linguistics and lexicography Love English

Being an archaeodialectologist

© DigitalStock / CorbisWe are pleased to welcome back to the blog David Crystal, the renowned linguist, writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster. Professor Crystal’s new book The Disappearing Dictionary is published on 21st May by Pan Macmillan.


In the days when I edited The Cambridge Encylopedia, this is how my archaeology contributor defined his subject: ‘the study of past peoples and societies through the systematic analysis of their material remains’. On that basis, I offer a definition of a new subject, archaeodialectology: ‘the study of past dialects through the systematic analysis of their material remains’.

What material remains could there be? Dialects, like accents, are spoken things, rarely written down. We see dialect words and grammar in the occasional novel or poem with local colour, such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or the novels of Dickens or Scott. They surface in transcripts of regional court records, and scraps of informal correspondence. But letter-writers, almost by definition, are educated beings who are likely to use the standard language. The further back in time we go, we encounter the stubborn fact that most speakers of a regional dialect wouldn’t have been able to read or write.

So the only hope is to find enthusiasts who bothered to collect the dialect words of their time. And from the 19th century the greatest was Joseph Wright (1855–1930), whose amazing six-volume English Dialect Dictionary was published between 1898 and 1905. It took him 23 years to collect all the material. It contains around 117,500 senses of words. Examples of usage are taken from some 3000 dialect sources, supplemented by contributions from over 600 voluntary readers and correspondents, all of whom of course had to be contacted by letter. The information, as it came in, was handwritten onto slips. By the time Wright had completed his first volume, he had already accumulated 1.5 million slips.

But the story of the compilation pales behind the story of the compiler. When Wright was six, he got a job driving a donkey cart, carrying tools belonging to the stoneworkers in Shipley, Yorkshire. A year later he was taken on in the spinning department at a new cotton mill in nearby Saltaire. He left when he was 13 and worked at a mill in Shipley for seven years. It was here, during his dinner hour, that he taught himself to read and write, using just two books: the Bible and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. His education progressed with a weekly purchase of Cassell’s Popular Educator magazine, which became, as he put it, his ‘constant companion’. Two or three evenings each week he went to a local night school, where he began to learn French and German. By the time he was 20, he had taught himself Latin and learned shorthand.

Through his mill work, along with some income from running a small night school of his own, he saved £40—enough to pay for a term at a university. He chose Heidelberg in Germany, and later began to study philology there, eventually gaining a doctorate. He joined the university in Oxford in 1888, and produced a string of publications, culminating in his Dictionary masterwork, which he financed himself. In later life he had to get used to eye-catching newspaper headlines—such as ‘From Donkey-boy to Professor’—whenever he carried out a public engagement. Certainly, there is no other linguistic story quite as dramatic as the one in which an illiterate mill-worker becomes a professor of comparative philology at Oxford.

So I find it dispiriting that his dictionary, and the story behind it, has been forgotten by all but a few specialists—which is why I compiled The Disappearing Dictionary. It is a conscious attempt to celebrate Wright’s great achievement, in a way that suggests it remains of interest today. I’ve selected only a small number of words and senses from the large work, to make a manageable book for a general readership, but my 500 entries contain, to my mind, some beautiful examples of lost words from around the counties of Britain: awvish, betwittered, clabber, darricky, ernful, frowsty… What could they mean? And are they really lost? A secondary aim of my book was to present these words to readers, and ask them if they know of any that are still alive.

Dialect surveys are—or should be—a routine feature of contemporary life. That is why I found it really disturbing to read this Guardian headline recently: ‘Cash crisis threatens dictionary of US regional English’. Funding for the team running DARE, as it’s known (the Dictionary of American Regional English) is going to dry up this summer, unless something dramatic happens. Dialect surveys are not that expensive, by contemporary standards. DARE’s annual budget is $525,000—a tiny drop in the ocean compared, say, with the billion-dollar daily income from OPEC oil revenues. But in economically hard-pressed times, even small budgets can be under threat.

I hope a way will be found to safeguard the project. It’s been going since 1962, and by 2012 had completed a major milestone, a 60,000-word dictionary. It is a unique window into the linguistic past of the USA. People are fascinated by its findings—the old words that their grandparents used that are now no longer in use. And when these people become grandparents, their present-day words will be just as fascinating to their grandchildren. Except that, if nobody collects them, they will never be known. When dialect words die, if they have never been recorded, it is as if they have never been.


If you’ve spotted a word in The Disappearing Dictionary that’s still in use in your local area, you can register it at Follow @panmacmillan on Twitter for more information about this project.

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David Crystal

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