Heritage and Dialect Project – Being Human

The Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket and the University of Leeds are seeking volunteers to help with an exciting new project to record Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex dialects.

Do you mash, soak or brew your tea? Have you ever seen a billywitch, bishy barnabee, harnser, hodmedod or tiddlywink?  The In your words: Dialect and Heritage Project, supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, will involve volunteers in updating the University of Leeds’s ground-breaking Survey of English Dialects.

The Museum of East Anglian Life is a key partner in the project and is working with the University to open up its extensive archives and to collect dialect from people across East Anglia and beyond. 

A special event to introduce the project will be held at the museum on Saturday 20 November 1 – 4pm.  The event will be part of Being Human 2021, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, and will include talks, displays and activities, as well as the opportunity to contribute to dialect research and delve into the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture collection.

The museum is also seeking volunteers to help with the project. There are various roles available, from helping at events to collecting and transcribing oral histories. 

Researchers are also looking for descendants of the people who took part in the original Survey of English Dialects, which ran from 1946-1978. “If you, your parents, grandparents or other relatives have a connection to these historical dialect studies, the project would like to hear from you,” said Dr Fiona Douglas, from Leeds’ School of English, who is leading the project. 

Laura Kloss, the project’s engagement officer based at the Museum of East Anglian Life said: “This unique project follows in the footsteps of the University of Leeds team who carried out the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s, this time with the help of volunteers.”

The post-war survey took ‘dialect fieldworkers’ to over 300 mainly rural locations across the country, including many villages in East Anglia, such as Kersey,  Mendlesham, and Yoxford in Suffolk, Little Bergholt, West Mersea and High Easter in Essex and Reedham, Blickling, and Ludham in Norfolk (the full list of villages are listed below). The aim was to document different words, pronunciations and grammatical forms used by people all over the country. Participants were asked questions from the Survey of English Dialects Questionnaire, which contained over 1300 questions. Responses were written down in the fieldworkers’ notebooks using the International Phonetic Alphabet.  Later, some interviews were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes.

Laura continued: “The original fieldworkers told tales of lugging around large clunky audio recorders on the back of motorbikes and sometimes hooking them up to car batteries, because of the lack of mains electricity in some of the villages and farms they visited. Thankfully, times have changed and volunteers who get involved with the new project are likely to find things much easier. We won’t be repeating all the same 1300+ questions from the original survey!

“Even though the technology for capturing people’s spoken words has moved on, we will still have the ethos of talking to people, listening to their dialect and taking an interest in their stories. We want to find out what words and phrases are still in use and how they vary from place to place. The answers will help us build a picture of England’s ‘language landscape’ and the responses will be analysed by researchers at the University of Leeds.”

The project will collect dialect through surveys, oral histories and reminiscence activities. The Museum of East Anglian Life is looking for volunteers to carry out these activities alongside the project team, with training provided. The Museum is particularly looking for volunteers who enjoy chatting with other people and who would be happy to attend country shows and other community events over the next 15 months. There are also opportunities for people to get involved with some of the ‘behind the scenes’ work including data entry and transcribing oral histories and interviews.

People who are interested in getting involved can contact Laura Kloss at The Museum of East Anglian Life by email at [email protected]

A new website is due to be launched for the project in the autumn and there will be opportunities for the general public to contribute their own words and dialect via the website and by attending advertised events and roadshows during 2021 and 2022.

Jenny Cousins, Museum of East Anglian Life’s Director commented ‘This is a project which will captivate anyone who gets involved – most of us love to compare the words we have for everyday things with other people’s. It will be fascinating to see what’s changed since the 1950s and what special words we’ve held onto and still use today.’

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