19 Mar 2018: David Britain (Bern) “Discovering dialect with mobile phone apps”


Few linguists these days are brave enough to contemplate the kinds of large-scale surveys of dialect that were carried out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Back in the 1940s, for example, Harold Orton and Eugen Dieth began the collection of the Survey of English Dialects (SED). Old rural men (mostly), from over 300 villages across England, each spent four days answering an orally administered questionnaire that provided the data for the survey. It took 25 years to complete…

Repeating the SED seems inconceivable today. It is highly unlikely that anyone would invest that much time and that much money on such a venture. Methods in dialect research have changed – we just wouldn’t want to do it that way anymore. Our questions about language variation have also changed, to some extent away from the regional and towards the social. Yet the SED remains a valuable and oft-cited resource about dialect in England.

Here I present an attempt to gather, rather more quickly and rather more cheaply, contemporary countrywide dialect evidence from England using a smartphone application. With colleagues in Bern, Zurich and Cambridge, the English Dialects App was built, based on a very successful earlier app for Swiss German dialects. I outline both how the English app developed from the Swiss one and how it collects different kinds of data from users, as well as discussing its reception and adoption since its launch in January 2016.

I then reflect critically on apps as data gathering tools. They certainly do not collect data of a kind that dialectologists would usually approve of, but I argue that there are strengths as well as weaknesses in the approach, compared to more usual techniques for collecting dialect data. I end by presenting and interpreting some of the results of the app – maps, to some extent socially sensitive, of a number of dialect features of England. These show how some features have spread, some have remained stable, and some have died out, when compared to the Survey of English Dialects from 60 years ago.


Short Bio

David Britain has been Professor of Modern English Linguistics at the University of Bern in Switzerland since 2010, having previously worked in New Zealand and the UK. His research interests embrace language variation and change, varieties of English (especially in Southern England, the Southern Hemisphere and the Pacific), dialect contact and attrition, dialect ideologies, and the dialectology-human geography interface, especially with respect to space/place, urban/rural and the role of mobilities. He is editor of Language in the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 2007), co-editor (with Jenny Cheshire) of Social Dialectology (Benjamin, 2003), and co-author of Linguistics: an Introduction (with Andrew Radford, Martin Atkinson, Harald Clahsen and Andrew Spencer) (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition 2009). He was Associate Editor of the Journal of Sociolinguistics between 2008 and 2017.