Old dialectologists


Ed’s comment to my last post allows me to widen the discussion from the specific question of th > f in modern English, and its history, to that of how much linguists/dialectologists/orthoepists – call them/us what you will – have or have not registered change in the language.

I’ve been reading Alexander J Ellis’s monumental “Early English Pronunciation”, jointly published by the Early English Text Society, the Chaucer Society and the Philological Society between 1869 and 1889, in five parts, and well over 2000 pages. Despite its title, Part V is an analysis of the English dialect area of Great Britain (i.e. of that part of the island that has been English-speaking for many centuries) and the Isle of Man (which Ellis admits is less interesting as English is mainly a “learned” language for the Celtic-speaking natives) during the 19th century. Many of the dialects include th > f as a feature, at least in some words.

The nearest modern equivalent to Ellis is John Wells’ “Accents of English”, and I was surprised when I looked in the bibliography to Wells’ work that Ellis is not mentioned. While Wells gives a set of key words to identify particular vowels, Ellis goes back to the Old English basis as his starting point, and shows the way in which each OE sound has developed in the various dialects. This accounts for the way in which some sounds have developed differently in the modern forms. As an example, some dialects of the north west and north west midlands of England have, as a reflex of OE /Å«/, the phoneme /ai/, so that house is pronounced /(h)ais/, and mouse /mais/. So what happens to OE /Ä«/, which gives standard modern English /aɪ/? It becomes /É›i/, so that mouse and mice are still distinguished. Wells does not mention this, but then he is talking about accents, not dialects. This raises the question, which I shall not attempt to address here: where is the boundary between an accent and a dialect?

Ellis was not only concerned with vowels, as is shown by the th > f example. He also recognized /tl/ for /kl/ in many dialects, and the rhotacization of /t/ in some contexts and in some dialects. John Maidment wrote about this here and the comments to his post show that /t/ to /r/ is quite widespread. Ellis expressed no surprise at any of these features, and was at pains to point out several times in the work that it was a linguist’s job to describe what he heard, not to pass judgment on the correctness or otherwise of his informants’ speech. Perhaps he has been neglected because, writing before the development of the IPA, he used a phonetic script called palaeotype, which is not always easy to interpret nowadays.


  1. To monitor change in the language, you have to have similar data at different time-points, and that requires similar methods. Is it known whether AJ Ellis was describing the speech of the majority of residents in each district under investigation, or was he just looking for the oldest form of speech in each district (as the Survey of English Dialects did)?

    I have found the phonetics of Ellis very hard to interpret. To give an example, I cannot understand what he was indicating in his comparison of Wakefield and Dewsbury speech on page 403 of part V.

  2. P.S. On the subject of consonants, I think that it’s interesting to compare rhoticity in AJ Ellis and Joseph Wright. Ellis indicated rhoticity for a very large area of the country. He described most of Yorkshire as rhotic, but it was found to be mostly non-rhotic in the SED. In contrast, the only areas of England marked as rhotic in Wright were the West Country and the far north, whereas the SED found rhoticity in Lancashire and in parts of the south-east.

  3. Ed –
    Ellis gives the age of his informants where known, and there is quite a range of birth dates given. He also tells us whether the informants are native or ‘incomers’, and how long they have been either resident in the relevant dialect area or away from it, and also whether they are ‘native’ speakers of the dialect they are describing, or simply observers (many of them are clerical gentlemen, who can be assumed to have ‘smartened up’ their speech even if they are native). I agree that it is often difficult to interpret the palaeotype transcriptions. Is there scope here for someone to do a new edition, using IPA instead of palaeotype? A PhD project, for instance? Has it already been done? If so, where?

    My understanding of the comparison of Wakefield and Dewsbury is that the two dialects treat Old English ‘long u’ (Å«) “and its congeners” (Ellis’ phrase) very differently. In IPA terms, I think they are, for the words down, town, house, grand, time, no:
    Wakefield: [daːn, taːn, aːs, graːnd, taˑɪm, noː]
    Dewsbury: [deːən, teːən, eːəs, greːənd, toːəm, nuːə]

  4. Dear Graham,

    Thank you with the help! That is a brave effort at decoding the Dewsbury transcriptions. The Wakefield ones are familiar West Riding pronunciations. The Dewsbury pronunciations probably died out a very long time ago.

    I know that Warren Maguire has done some good work on translating Ellis’s palaeotype into IPA. See at this link: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/EllisAtlas/Transcription.html

  5. Ed – Thanks for the link. That’s really useful.

  6. Graham, as well as your mention that that the nearest modern equivalent to Ellis is John Wells’ “Accents of English”, I think it’s worth reminding your readers of Joe Wright’s “English Dialect Grammar” of 1905 which, like Wells’s “Accents”, ran to about 700 pages. It gave a far more reliable and well organised account of its topic than Ellis’s pioneering but chaotic very largely secondhand stuff in his EEP Volume 5. What we could do with is a re-issue of the Wells with a one-place more exhaustive index to JCW’s great achievement.

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