Mapping dialect change from above and below

person holding a map
Photo by ali elliott on Unsplash

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. 

The question

Across the UK, people's speech varies in terms of:

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.

Key concept

Two key concepts underpin this study:

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?

A geospatial map showing where speakers are more likely to refer to the evening meal as 'tea' (yellow areas) or 'dinner' (blue areas). Taken from MacKenzie et al., 2022.

Methods: geospatial mapping

This study uses geospatial mapping to analyse a  series of 12 linguistic variables. Over 14,000 participants completed a survey on their language use across three kinds of linguistic variable:

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.

What is an isogloss?

The geospatial maps in this case study are designed to visualise the isogloss of particular linguistic features. 

Watch our explainer video to learn more about isoglosses!

A geospatial map showing where speakers are more likely to rhyme 'book' and 'spook'. Lighter areas have more people who rhyme these words. Taken from MacKenzie et al., 2022.

The answer

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. 

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.

Classroom activities

Lead in tasks

Drawing isoglosses

Extension tasks

Designing and running your own 'our dialects' survey

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Talk Recording [35 mins]


Slides from the Workshop Talk

Meet the author

George Bailey

George is a Lecturer in Sociolinguistics, and teaches modules in Sociolinguistics, Phonetics and Phonology, and Language Variation and Change.

Read the paper

MacKenzie, L., Bailey, G., & Turton, D. (2022). Towards an updated dialect atlas of British English. Journal of Linguistic Geography, 10(1), 46-66. download pdf