Author: David Britain


This article introduces dialectology - the study of accents and dialects. It includes discussions of what it is, how it has evolved and how it is done, as well as considering recent developments in the field. The article argues that being a competent fieldworker and data collector is an essential skill in dialectology. A bibliography and list of dialectology web sites is included.

Table of contents


Dialectology is the study of the way sounds, words and grammatical forms vary within a language. The term is usually used to describe the study both of accents (the varying sounds used within a language) and dialects (the differing grammatical structures and words used). On the whole, dialectology has focussed on the geographical distribution of different accents and dialects, though it has begun to investigate social factors (such as age, gender and position in society) too. This article will outline and exemplify the long and diverse history of the subject right up to the present day, as well as the evolution of the methods used to carry out dialectological research. It focuses on those aspects of the subject of which all undergraduate students of dialectology should become aware.

Traditional dialectology

The systematic study of dialects goes back well over a century. The earliest research aimed to draw up linguistic atlases showing the geographical distribution of different dialect forms. Such research was motivated by the desire to counter a mainstream view in historical linguistics at the time that all sound changes were regular and exceptionless. Dialectologists, by showing the widely varying and seemingly haphazard distributions of dialect forms, tried to demonstrate that linguistic changes were often irregular and did not affect all words equally. The dialect landscapes of Europe in particular showed substantial variability even within small areas and it was the task of early dialectologists to plot this wealth of diversity. Early dialectologists were particularly interested in lexical variation - different words used to refer to the same thing in different places. Figure 1 below , for example, shows the distribution of different words to refer to a small piece of wood under the skin. The information collected for these dialect atlases has been an invaluable resource even to present-day dialectologists, providing a valuable snapshot of the variety of different dialect structures used at a particular point in time. Dialectologists of England still refer to the groundbreaking Survey of English Dialects (Orton 1962), for example, even though the data for it were collected back in the 1950s and 1960s. There has been no nationwide survey of the dialects of England since.

Figure 1 The geographical distribution of lexical variation

Figure 1: The geographical distribution of lexical variation:
Words used to refer to a small piece of wood under the skin (from Upton and Widdowson 1996).

Criticisms of traditional dialectology

From the 1960s onwards, however, many people began to voice serious criticisms of the way dialectological data were being collected (see Chambers and Trudgill 1998 for a lengthy discussion). In almost all cases, long questionnaires were used, with survey workers asking usually non-mobile, old, rural men (NORMs) to respond, usually with one-word answers, to questions such as: 'You sweeten tea with…..?' and 'What do you say to a caller at the door if you want him to enter?' The answers to the questions were then transcribed phonetically by the survey worker. The critics argued, firstly, that dialectology should not just be interested in the very small proportion of the population who were old, rural and male, but also include the young, women and those living in towns and cities. Secondly, they argued that one-word answers to questionnaires were too divorced from everyday language to provide a really accurate account of how people used language - critics suggested that dialectology should study continuous and relaxed conversation which not only would provide examples of more everyday language but also highlight variability within the speech of the individual.

Sociolinguistic dialectology

Traditional dialectologists were hampered, of course, by the lack of adequate technology. The advent of the tape-recorder in the 1960s meant that dialectologists were able for the first time to record the speech of dialect speakers, and hence preserve the evidence of language use for later analysis - something that the traditional dialectologists were unable to do before. The coincidence of the rise of sociolinguistics, the mass-production of recording equipment, and the appreciation that linguistic factors may play a role in some social problems in Western societies led dialectologists to abandon traditional approaches and to focus on urban areas (early cities studied were New York (Labov 1966), Detroit (Wolfram 1969) and Norwich (Trudgill 1974) and on the whole community rather than just a small subsection of it. The recordings obtained during data collection enabled researchers not just to analyse continuous speech but also to examine how consistently speakers used different dialect forms in their speech. It became readily possible to examine, through a quantitative analysis, the relative proportions of different dialect variants used by individuals, and, through aggregation, by different (age, gender, ethnic, etc) groups in society.

Figures 2a and 2b below provide an example of a more quantitative dialectological analysis (Britain 2005). It shows the proportions of use of the vocalisation of /l/ - the tendency, common in the south of England, Australia and New Zealand, to turn [l] into a back vowel [u]: e.g. 'feel' [fi:u] - among older speakers in the Fens of Eastern England. Notice that: the whole community vocalises some of the time - differences are apparent in the proportions of vocalisation; there are differences between the two age groups, with the young having higher levels of vocalisation than the old; the urban areas in Figure 2a show higher levels of vocalisation than the surrounding rural areas, suggesting that the change affects urban before rural.

Figure 2a Sociolinguistic dialectology: vocalisation among older speakers of Fenland English

Figure 2a: Sociolinguistic dialectology: /l/ vocalisation among older speakers of Fenland English (from Britain 2005).
Percentages represent levels of vocalisation in each area.

Figure 2b vocalisation among younger speakers of Fenland English

Figure 2b: /l/ vocalisation among younger speakers of Fenland English (from Britain 2005).
Percentages represent levels of vocalisation in each area.

To recap, dialectology (as well as SOCIOLINGUISTIC VARIATION) demonstrates that language is fundamentally variable, both within the speech of the community and the speech of the individual. The structured nature of regional dialects emphasises that non-standard varieties, just as much as their standard counterparts, have 'grammars', and reminds advocates of more formal approaches to the study of language that dialect diversity should not be ignored in theoretical accounts of linguistic structure.

Doing dialectology

Dialectologists of all persuasions, traditional or sociolinguistic, put a great deal of emphasis on the collection of good data - the discipline is heavily empirical. All dialectology relies on information gained first-hand from speakers of the dialects themselves, and so fieldwork is an essential part of the subject. This fieldwork is often time-consuming (issues arise such as how to 'enter' a community sensitively enough to gain the confidence of its members; how to find relevant people to study, how to persuade them to be part of the investigation, including being recorded; how to minimise the disruption caused to their lives by the data collection process; and how to somehow recompense the community for its co-operation) and requires the dialectologist to be thick-skinned, flexible, easy-going and a good conversationist!

Teaching dialectology

Students of dialectology should therefore:

  1. be able to understand and explain the contrast between traditional and sociolinguistic approaches to dialectology, and to describe why traditional approaches have, for the most part, been abandoned;
  2. be required to undertake fieldwork as well as data analysis and interpretation as part of their training. Few good texts focus on this methodological prerogative. Two excellent texts, however, are Milroy (1987) and Milroy and Gordon (2003) (see also the article on SOCIOLINGUISTIC VARIATION).

Looking forward in dialectology

Despite the methodological improvements made by sociolinguistic dialectologists, the early work using this new method still rather heavily relied on non-mobile sections of the community - to be eligible for consideration as a 'true' representative of a particular community many researchers stipulated that all those studied had to have been born in the community, or have moved there before a certain (young) age. This, of course, enabled a snap-shot of the stable population of a community but the often large in-migrant and immigrant communities (which may well have a considerable influence on local language use) were left ignored. Dialectology is now addressing these concerns and some have embarked on a dialectology of mobility (Trudgill 1986), investigating communities which are (or were, recently) largely made up of non-natives (such as New Towns (e.g. Kerswill and Williams 2000 on Milton Keynes and Dyer (2002) on Corby) and post-colonial speech communities (e.g. Trudgill 2004; Gordon et al 2004), as well as investigating second dialect acquisition, looking at which dialect features are and are not picked up by outsiders moving into a new community (Chambers 1992). Dialectology is moving, therefore, from an analysis of the old, rural and static to a focus on the new, urban and mobile (see Britain 2001 for further discussion).


Britain, D. (2001). Space and spatial diffusion. In J. Chambers, P. Trudgill & N. Schilling-Estes (eds.), The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. 603-637. Oxford: Blackwell.

'Britain, D. (2005). Geolinguistics and Linguistic Diffusion. In U. Ammon, N. Dittmar, K. Mattheier & P. Trudgill (eds.), Sociolinguistics: International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.'

Chambers, J. (1992). Dialect Acquisition. Language 68: 673-705.

Chambers, J. & P. Trudgill (1998). Dialectology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dyer, J. (2002). 'We all speak the same round here': dialect levelling in a Scottish-English community. Journal of sociolinguistics 6: 99-116

Kerswill, P. & A. Williams (2000). Creating a new town koine: children and language change in Milton Keynes. Language in Society 29: 65-115.

Labov, W. (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Milroy, L. (1987). Observing and Analysing Natural Speech. Oxford: Blackwell.

Milroy, L. & M. Gordon (2003). Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Orton, H. (1962). Survey of English Dialects: introduction. Leeds: Arnold.

Trudgill, P. (1974). The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, P. (1986). Dialects in Contact. Oxford: Blackwell.

Upton, C. & J. Widdowson (1996). An Atlas of English Dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wolfram, W. (1969). A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Gordon, Elizabeth, Campbell, Lyle, Hay, Jennifer, Maclagan, Margaret, Sudbury, Andrea and Trudgill, Peter. (2004). New Zealand English: its origin and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. (2004). New dialect formation: the inevitability of colonial Englishes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Related links

Details of a dialectological survey of linguistic changes in progress in North American English, directed by Professor William Labov, recognised as the founder of sociolinguistic dialectology is available at:

Website of home for a number of traditional dialectological surveys of different parts of North America. A superb site, it enables surfers to inspect parts of many of the different atlases online.

Site run by Professor John Wells collating information on 'Estuary English' - a relatively new regional dialect of the south-east of England some features of which appear to be spreading to other regions of England.

Referencing this article

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  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008. http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2241.
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    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2241.