Stanley Ellis, 1926-2009

December 3, 2009

A dialectologist and pioneering forensic linguist - who made a notable intervention in the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry - has died.

Stanley Ellis was born in Bradford on 18 February 1926, studied at Grange Grammar School and then secured a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

After National Service, largely in the Indian subcontinent, he read English at the University of Leeds and began to specialise in dialectology. This led to a period of six years on the road in a caravan as the leading fieldworker for the definitive Survey of English Dialects (published in four volumes between 1962 and 1971), overseen by Harold Orton.

The project was based largely on interviews with ageing farm workers who had grown up in the late 19th century, and so represented the last generation whose language had not been decisively influenced by the mass media. It also provided a solid grounding for Mr Ellis' subsequent career as lecturer and then senior lecturer in the School of English at Leeds, where he remained until 1983.

Drawing on his natural bonhomie and an almost uncanny ability to distinguish the nuances of local accents, he was highly effective in popularising dialectology on radio and television. In 1967, Mr Ellis became the first person to apply expert linguistic skills to speaker identification in an English court. He was later employed by the security services in a similar capacity.

When the police received tapes in 1979 purporting to come from the Yorkshire Ripper, Mr Ellis and his colleague Jack Windsor Lewis soon concluded that it was actually the work of a hoaxer who had grown up in a village near Sunderland many miles from the murders.

Although their views were unfortunately disregarded, they were vindicated in 2005 when someone from precisely the area they had pinpointed was arrested, and later admitted perverting the course of justice.

Clive Upton, professor of modern English language at Leeds, describes Mr Ellis as "totally unaffected, very genuine, very straight-talking and able to mix in all sorts of company.

"That was why he was such a good fieldworker, where he was in a sense the student of his informants, and never came across as someone who had come from a university to impose upon them.

"Survey counts as the only serious study of English dialects and brought together a meticulously collected bank of data about language variation which researchers have cause to be very grateful for, even now."

Mr Ellis died suddenly on 31 October and is survived by his wife Margaret and three children from a previous marriage.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments