About the Site

The recordings on the site are taken from two large audio resources held in the British Library Sound Archive: the Survey of English Dialects and the Millennium Memory Bank. The audio and text content of the website was selected and written by Jonnie Robinson, Curator of English Accents and Dialects.

The Survey of English Dialects

Changing Voices

The Survey of English Dialects ( SED) was the brainchild of Harold Orton at Leeds University and Eugen Dieth from the University of Zurich. It remains the only systematic survey of English native dialects undertaken by linguists. 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.

Collecting evidence

From 1950 to 1961, a team of fieldworkers collected data in 313 rural localities in England. Their findings, published between 1962 and 1971, continue to be used by linguists worldwide. Underpinning the survey were 1300 questions designed to elicit responses that would best illustrate the lexical, phonological and morphological diversity of spoken English. The questionnaire was arranged in nine books, covering such topics as the farm, the human body and social activities.

Choosing locations and informants

Locations 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 crucial to the goal of comparability. Two or three people were interviewed in most locations. 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. They were usually aged 60 or over, preferably born of native parents, “with good mouths, teeth and hearing” and “of the social class from whom the most representative local speech could be obtained.”

Making sound recordings

Advances in audio technology during the 1950s made it increasingly possible, and indeed desirable, to record informal conversations on site. Several locations were revisited to record original informants or replacements with similar profiles, a process that continued until 1974. Interviews were unscripted and unrehearsed, encouraging speakers to use their normal speech forms. The length and quality of recording vary. The 11 extracts chosen for this website were selected as a representative sample of regional dialects in England.

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, forty BBC local radio stations recorded personal oral histories from a broad cross-section of the population for the series The Century Speaks. Sixteen 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 5429 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 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 47 extracts featured on this site were selected to include speakers who are representative of their respective speech communities. Precedence was given to passages demonstrating particularly noteworthy linguistic features.


This website was made possible thanks to support from The Innovation Unit which is funded by the DfES.

Innovation Logo

The British Library acknowledges the support of the copyright holders of the two collections: The University of Leeds (SED) and the BBC (MMB).

The site was designed and developed by Cimex, an award-winning interactive agency that specialises in producing elearning content.