Saturday, 30 August 2014

Dialect-hunting by caravan

I have a piece titled ‘Vox Populi: The Recorded Voice in Twentieth-Century British History’ in the latest issue of the journal Twentieth-Century British History. It’s subscription-only but here is a little snippet:


Stanley Ellis, the principal fieldworker for Harold Orton’s Survey of English Dialects at Leeds University, was energised by the invention of the portable tape recorder. His institution had a long history of recording voices: F.W. Moorman, soon after his appointment as Professor of English in 1912, persuaded the university to buy a primitive wax-cylinder dictaphone and he would ride on a bicycle, his dictaphone strapped to it, to take field recordings of local dialect in Yorkshire villages. In 1928 Orton himself had initiated a survey of Northumbrian dialects and he aimed to continue this during and after the war at Leeds but petrol rationing, in place until 1950, severely hindered field collection.


In 1952, no longer hindered by petrol shortages, Ellis began riding round Britain in a BSA motorcycle and sidecar loaded with his new Simon Mark I portable recorder and packets of Ringtons tea used to persuade village postmistresses to put him in touch with the elderly agricultural workers whose dialect would be best preserved. After Ellis’s marriage in spring 1953 the University supplied him with a caravan and a better tape recorder designed by a former BBC engineer, which also had a battery and converter. Ellis lived with his wife and, later, their first child on the road for the next five years, giving rise to the compellingly titled scholarly article, ‘Dialect-Hunting by Caravan’. At first this caravan was pulled by a 1936 Vauxhall 14hp car but this aged vehicle could not carry its load up steep hills, so fieldwork was initially confined to flat Lincolnshire - until in 1954, the university supplied a Land Rover and Ellis began covering the whole country from the home counties to the Scottish borders. Maurice Varney, who studied dialectology at Leeds from 1955 to 1959, wrote later that ‘when Stanley’s land rover and caravan pulled up at the English Department after another expedition, we all trembled as if awaiting the arrival of a great explorer like Shackleton or Burton’. This being the period of My Fair Lady’s long run in the West End (1958-63), Ellis’s ability to place a regional accent to within a couple of miles led to newspapers describing him as ‘a real-life Professor Higgins’.

1 comment:

  1. What a great story about disinterested scholarship, a world away from the modern corporate university.

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