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7 February 2011
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About Voices
The Voices Recordings
Language Lab online surveys

The Voices Recordings

What are the Voices Recordings?
The Voices Recordings are the most significant popular survey of regional English ever undertaken around the UK: 300 recorded conversations involving a total of 1,201 people talking about accent and dialect, the words they use, and their attitudes to language. Of the conversations, 250 are in English, 31 are in Scots, 10 are in Welsh, six in Scots Gaelic, three in Irish, three in Ulster Scots, and one each in Manx and Guernsey French.

Voices Recordings MapListen to highlights here

The Voices recordings do not set out to be encyclopaedic of every dialect and accent; that would require very many more interviews. There was no intention to identify certain accents as 'representative' of a particular area. The interviewers chose groups of people who between them offer some illustrations of the variety and richness of accent and dialect in their region.

How were the interviewees chosen?
The recordings were made between October 2004 and June 2005 by 50 BBC radio journalists - one from every BBC local radio station in England, and one each from Radio Scotland, Radio Wales, Radio Ulster, Radio Cymru, Radio Nan Gaidheal and the Asian Network. Manx Radio recorded conversations in the Isle of Man. Highlights from each interview can be heard on Voices Recordings.

Each interviewer decided themselves which groups to record. Decisions about who to record did take into account a desire to capture English inflected by the presence of other languages, and of English brought to this country from other parts of the world.

Where possible, all members of each group knew each other. The interviewers chose people from similar backgrounds who share the same interests and passions and are from similar geographic, social and/or ethnic groups. For instance:

groups based in particular geographical areas
workplace-based 'communities of interest'
social and leisure clubs such as rugby, football, trades union groups, hobby groups and organisations

Most meetings took place somewhere which represented 'home turf' for the group, whether upstairs at their local pub, in their living room, or at their workplace.

What happened during each recording?
In order to ensure the recorded conversations were comparable with each other, every conversation followed the same loose methodology and used the same set of 'prompts'. The overall goal was to capture relaxed, unselfconscious conversation between the group in as 'natural' an environment as possible, with minimal interference from the interviewer.

The interviewers, for the most part, only 'prodded' the conversations along, leaving these long discussions to take their unmediated course.

In advance of the meeting, each person was sent the same set of common words set out in a 'spider diagram' and asked to think in advance about what other terms they might use for each one. The list of words included some household or personal things - like toilet, or pregnant. It's in more private language that variation is more likely to come out.

In the meeting itself, the interviewer used the list as a starting point to explore where those alternative words came from, and in what circumstances they would be used. Where the group responded strongly to a particular word, the discussion was guided into telling particular stories and experiences.

Interviewers also explored words and phrases specific to the group itself, by initiating conversation about the place they came from, their work, or their shared interest.

The third source of prompts was a list of questions about attitudes to language, from which the interviewer could choose. These included:

Reaction of others to the way they speak
Their reaction to other accents
The language of their parents and/or children
The role of education in the way they speak
Influence of the media/popular culture
The rise in swearing and bad language

How are the Voices Recordings used?
Highlights from the interviews can be heard here - where you can take an online 'audio tour' around the UK.

In August 2005, the Voices Recordings were used for BBC programmes on every BBC Local radio station, Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, Radio Scotland, Radio Nan Gaidheal, Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle.

Word 4 WordWord 4 Word, a six-part series on Radio 4, explored the recordings from across the country. Listen again to the series.

Cover of the book Talking for BritainA book, Talking for Britain: A Journey Through the Nation's Dialects by Simon Elmes (Penguin), is based on the Voices Recordings and explores the varying voices of the UK.

Where are the full length recordings?
The Voices recordings are being deposited in the National Sound Archive of the British Library, for public access for reference and research.

English-language recordings are also deposited with the University of Leeds for ongoing research and analysis and access by other academic researchers.

The relevant recordings in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are being deposited with The Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan's, The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and with Glasgow University.

The methodology for the Voices Recordings was developed with the advice of Dr Clive Upton of the School of English at the University of Leeds. It draws from the Survey of Regional English (SuRE). The Spider Diagram used in interviews is based on the 'Sense Relation Network' sheets which represent a new approach to sociolinguistic fieldwork developed by Dr Carmen Llamas (Aberdeen University) as a student of Dr Upton and of Professor John Widdowson (Sheffield University).

The last large-scale academic fieldwork on accent and dialect was the Survey of English Dialects, carried out by Leeds University between 1950 and 1961, which took place in England, and in English. At about the same time, the dialects were investigated in Scotland by the Linguistic Survey of Scotland, based in Edinburgh, and a little later the same was done for Wales, from Swansea, by the Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects.

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