The English Dialect Dictionary : The Poppies in the Cornfield

Ann Thompson

University of Leeds, United Kingdom


Joseph Wright collected more than a million submissions from individual contributors in order to record dialect usage in England as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. The result was The English Dialect Dictionary (EDD), published between 1898 and 1905, a work of outstanding scholarship which he organised, edited, produced and marketed himself.

He was acutely aware of social changes that he thought would mean the demise of English dialects and decided, as far as possible, to engage the users of dialect themselves in its preservation and recording before it was too late. The story of the making of The English Dialect Dictionary is one of individuals who submitted single dialect words on slips of paper in response to a national appeal for contributions, and whose combined efforts resulted in a unique dictionary.

The language recorded is not Standard English but, rather, the language of the lower classes, reflected in examples of vernacular speech and supported by written evidence. One contemporary reviewer encapsulated the difference inherent in Wright’s dictionary, saying that “if the regular dictionaries reap the corn of speech, this gathers in the poppies and wild flowers”.

Wright’s methodology, and his organisation of the mass of material submitted to him, was central to the success of the work. This research focuses on one particular entry in The English Dialect Dictionary and examines how the methods, used by Wright to collect, verify and present the raw material on the slips, shaped the interaction of the communities and culture represented by the dialect words themselves.

By examining the EDD entry for ‘Lake’/’Laik’/‘Layke’, for which many of the original submission slips still exist, it is possible to evaluate the accuracy of the language record and the value of the methodology employed in the collected volumes of the EDD. The ‘micro’ that is extant illuminates the entire ‘macro’ achievement of the dictionary and its place in the continuum of dialectology, using the past to inform the present. This is further enhanced by the facets of social structure which can be deduced from other original incidental material of the time, such as newspaper reviews and letters from Wright himself.

The research investigated this hitherto unconsidered material in an in-depth assessment of the effect of The English Dialect Dictionary on the history of synchronic dialect study, and its continuing study on a national basis a hundred years on.

Session: POSTERS: Focus on variation, migration, minority languages
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 12:45-15:45
room: foyer