It was the most comprehensive snapshot of rural life ever collected, with an army of fieldworkers recording the remotest of villages’ individual eccentricities and traditions.
Decades have now passed since the Survey of English Dialects from 1946 to 1978, but its basis is as important as ever, forming the foundation for a catalogue of local lore.
Now, work is under way to open up these old archives to the public, alongside folk life studies detailing a rural way of life. And a search has begun to discover the descendents of those who participated, before their recollections and customs are lost to living memory.
“This collection is a window to what life was like in a previous century,” said Dr Fiona Douglas, a lecturer in English Language at Leeds’ School of English, who is leading the project. “It was a huge project. They were trying to find out how people say words, with pronunciation and dialect. And everything is very much frozen in time.
“Most of this work was done in the 1950s, and while the dialect is fascinating, the audio recordings are evocative of a time past. The fieldworkers were talking to people born in the 1880s - and when you hear their stories, about how they made bread, or witnessed the last convicts being loaded on boats for Australia, it becomes so clear. While they went out to collect dialect, they came back with social history.
“It still has a resonance, especially in places like the Yorkshire Dales - it’s these communities’ history and their heritage. We want to put it back out there - and to go back and interview the grandchildren of the original participants, who will be the last to have them in their living memory.”
The University of Leeds, awarded a £65,600 Heritage Lottery Fund grant last year for its Dialect and Heritage: the State of the Nation project, is opening up and digitising its extensive Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, continuing the work of the Survey of English Dialects (SED) and the Leeds Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies.
Vast quantities of information is held in the archive, including audio recordings, photographs, newspaper cuttings, word maps and hand drawn diagrams of tools and farming devices.
These are now being digitised, and the university is working with partner museums across the country to open them up to the public, including the Ryedale Folk Museum and the Dales Countryside Museum at Hawes.
Nine young fieldworkers, sent out on motorbikes or in caravans, had been tasked with finding local people to interview, ideally over the age of 60 and with good teeth, so that their enunciation could be clear. Among the nine were Harrogate’s famed linguist Stanley Ellis, best-known for his work calling out the Yorkshire Ripper tapes as a hoax, and Donald Sykes from Huddersfield.
“We had to record what we heard, not what we wanted to hear,” said Mr Sykes, now 86. “There would be 20 or 30 miles between villages, but that was sufficient for a difference in dialects. It was one of the most satisfying parts of my life. We were doing something that nobody else was. And everybody is interested in dialogue.
“People said, 200 years ago when compulsory education came in, that it would be the end of these traditions. It wasn’t, and it’s still there. You just need to know where to look.”
A dialect discovery day is to be held at the University of Leeds today, as it opens up part of its archives to the public.
The focus is to be on food - and how variations across the country in dialect can change what we call certain items. In Yorkshire, the team has discovered, sweets can be known as ‘spice’, while chip shop scraps can also be called scratchings.
Original fieldworker Donald Sykes, now 86, is to attend the event and there will also be video interviews with another Yorkshire fieldworker, Michael Barry, who played a large part in the editing process. There will be opportunities to see original photographs, fieldworkers’ notebooks and word maps.
The event is to be held from 1.30pm to 4.30pm at the Treasures of Brotherton Gallery in the Parkinson Building. No booking is required.