Last Thursday’s Guardian had a “from the archive” item republishing its 1975 obituary of Harold Orton, creator of the Leeds Survey of English Dialects. (To read it, follow the link.)
I never actually met Orton. At the ICPhS held in Leeds in 1975 he was due to chair a session at which I was to be the speaker, so that I would certainly then have made his acquaintance. But he died a few months before the conference.
In Orton’s heroic method of collecting dialectological data, the informants were all locally born, almost always over 60, and mostly working-class men from small villages. The data was collected from over three hundred different locations by fieldworkers operating on the spot, recording the answers to a 1300-item questionnaire in handwritten IPA and in some cases on bulky gramophone discs.
By the mid-70s the sociolinguists, inspired by Labov and Trudgill, were already demonstrating more modern models of dialectology data collection, better but also arguably more limited (certainly more limited in geographical coverage).
As the sociolinguists rightly asked of SED-style surveys, what about the under-60s? What about speakers who were not manual labourers? What about the bulk of the population, who live not in villages but in towns and cities? And most importantly, what about women?
Nevertheless, despite its limitations, Orton’s survey remains a magnificent monument to English dialectology.