Dialectology is not what it used to be. Not only has the emphasis of dialect research shifted from capturing the regional, rural and traditional dialects of the old to a more inclusive and representative analysis of the speech of the whole population, but the collection of data on modern dialects has been revolutionised. The best-known traditional study is the Survey of English Dialects, (SED)a large-scale study of phonological, grammatical and lexical variation conducted in over 300 places across England in the 1950s and 1960s. The subjects of this survey are known as NORMs (non-mobile, old, rural men) born mostly in the mid to late 19th century, and the data came from answers to a long questionnaire. More common today within dialectology are surveys of the complex social dialect variation found in cities such as Norwich, Newcastle and Milton Keynes, based on recordings of relatively informal conversation.
If one were to be really harsh, it could be claimed that An Atlas of English Dialects by Clive Upton and John Widdowson is traditional dialectological mutton dressed as lamb, since the atlas is based on the speech of the Sed Norms, yet claims in the publicity material to portray "English dialects: alive and kicking", representing "modern English regional speech". Yet we know that there has been a considerable levelling of regional dialects in the century and a half since the Sed subjects were born, with particularly rural dialect words having been pushed back or eradicated. We can perhaps blame this on the publishers since the authors make no such wild claims.
The introduction explains the origins not only of the SED but also of dialect variation in English more generally, and includes a guide to the pronunciation symbols used on the maps. The 90 maps introduce a wide range of English accent and dialect features, each with a one-page commentary, explaining the historical development of the variation and the principal regional variants.
The maps will both fascinate and irritate. You will be able to find out whether that bit of wood under your skin is a spelk, a spile, a shiver, a sliver or a plain old splinter or whether you should thropple, choke, strangle or throttle the next politician who comes knocking at your door wanting your vote. But dialect is something that everyone has opinions about and I can imagine people around the country grumbling when they find that the word they use is not on the map, or appears only in Kent when they are in Lincolnshire, or that a couple of the words on the map do not actually mean the same thing. Getting people to talk about dialect, however, can only be a good thing if you, like me, wish this important part of our culture to be valued. Buy it for your grandparents, and enjoy the consequences.
David Britain is lecturer in linguistics, University of Essex.
An Atlas of English Dialects
Author - Clive Upton and John Widdowson
ISBN - 0 19 8694 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £9.99
Pages - 193