The Survey of English Dialects (SED) was born out of a fear that increased social and geographical mobility and the increased influence of broadcast media in the post-war era would change England’s dialects forever. Originally conceived in 1946 by Eugen Dieth and Harold Orton, the survey took Hans Kurath’s Linguistic Atlas of New England as inspiration.

‘In a project for a linguistic atlas the questionnaire is the fundamental instrument.’

– Eugen Dieth and Harold Orton, Survey of English Dialects (A): Introduction, (Leeds: E.J. Arnold & Son, 1962), p. 44
Survey of English Dialects, front page of the questionnaire. Image credit Leeds University Library.

The testing of a survey Questionnaire began in 1948. The Questionnaire comprises nine ‘books’ focusing on topics such as the home, the farm, nature and social activities and has over 1,300 questions. It was to be used by fieldworkers in 313 localities, ranging from Lowick in Northumberland to St Buryan in Cornwall.

The Fieldworkers

Stanley Ellis and Tom Mason (Addingham Moorside), 1967, (LAVC/PHO/P2164). Image Credit Leeds University Library


Orton and Dieth aimed to record the most conservative forms of dialect, and argued that these could best be found in rural localities amongst the farming community. Within these localities, fieldworkers sought informants over the age of 60 from families that had lived in the same area for generations. Informants’ survey answers were recorded in notebooks. Each page was divided down the middle. The left side held the informants’ answers written phonetically using the International Phonetic Alphabet. On the right, fieldworkers noted and sketched out other contextual information.

Survey of English Dialects, the response books on the shelves in Special Collections at the Brotherton Library. Image courtesy of Elisabeth Millard.


Many of the fieldworkers were undergraduate and masters students from the University of Leeds and America. The archives provide an insight into some of the vehicles used by the intrepid fieldworkers including a BSA Bantam motorbike, a Jowett van and a Land Rover. Stanley Ellis shared a wood panelled Berkeley Courier de Luxe caravan with his wife and son whilst working on the survey.

The Tape Recordings:

‘The material so procured was never rehearsed, and, of course, never recited. It was spontaneous, and as a rule consisted of personal reminiscences or opinions.’

– Harold Orton, Survey of English Dialects (A): Introduction, (Leeds: E.J. Arnold & Son, 1962), p. 19

From 1952, tape recordings were made of informants’ conversation. The recordings, from 1953, were taken on a Martin machine, on the recommendation of the BBC who were simultaneously conducting their own folk song survey. These recordings helped determine that the fieldworkers’ phonetic transcriptions were correct. Extracts can be found here on the British Library sounds website.

The Publications

The Survey of English Dialects Introduction and Basic Material volumes were published between 1962 and 1971. Other titles, such as A Word Geography of England by Nathalia Wright and Harold Orton, and The Linguistic Atlas of England, edited by Orton, Stewart Sanderson, and John Widdowson, were published in later years.

The survey will now be updated and made available online for the first time, through the University’s Dialect and Heritage Project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the University of Leeds’ Footsteps Fund and additional alumni donations. The University is working with five partner museums from across the country in the delivery of the project. To get involved follow our Twitter or email us at