gathered. “The recordings are just phenomenal because it is people talking about their lives and experiences, so it is a window on the past as well as you get to hear these fantastic voices,” said Douglas.

People playing wallops, or nine-pins
People playing wallops, or nine-pins. Photograph: Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture

She said the new project could better be described as a “mini-survey” and, importantly, was not confined to older voices. “We would like everybody to fill in our survey. It doesn’t matter where you are from or how long you’ve lived there, or whether you think you’ve got a dialect or not.”

The website will allow people to add their own voices and words to the archive. The university is partnering with five museums across England where people can physically go to add dialects.

The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which gave £530,500 to digitise the notebooks, photographs, word maps and audio recordings from the original fieldwork.

“We’d like to share what we’ve got but we’re also interested in the dialects people have now because they are not something preserved in aspic,” said Douglas. “It’s not just something from the past.”

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The death of dialects has been predicted since the 18th century but Douglas said they were still here, thriving and evolving.

Hearing someone with a strong twang was always a thrill, she said. “It transports you. There is something absolutely visceral about it which makes you think: oh wow, I’m home, or these people are like me.

“A lot of it is about that sense of connectedness, a sense of belonging, a sense of rootedness, and even in our 24/7 global digitally overgrown world I think that really matters.”

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