The Spoken Corpus of the Survey of English Dialects: Language variation and oral history

Judith Beare
Brad Scott
11 New Fetter Lane

The Survey of English Dialects: The spoken corpus, recorded in England 1948-1973 is an SGML-based linguistic corpus which includes part of speech tagging, in which the text is linked to its corresponding audio file, and will be delivered within an extended DynaText application. It will be published in the winter of 1999. This paper will describe the context of the creation of such a resource, indicating the benefits and disadvantages of these methodologies for researchers in a number of disciplines compared with existing resources, and will discuss practicalities of the novel mark-up and other technical features that the project engenders. We will also highlight the practical questions that relate to the design and development of such a resource within a commercial publishing environment.

The Survey of English Dialects was started in 1948 by Harold Orton at the University of Leeds and has been producing unique research data ever since. The initial work comprised a questionnaire-based survey of traditional dialects based on extensive interviews from 318 locations all over rural England. These were published as the Survey of English Dialects: Basic Material (13 vols) in the 1960s, and have formed the core data for a number of other publications since then.[1]

During the course of the survey a number of recordings were made as well as the detailed interviews. These unique recordings are between eight and twenty minutes duration, equalling about 60 hours of dialogue. They are invariably of elderly people talking about life, work and recreation and have not been widely available, but are potentially an important resource, not merely for dialectologists, but for linguists more generally, those studying variation in world Englishes and many historians. The recordings were made from the 1950s through to the 1970s. The early ones are on 78 rpm disks in four minute chunks, and the later ones are on reel-to-reel tapes and may extend to over twenty minutes of free conversation.

During 1997, Juhani Klemola at the University of Leeds received a grant from the Leverhulme Trust to transcribe the recordings, which work has now been completed. From the mark-up scheme deriving from the transcription process the data has been converted to TEI-conformant SGML, and then part of speech (POS) tagging added by Tony McEnery and colleagues at the University of Lancaster using their CLAWS tagger. The results of this process, given that the target text comprises some very irregular words and grammar, will be reported. In addition, to facilitate the use of the resource, the text and audio will be linked, so that the user can easily hear the audio relating to a given segment of the text. The technical issues in creating this will be discussed.[2]

For the study of the dialects of England, currently available resources tend to focus on unusual words in isolation, rather than dialectal variation in natural speech.[3] However, the development of the application of computing methodologies to linguistic data such as the BNC and ICE-GB has generated a number of corpora which are available for researchers in linguistics and language engineering, and which many specialist researchers now use. Building on these developments, the SED Spoken Corpus has been conceived as a resource that should be accessible to a user group with a wide spectrum of technical literacy, not only in linguistics, but also in history. This necessitates the design of a simple interface and presumes no knowledge of SGML to effectively use the resource, but which also allows and supports research by those in the corpus linguistics community. Any difficulties and compromises which were necessary to achieve this will be outlined.

A number of features of the development process will be described and discussed. These include:

Given the numerous competing requirements in the development of such an application, the paper will also address those factors which may be seen as (necessary) limitations of the functionality of the application.

The SED Spoken Corpus was never conceived as an oral history project and the recordings were never constructed with such a purpose in mind. Nevertheless, even with the currently limited awareness of the material within the oral history community, these recordings are known as a unique and important collection for which there is strong research interest. This of course raises an additional challenge in the creation of the electronic resource, as the data and the application have to be designed to support the interrogation of rather disparate academic groups. The issues so raised and solutions adopted will be outlined and discussed. Other themes specifically relating to the oral historical dimension of the data will be included, in particular the question of interviewee identity.


  1. Such as Clive Upton et al. (1990) Survey of English Dialects: Dictionary and Grammar, and H. Orton et al. (1978) Linguistic Atlas of England.

  2. Some existing resources have already combined SGML linguistic data with a linked audio (e.g., the Map Task Corpus developed by Henry S. Thompson and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh). However, as far as we are aware, the SED Spoken Corpus will be the first to extend such functionality in a Windows application using a commercially available SGML browser.

  3. Most of the major resources in this area are only available in print form; alternatively, there are of course numerous collections of recordings made for more specific studies, though very little is widely available in electronic form. However, W. Elmer and G. Schiltz at the University of Basel are in the process of creating an impressive electronic version of the SED Basic Material, which includes a facility to search by phonetic string and generate a map of its geographical distribution.