How is Dialectology studied?

Linguists studying Varieties of English use many different techniques to describe, collect, analyse, and display their findings. Below are some of these techniques, and some examples of linguists who use them.


Describing How Speakers Use Different Varieties of English:

Lexical Sets

Many studies that document language variation do so through the use of lexical sets, first created by John Wells. These 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. (See our section on The North South Divide for more.)

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

How Linguists Collect Dialect Data:

Non-specialists generally judge language varieties based on their perception of ‘correctness’. Upon hearing a variety, people form opinions about the locality of a place and about what people who come from particular areas may be like. These perceptions often stem from media influence, or socio-economic factors, and some varieties may 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 so we can then distinguish between linguistic and non-linguistic views. To do this, linguists often use guise techniques:

Verbal Guise Tests:

Verbal Guise Tests involve informants listening to a series of speakers reading the same piece of prose. They then assess each speaker on factors like intelligence, reliability, correctness, and kindness.

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

He found that English and Scottish informants were successful at placing speakers regionally on a map, however if they placed an accent incorrectly, they would rate 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 rated them differently to English and Scottish informants. 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 this verbal guise study, Trudgill came up with his Social Connotations hypothesis:

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 they may use social stereotypes to evaluate the variety, such as wealth, prestige or power.

A problem with the verbal guise technique is that there may be inconsistencies with different people’s reading styles, delivery and voice quality. These factors could influence how an informant responds.

Matched Guise Tests:

In an attempt to tackle the problems of verbal guise tests, a matched guise test records just one speaker. They read a passage multiple times, using a different accent each time and then listeners assess each accent without knowing that the speaker is the same.

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. They found that Standard American English had a 70% success rate at obtaining a house viewing with African American and Chicano English only achieving a 30% success rate. This suggests that there is obviously prejudice on the basis of accent perception.

The problem with the matched guise test is that finding one speaker with the ability to reliably use a range of accents is difficult. It is also difficult to avoid stereotyping in accent replication.

The problem with both verbal guise and matched guise techniques 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 where they think the voice is from?

Sense Relation Networks (SRN):

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 list any words that they use meaning the same thing, (right). Follow-up interviews often take place after these tasks where researchers can determine why informants feel they use certain words, if anything influences the way they speak.

SRNs allow informants to take their time doing them – informants are normally given a week to come up with responses. Informants feel ’empowered’ because there is a lot of control attributed to them, and this provides an extensive range of elicited terms for researchers who can then study the full extent of a dialect or variety.

SRNs have also been used by the BBC Voices Project to analyse speakers in a range of areas. See Development of Dialectology for further information on the BBC Voices Project.

Displaying dialects:

Interpretive Maps

Interpretive maps are used to divide areas where different variants are used. This is shown through isoglosses (from ‘iso’ meaning ‘same’, and ‘gloss’ meaning language). Isoglosses are boundary markers indicating where one variant gives way to another. Where different isoglosses overlap, this is likely to represent a major dialect boundary, which can sometimes be explained by geographical features.

Interpretive maps can also show lexical variation. Our recreated map (right) shows the distribution of different words to describe names for ‘running water which is smaller than a river’. Variants range from ‘beck’ in North Yorkshire, to ‘brook’ in the North West and Midlands, and to ‘burn’ in the North East.

Display Maps

Instead of using isoglosses to show the general area that a feature is used, display maps show what variant is used at each location in a study. On display maps, distinctive symbols represent specific variants, and can even be chosen to show relationships between variants. Display maps are useful to show more information, but it is sometimes harder to see clear patterns in the data.


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)

[1] University of Fribourg (2013) Peter Trudgill staff page (online). Available at: <> [Accessed 23.05.2012].

[2] Librios (2013) David Crystal webpage (online). Available at: <> [Accessed on 23.05.2012].

[3] University College London (2013) John Wells staff page (online). Available at: <> [Accessed 23.05.2012].

[4] Sheffield Hallam University (2010) Chris Montgomery staff page (online). Available at: <> [Accessed 23.05.2012]

[5] University of Sheffield (2013) Joan Beal staff page (online). Available at: <> [Accessed on 23.05.2012]

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