Mapping dialect change from above and below
The study in a sentence
Dialect surveys are a way of identifying regional differences in how people speak. They tell us how word choices, pronunciations, and grammatical constructions differ between regions.
This study draws on a dialect survey of the UK. The researchers compare their new data with data from the 1950s, to identify how language use has changed (or stayed the same) over a period of more than 60 years.
The results show that some dialect variables have changed, and others have stayed the same.
Across the UK, people's speech varies in terms of:
how they pronounce words
does 'scone' rhyme with 'bone' or with 'gone' for you?
the words they use
do you say 'dinner' or 'tea' to describe an evening meal?
what grammar people find acceptable
would you say: "you was outside"?
The authors use geospatial analysis to show how word choice, pronunciation and grammar vary across the UK now – and also how this compares to results from a dialect survey collected in the 1950s.
Two key concepts underpin this study:
Geographical diffusion is the process by which a linguistic feature (a sound or word) spreads gradually from one place to another.
Diffusion usually takes place through face-to-face contact between speakers of different dialects.
Dialect levelling is the erosion of differences between local dialects, usually towards some kind of ‘standard’ variety.
What is the current state of lexical, phonological and grammatical variation in the UK?
How do the patterns now compare to data collected in the 1950s?
Methods: geospatial mapping
phonological: how do speakers pronounce a word across different geographic regions? For phonological variables, participants were asked whether two words rhymed in their accent. For example: do the words book and spook rhyme for you?
lexical: what words do speakers use across different geographic regions? For lexical variables, they were asked which word they would use to label a given noun. For example: what do you call the evening meal? [possible answers: dinner/tea/supper]
grammatical: what grammatical constructions do speakers use across different geographic regions? For grammatical variables, they were asked to rate how often people in their region use a certain phrase on a five-point likert scale. For example: Would people in your area use the sentence: Robin said, “give it me”? [answer options were on a scale from "I’d say this myself" to "No native speaker of English would say this"]
Participants' postcodes were used to find out where in the UK different words, pronunciations and grammatical constructions were most/least likely to be used.
Statistical techniques in geospatial analysis were used to create maps that show these trends over the different regions. You can see one of these maps on the left.
The authors report evidence of change in progress across a number of variables. They found this by comparing the geospatial data from their survey with that of a dialect survey collected in the 1950s.
The study shows emergence of some variables in regions where they have not previously been documented.
For example, there has previously been a clear North-South divide in how speakers pronounce words such as cut. However, the study found that the isogloss for this pronunciation difference is changing, with the southern variant spreading northwards.
They find a decrease in use of some other traditional local dialect variants.
Overall, although the study finds evidence of dialect levelling and of a reduction of many linguistic features typical of traditional northern dialects. However, there are also cases of stability and even examples of local dialect forms that are spreading and replacing 'standard' forms.
In more detail
A longer explanation of the research study
Talk Recording [35 mins]
Slides from the Workshop Talk