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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Change And Continuity In Dialect Study

by Rob Penhallurick 5th November 2019

It is normal to get nervous before a public performance, but Rob Penhallurick has discovered that he becomes close to catatonic, especially when he is giving a talk in the home of linguistic geography.


‘Will I have you back tomorrow, once it’s over?’ said my partner.

It is normal to get nervous before a public performance, but it has been suggested by my nearest and dearest that I become close to catatonic. It is true that all else dissolves into inconsequence in the run-up to the event. It happened in May 2018, at the Hay Festival, where I was giving a talk called ‘Why Dialect Fascinates Us’ based on my book Studying Dialect. A couple of days before, I had taken a peek at the venue and was told it was the number two venue on the whole site, number one having been assigned to Salman Rushdie for that time slot. I immediately entered Trance-ylvania and stayed there until the moment I stepped up to the lectern.

A year later, it was happening again, in Marburg, Germany, and in anticipation of an audience of around twenty people, not the one thousand who had filled the marquee in Hay. Nevertheless, I was in a daze again, to the frustration of my partner. Marburg is a lovely medieval town, an ideal place to enjoy a romantic al fresco meal on a summer’s evening. But for me, giving a talk at the Deutscher Sprachatlas Research Centre of the Philipps University of Marburg was a big deal.
photo Rob Penhallurick and Simon Kasper
Rob Penhallurick with Simon Kasper of the Deutscher Sprachatlas. Image credit: Ute Keller-Jenkins
This was where linguistic geography began as long ago as the 1870s. I had first heard the name Georg Wenker when I was an undergraduate student, also a long time ago. Having developed an interest in the regional distribution of German dialects while working on his doctorate, Wenker started collecting data in 1876 for the project that would become the Sprachatlas des Deutschen Reichs (‘Linguistic Atlas of the German Empire’), his life’s work, which is now in the care of the Deutscher Sprachatlas. By postal questionnaire sent to over 40,000 locations, Wenker collected huge amounts of linguistic data and launched Marburg as a main centre for German dialect study. He developed systematic methods, objectives and analyses that would significantly influence twentieth-century geolinguistic research on varieties of English in Britain and North America.

In the twenty-first century, the Deutscher Sprachatlas has built on Wenker’s achievements by digitizing his materials and those of many other works of German dialect geography, enabling comparisons to be made between present-day and historical data, thereby continuing to advance our understanding of the relationship between the spatial diversity of language and linguistic change over time. Read more about the project and use its resources here. It is an inspirational undertaking which shows what can be accomplished through long-term investment in and support for research by dedicated scholars. It is in stark contrast with the instant-gratification REF-dominated culture that grips British universities.

I evaluate and celebrate such foundational work in Studying Dialect. Although the book is a thematic history of the study of English dialects, Wenker’s German inquiries feature because of their influence on dialect study as a whole. There are many similarly impressive figures in the English-language field too -- scholars who devoted decades of their lives to establishing the basis of our modern knowledge about the diversity and history of the language, such as Alexander J. Ellis, Joseph Wright, and William Labov. Ellis’s pioneering investigations into English dialectal pronunciation and dialect regions occupied him for forty years before their final publication in 1889. For an introduction and reproductions of his maps, browse here. Joseph Wright organized the funding as well as the editing of the six volumes and 4,700 pages of the monumental English Dialect Dictionary (1889–1905): ‘The complete vocabulary of all dialect words still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years.’

In 2015, one of Wright’s successors, David Crystal, published a best-selling selection from the EDD called The Disappearing Dictionary. William Labov transformed dialect study in the 1960s by fashioning the sociolinguistic approach, emphasizing connections between regional diversity and social and stylistic variation. This was a revolution in dialect study, but Labov’s improvements were also grounded in the observations and ideas of his predecessors, and, like Wenker, Labov’s research is a lifelong investigation of change and diversity in language. Dialect study has a long history, marked by perpetual innovation within an unbroken narrative. This theme of ‘Change and Continuity in Dialect Study’ was also the title of my talk in Marburg. It is a theme which runs through Studying Dialect, where you can read full guides to these scholars and many more.

The story of dialect study from the sixteenth century to the present day is populated by committed scholars whose life’s work made a fundamental contribution to our knowledge and conception of the English language. It is work which requires extravagant quantities of diligence, meticulousness, perspicacity, as well as focus, time and -- here’s my theory anyway -- a predisposition to the trance-like state.

‘You’re back in the world,’ said my partner as we sipped wine in the sunshine after the talk. ‘What a relief.’
Featured image: Photo by Stocksnap. Available at Pixabay via Pixabay license.