The Long Interview – Dr Rob Penhallurick on his new book, Studying Dialect (Palgrave, 2018)

Dr Rob Penhallurick, Reader at Swansea University

Dr Rob Penhallurick has been teaching at Swansea University for over twenty years and is a specialist in dialectology. His teaching focuses primarily on his research interests in Welsh English and the history and dialects of English more generally. He teaches the first-year module ‘Studying the English Language’, the module ‘Studying Dialect’ in year two, and the final year module ‘Prehistory, History and Language’, as well as supervising undergraduate dissertations and PhD research.

His new book Studying Dialect (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) is a textbook which serves as a history of the fascinating research into dialects and varieties of English. In May, Rob spoke to a sold out audience at the prestigious Hay Festival  (a long running annual literature and arts festival held in Hay-on-Wye) on ‘Why Dialect Fascinates Us: A Guide to What We Know About Varieties of English’.


I got the opportunity to speak to Rob at his book launch earlier in May which took place in the new Taliesin Create space which is on Swansea University’s Singleton Campus.

AB: What is the book about and how did you come to write it?

RP: Well, it’s a kind of unofficial sequel to the first textbook that I wrote called Studying the English Language (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; 2010). It’s about dialect but more than that it’s about how and why people have studied dialect — English dialect — down the centuries. So, it looks at dialect itself but more than that it looks at the reasons why we study dialect, and the methods which people have used to study it.

New Publication for 2018

AB: I can see that there are themes clearly signposted for the reader (lexicography, cartography, geolinguistics, for instance). What was the rationale for those choices, or what was your vision for the book?

RP: Yes, that’s right. There are various themes in the book. It is broadly a chronological narrative as well but it took a lot of work to get it into that shape! Obviously, whenever you write a book you have an idea of what it is going to be like at the start, and then it changes a lot as you discover all the things that you didn’t know about when you start a project like this, which is the joy of research. Really, the aim in the end was to have ten chapters that told the story — a straightforward, historical narrative — but I also wanted those chapters to be not just ‘this happened inthis century and then that century,’ I wanted them to be thematic, and so build a picture of the field as a whole.

AB: Broadly speaking, how do you map out this journey of dialect studies in your book?

RP: Well, I start with lexicography, discussing pioneers in this area; that is, the development of dialect dictionaries. Then I cover aspects that move on from this. So, for example, as you go down the centuries, you get the development of linguistic atlases (cartography), which leads to a new form of language study: philology. This stimulated a new discipline called dialectology and eventually moved towards socio-linguistics and finally towards modern-day geo-linguistics, which is where the book ends. All of these  occur in a kind of chronological order, which is reflected in my book.

AB: A lot of these have crossover, don’t they? How do you separate them out?

RP: Yes, you’re right. It’s difficult to separate them out as a times you can see that there is a continuity of scholarly purpose and interest, while at other times there are a lot of differences, as well as a lot of different reasons why scholars become interested in this type of study. I try to uncover and discuss these throughout the book.

AB: Could you tell me a little bit about the section on lexicography and what that is?

RP: So, the first couple of chapters are about lexicography —  that is the making of dictionaries and glossaries. A lot of the early work on English dialect was done in the form of dictionaries, or shorter versions of dictionaries (glossaries or ‘word lists’). In fact, a lot of the people involved in what we now call dialect lexicography were actually pioneers in the art of lexicography itself: that is, in the recording of the English language in the first place.

AB: Who are these pioneers?

RP: Well, the first dialect dictionary, which aimed to cover all of the nation — that is England at the time — was John Ray, and it was called A Collection of Words Not Generally Used.

AB: So, when did he write this?

RP: He wrote it in 1674, so it’s not quite the first English dictionary ever — that goes back to the start of the seventeenth century — and there had been some attempts at smaller projects but John Ray was the first person to try to identify the regional element in the English language.

AB: That’s not so unusual today, is it?

RP: No, it’s the kind of thing that seems pretty run-of-the-mill today but at the time nobody had any clear sense of which words were limited geographically (which words were special to particular regions or localities) and which words were generally used over the whole country.

AB: I imagine that was difficult doing research in 1674!

RP: Very difficult. Nobody really knew which words were in general usage, and there was no easy way to find out because there was no modern communication: no roads, no railway and hardly a postal system in the way we would recognise it today.

Rob at Hay Festival 2018, courtesy of RIAH Swansea University (photo credit: Matthew Hughes)

AB: Very different to today where we have such a range of research tools!

RP: Indeed. That said, one of the things that enabled John Ray to do his dictionary was that there was a kind of a rudimentary postal system and he had correspondence from places scattered around the country. He apparently travelled quite a lot.

AB: What were his reasons for doing this, then?

RP: Firstly, his purpose was to identify the local in a very broad way in the English language in England at the time. Secondly, he was interested in the history of the language, and throughout the early work there’s this idea that local dialects preserved older forms rather than the more metropolitan speech. Thirdly, he wanted to help people from the south understand northerners because he was writing from a southern perspective. So, he wanted to identify words which were specific either to the north or the south. That’s the basic division that he made.

AB: Why just the North and South of England?

RP: [Smiles] Yes. Just northern words, southern words. There’s this tradition, believe it or not, amongst southerners that northerners speak weirdly…. The other thing to note, from the point of view of the history of English, is that he is one of the first people to distinguish between what we now call ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ vocabulary. So that’s one reason why people, in the early years, including Ray, were studying dialect — especially vocabulary: it was to distinguish between local and general, standard and non-standard; looking into the history of the language.

AB: So, he wasn’t interested in general vocabulary?

RP: No, in his preface he says that he’s not interested in the general words because plenty of other people were listing those, although nobody could be completely sure of that at the time that they were listing general words because how would you know? Unless you knew from other parts of the country, and how would you collect the data?

AB: Which is in stark contrast, I suppose, to Samuel Johnson who decided not to use any dialect words because, actually, he thought they would change rapidly So weren’t worth recording…

RP: Yes, Johnson was interested in stability, and trying to fix the language to make it stable. John Ray had a different motive, of course, and in fact he was kind of a collector of stuff (including words).

AB: What about the chapters on cartography, could you tell me about those?

RP: Well, even though there are social and other kinds of dialects, the book is centred on regional dialect. The basic fact is that language varies geographically, and an obvious thing for scholars to want to do is then to present that variation on maps. So, the chapters look at the development of these maps, what impact they had on, or place they occupy in, the discipline.

AB: When were linguistic maps first created, then?

RP: The first major linguistic atlases were developed in Germany and France and Italy at the end of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, the first was a German one created by George Venker, who collected so much material that he wasn’t able to process it during his lifetime – it’s still being used over one hundred and twenty years later!

AB: What does compiling a linguistic atlas involve?

Rob at Hay Festival 2018, courtesy of RIAH Swansea University (photo credit: Matthew Hughes)

RP: A lot of data!  It also involves, then, developing methods for showing that data on maps. Of course, there’s a whole series of conversations on the different ways that you can do that. These conversations then inspired work in America on English: a project called the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada, which has been going on through a series of smaller scale atlases for the last hundred years. Similar work also started being done in Britain – national projects in England, Scotland, Wales. In fact, the Welsh linguist who carried out this research for Welsh English dialect dictionary was from the English department at Swansea – David Parry.

AB: What were the aims of the cartographers, then?

 RP: Well, the main interest of a lot of those projects was distilling the history of the language, and in developing theories of how language, and specific language, changed over time. So, again, it’s the relationship between language variation and linguistic change, which leads to developing those sets of theories – another main purpose for studying dialect: the fact that it varies socially and regionally will often lead to the language changing as forms spread from one community to another community. So, there’s been a lot of interest in working out the theories that explain the internal changes within the language and the external reasons for the changes within society. In the mid-twentieth century you get the arrival of socio-linguistics which gives a new dimension to this study; not so much concerned with regional differences but more concerned with correlations between language variations and social class, age, gender, ethnicity — the work of Labov was the main pioneer of that. Still, there is continuity in that Labov himself was interested in linguistic change and eventually in mapping American dialect. So, the whole idea really is to go through (in the book) these stages but what I was discovering as I was going along was that there was a continuity (in interest), and the fact that even the newer scholars that were critical of the earlier work were at the same time using that material and building on that.

AB: It sounds like it’s a lifetime’s work! These things are not quick-fire studies are they?

RP: No. I wanted to emphasise and celebrate that – the reason we have this data is in the actual story of the study of dialect: it was full of scholars that devote their life’s work to it. It’s not short term.

AB: I imagine, in one sense, that the nature of a discipline like this is that when you’re talking about variation, it’s time that matters… 

RP: Well, yes, but we are now in a position, with such a wealth of data, including a lot of material that’s freely available for students to use; that is, they can do little projects using the existing data, or comparing their own data with that. It’s very different, let’s say, to John Ray, or the early people doing studies of English or other languages. At that time, collecting the data took ages, and processing took a long time; you can collect material very quickly now and there’s kind of a reservoir of existing data. The whole of Dialect Study, it’s data heavy – it’s part of descriptive linguistics but it’s been rejuvenated by the I.T. revolution.

AB: Absolutely! Although, I notice that there isn’t a specific chapter dedicated to technology, per se, why not?  

RP: Yes, that’s deliberate. There’s no specific chapter on technology and dialect study but it’s mentioned all the way through, which I quite like. As you read, you can piece it together; moving from  the advent of the postal system, or railways or even motorways, all of which affect communication and travel. Then there’s universal education, which can affect language change, down to the advent of audio recording, which made it easier for scholars to collect their material. Indeed, you go from unfeasible tape recorders, which were carried around by car, to mobile phones where you can collect your data with ease!

AB: Is there a negative side to this improvement in IT?

RP: Well, I wouldn’t put it like that exactly, but the combination of effect is that technological change produces anxiety, in that people and scholars feel that they’ve got to record stuff before it’s affected by change too much. Overall, it’s good in that it stimulates this kind of work, and technological change has also facilitated capturing that material by making it more possible for scholars to collect their material, analyse it, publish it more easily. Like the English atlases: it’s much more feasible to publish maps, in full colour, online now and much more inexpensively then it was for the first atlases. It’s all part of the way that the discipline has developed and responded to technology.

Rob at Hay Festival 2018, courtesy of RIAH Swansea University (photo credit: Matthew Hughes)

AB: Did your research uncover aspects unknown to you? Did anything surprise you?  

RP: Yes, there were a lot of things that I knew about but not in detail, and that I wanted to explore. Then there were things that came up either during the process or as a result the reader’s report from the first draft — people pointing out things that I hadn’t covered — that I didn’t know about that I had to go and find out about.

AB: Such as?

RP: So, I had heard of the fact that one of the early dialectologists in the nineteenth-century, was someone called HRH Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte. He was a member of the Bonaparte family. I knew of him, and knew he was maybe the person who’d first drawn a map of English dialect regions. So I was interested in finding out about him. He sounded like an interesting character. A lot of the work done in the nineteenth-century was basically done by gentlemen scholars. So that involved just looking up material, or digging around in libraries, which researchers like myself love!

AB: What did you enjoy about doing that kind of research?

RP: Getting to see some of the original texts. With Bonaparte, for example,  it’s quite difficult  to find the original version of his map. There was a little pamphlet in Bodlian, which was a proof version of his map, but it didn’t have all of the lines drawn on it that had to be added at a later stage. So I didn’t actually locate an original version then but there was a version of it in the Transactions for the Philological Society, 1875-76, which is in Swansea Library; they’ve got a complete set of the transaction. It’s just a little map with red lines on it and an article that goes with it that explains his method. I love discovering lots of quirky things that you tend to remember!  If I come across interesting facts about these scholars, then I like to put them in the book because I know people will remember them then, even if they’re not directly relevant, it’s what keeps people reading.

AB: Who is the book aimed at, or who would like this book?

RP: What the publishers wanted was a book that was aimed at final-year students and MA students.  But I do think it could be for people who know a bit about linguistics but haven’t studied this area.  So, for example, there’s no detailed phonetics in it and every technical term is explained on the spot — so, there’s no need to cross-reference.

AB: What’s the writing process like? How much contact and input did the publishers and readers have?

RP: The publishers have been very helpful and very patient, and there were the readers who read the typescripts – I listen to them and adjust things accordingly where appropriate. I think that the  biggest thing that helped me was having done the first textbook which was a process of learning the craft of writing clearly, and then there are certain principles that I have in mind. For instance, I knew this textbook was going to be a bit different because it was going to involve a lot of detail and a certain type of interest in language, so I did kind of imagine myself as if I were a nineteenth-century gentleman scholar, asking myself: what would I want to learn? So, I thought I’m not going to be afraid of detail in this book. The aim, in addition to that, was to tell a clear story —  it builds — but at each stage you know what’s happening.  I was better able to do that as a result of the earlier book but also because of the feedback you get from the specialist readers which tells you whether it’s working or not. But you’re never really that sure until other people read it.

AB: So what’s your next project? 

RP: [Laughs] The next big project is another book on dialect. This time aimed at beginners and the general reader for Cambridge University Press. The book that’s just been done is about the people who study dialect, the next one is going to be about dialect itself. So, it’s much more about the language but trying to get to the heart of why it interests us, why are we…

AB: Are obsessed [laughs] with language?

RP: Obsessed! Yes. There are a lot of news stories either about dialect or that use dialect as a metaphor for explaining other things like the way that animals communicate. And there’s something about … obviously it’s about comm

Rob at Hay Festival 2018, courtesy of RIAH Swansea University (photo credit: Matthew Hughes)

unal identity and the differences that people notice in other communities, and other identities. For example, the idea that if you’re from Townhill in Swansea or Glasgow, you are in theory speaking the same language, you have a common identity but it’s completely different as well. So that’s a kind of … I think that’s a strange idea about language . . . it’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time and it’s …

AB: Uncanny….?

RP: I wasn’t going to use that word but yes, and it’s at the heart of what we feel about our language; that it gives us an identity – a distinctive identity. It makes us the same as people and different from other people and that can make us anxious, fearful or more at home. Whether we’re looking at our own voice or other people’s voices, you see the differences and you see the similarities so, yes, the idea is to try to talk about dialect in a different way. Not really as a course book or textbook but as a series of explorations of why it matters to people.