How is Varieties of English studied?

Hopefully by now you have a pretty good idea about what Varieties of English is, why people study it and who actually studies it, but you may be wondering how on earth do people begin to study Varieties of English?

Varieties of English is studied in many different ways

Dialect Maps

Dialect maps are used to divide areas where different variants are used. This is shown through isoglosses. The term isogloss comes from 'iso' meaning same and 'gloss' meaning language. Isoglosses are boundary markers indicating where one variant gives way to another. Isoglosses for different features can overlap creating a bundle of isolglosses, likely to represent a major dialect boundary. Areas on either side of the isogloss line are presumed to be 'the same' with respect to one variable, this is always a simplification though. Patterns of isoglosses may sometimes be explained by geographical features.They can show different pronunciations for example 'car' pronounced as /car/ or /ca:/. These pronunciations are shown in one example of Sociolinguistic research: audio clips of the pronunciation of carExample Research: William Labov, New York City (see Phonetics for more on IPA). As well as this they are used to show lexical variation. In the example to the right, our recreated map shows the distribution of different words to describe names for 'running water which is smaller than a river,' such as Beck, 
Brook and Burn. 


Investigating Language Beliefs

Non-specialists generally judge language varieties based on their perception of 'correctness'. With some people having opinions such as 'there is no such thing as dialects, there is just bad English'. Upon hearing a variety, people form opinions about the locality of a place for example, economic status and crime rates, and about what people who come from particular areas may be like. These perceptions often stem from media influence. This is how some varieties become stigmatised. However, the views of non-specialists are inconsistent and there is often disagreement about which languages are 'attractive'. Linguists researching this find it's not usually the accent itself being judged, but rather the supposed characteristics of people who speak it. It is important to study language attitudes because we are then able to distinguish between linguistic and non-linguistic views.

Verbal guise techniques involve a series of speakers reading the same piece of prose. Informants listen to these speakers and then fill in a questionnaire assessing each speaker on factors such as intelligence, reliability, kindness and successfulness. Peter Trudgill carried out a test using this method for his work 'The Pleasantness of an English Accent.' He played ten UK accents to listeners from America, Canada, England and Scotland, here are the results indicating who scored best in terms of 'pleasantness'

 1. RP 2. South Wales 3. Bradford 4. Northern Ireland 5. Tyneside
 6. Gloucestershire 7. Glasgow 8. Liverpool 9. West Midlands 10. London

His findings were that English and Scottish were successful at placing speakers regionally on a map, however if they placed an accent incorrectly they then rated it upon the supposed accent rather than the real one. American and Canadian listeners were less successful placing the accents regionally within the UK and did not have the same ratings as the English and Scottish informants. So, for example, American and Canadian listeners would perhaps associate a variety with Liverpool when it was actually from London and give judgements about Liverpool speakers, rather than what they are actually hearing. From his verbal guise technique study, Trudgill came up with his Social Connotations hypothesis. This says that speakers judge language varieties on the basis of beliefs about geographical locations: when a listener is unfamiliar with an area, aesthetic responses to an accent are either inconsistent or not there. For example, a listener may believe an accent comes from London and therefore the listener may have specific opinions about the speaker because of the social attributions, for example they are wealthy or have attachments to prestige or power. 

Matched Guise Tests 

A problem with the verbal guise technique is that there are inconsistencies with different people's reading styles, delivery and voice quality. In an attempt to better the experiment, a matched guise test records just one speaker. They read a passage multiple times, using a different accent each time and then listeners undertake a task assessing each accent. They are not told that the speaker is the same in each case. A study by Purnell, Idsardi and Baugh in 1999 had one speaker phone up the same landlord requesting housing in a variety of different accents: Standard American English, African American English and Chicano English. Standard American English had a 70% success rate at obtaining a house viewing with African American and Chicano English only having a 30% success rate. This indicates that there is obviously prejudice on the basis of accent perception. The problem with this test is that finding one speaker with the ability to use a range of accents is hard and it is also difficult to avoid stereotyping in accent replication.
The problem with any listening test when investigating language beliefs is that you cannot always tell that listeners know where the voice is from. Are they judging the voice they can actually hear or what they think the voice is or where it is from?

Studying Grammatical Variation

It is not as easy to study grammatical variation as it is far less frequent than phonetic features. Particularly as speakers are more likely to be affected by the prestige of the codified Standard variety. For example, the high regard in which the accent the Queen speaks is held in, with regards to grammar rather than accent variation. Two key surveys have been undertaken however: Survey of English Dialects and the Survey of British Dialect Grammar (1986-89).

The Survey of English Dialects (SED) was published between 1962 and 1978. It was made up of mainly maps of four regions; the North, East Midlands, West Midlands and the South. In total 313 locations were surveyed. The informants where all non-mobile (to guarantee their speech was characteristic of their region), old (reflecting the speech of an older era), rural (these communities demonstrate less mobility) and male (as female speech is supposedly more class-conscious). There were questionnaires using diagrams and pictures to obtain local names and terminology, direct and indirect questioning. The SED overall provides incredibly useful data in terms of studying dialect variation. For example it aimed to collect data from all across the UK, looking at recording local dialects before (or in case) they disappear. This means that future dialect work can relate back to historical findings and still have real life examples and extracts of real speakers, even if there are no true speakers any more. 

Lexical Sets

One of the key ways of documenting language variation is through the use of lexical sets, first created by John Wells. They are 24 different pairs of contrasting words which show the difference between RP pronunciation and General American pronunciation. Two of these sets have become extremely useful as they are defining features of the Standard Southern British English accent compared to a Northern accent; STRUT and BATH. It is the pronunciations of the vowels in these words that have become the one feature most people recognise as showing a North/South distinction. (Please see our The North South divide section for more on this.)

A copy of Well's lexical sets and example words which use the same sound:

1) Kit
Ship, Kid, Limp, build
 10) Fleece
Creep, need, cheese, brief, field 
 19) Near
Beer, here, pier, fear, pierce 
 2) Dress
Step, ebb, tent, bread, friend
 11) Face
Tape, fade, waist, play, reign
 20) Square
Share, fair, bear, where, scare
 3) Trap
Tap, rag, hand, lapse, plaid
 12) Palm
Calm, ma, hurrah, Java
 21) Start
Far, sharp, carve, heart, safari 
 4) Lot
Stop, odd, box, swan, wash
 13) Thought
Cause, taunt, hawk, chalk, broad
 22) North
For, orb, form, quart, cord 
 5) Strut
Cup, bud, lump, come, touch
 14) Goat
Soap, joke, host, toe, mauve 
 23) Force
For, soar, floor, court, sword 
 6) Foot
Put, bush, good, wolf, could
 15) Goose
Loop, mood, tomb, two, fruit 
 24) Cure
Moor, your, sure, gourd, fury
 7) Bath
Staff, class, ask, fasten, laugh
 16) Price
Ripe, side, child, try, eye
 25) happY
Copy, Khaki, movie, coffee, money
 8) Cloth
off, cross, soft, cough, Austin
 17) Choice 
Boy, noise, spoil, employ, hoist
 26) lettER
Paper, sugar, standard, anchor, martyr 
 9) Nurse
hurt, birth, church, verb, word
 18) Mouth
Out, crowd, cow, round, bough
 27) commA
Quota, visa, panda, sofa, saga

Sense Relation Network (SRN)

Sense Relation Networks were devised by Carmen Llamas based upon Aitchison's (1997) 'web of words'. The SRN encourages informants to list 
all words they know for related concepts that they are provided with by giving them a blank chart with some key words printed on. Informants then have to list all the words they can think of that mean the same thing, as shown in our examples on the right. This provides an extensive range of elicited terms for researchers to study the full effect of a linguistic variation with, while focusing on dialectal forms. It has since been used by the BBC Voices Project to analyse speakers in a range of areas. See Why is Varieties of English studied? for further information on the BBC Voices Project.

The advantages of using SRNs include the fact that you can allow informants to take their time doing them, normally they are given to informants for a week so that they can come up with responses in their own time, as and when they think about them. Also very rich data can be gleaned from these tasks as informants feel 'empowered' because there is a lot of control attributed to them. Follow-up interviews often take place after these tasks where researchers can go into a lot of detail about informants opinions, such as why they feel they use certain words, if they are influenced by anything in terms of the way they speak and comment on whether they know about other lexical variants aside from the ones they are discussing. 

Above are two examples of a girl from Liverpool and a boy from Essex that we have collected as an example of how varieties is studied. They show variation in terms they use, for example our Liverpudlian informant described the verb 'to kiss' as 'pull', whilst the informant from Essex referred to the action as to 'get off.' 

You might decide you now want to visit our Example research: Dialect levelling in Milton Keynes page to see some techniques of studying Varieties of English in practice, looking at Paul Kerswill's Milton Keynes study. 


[1] Beal, J.C., (2010). An Introduction to Regional Englishes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd. (images and some key information on this page comes from this text)

Picture References 

  • Dialect map:This is our own recreation, adapted from a dialect map 'An Introduction to Regional Englishes' Joan Beal 2010 page 56.