Good Teeth

Last week I went to a talk in Leeds as part of a series based around items in Special Collections at the Brotherton Library. Entitled ‘Dialect in the Museum‘ the talk involved Dr Fiona Douglas from The University of Leeds English Department telling us firstly about the scope of the libraries Archive of Vernacular Culture and secondly talking about a project with her students to embed materials related to the Yorkshire dialect in 3 museums around Yorkshire. Shibden Hall, Rydale Folk Museum and the Dales Countryside Museum all house material objects from rural Yorkshire that tell the story of a way of life that has become partially obsolete. The project aims to preserve language contemporary to the objects alongside them.

A large part of the Archive of Vernacular Culture pertains to the Survey of English Dialects. This was a nationwide survey of the vernacular speech of England, undertaken by researchers based at the University of Leeds from 1950 to 1961. I was interested to hear that the first interviews undertaken as part of the survey were not audio recorded (as recording equipment would have been cumbersome and impractical at that time) but written down in the international phonetic alphabet. Researchers would also draw pictures in their notes if they did not have a word for the item being described. I think there’s a kernel of something interesting here (a possible art project?!) as regards to the relationship between objects, words and pictures.

My favourite fact from the talk was that, when selecting subjects for the survey, the ideal candidate was an older man with good teeth. Apparently men typically adapt their manner of speaking less readily to the influences around them than women. Older men would take the researchers as far back as possible in terms of past dialects and, well, the good teeth part is obvious. Gaps and gums would not influence their pronunciation.