English Dialect Dictionary Online

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) is a monumental work by any standard. Published in six volumes from 1898–1905, with detailed entries across 4505 double-columned pages, it’s all the more impressive given that its author was largely self-taught and could not read until his mid-teens. (He described himself as ‘an idle man all my life’.)

joseph wright english dialect dictionaryAfter studying philology in Germany, Wright began his pioneering work in English dialectology, aiming in the EDD to include ‘the complete vocabulary of dialect words’ in use since 1700. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says ‘nothing of comparable breadth or depth of dialect scholarship has been published in Britain since’.

The EDD is available in various formats at the Internet Archive, but those hefty PDFs can be unwieldy. The good news – great news, for word lovers – is that the book has finally been digitised and is now free and ready to use ‘by all private people, researchers, students and amateurs’. Just accept the terms of use – respect the EDD Online’s special copyright – and away you go.

The director of the five-year project is German/Austrian professor emeritus Manfred Markus of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, which hosts the digitised dictionary. It was financed by the Austrian Research Fund. Markus’s manual (PDF) has background on the work as well as guidance on its use. So if the interface seems a little daunting, consult his instructions.

I haven’t had time yet to explore the EDD Online properly, but I’ve dipped in and it seems to work very well. The use of filters allows for complex and sophisticated searches by type, region, and so on, while the ‘last result’ box enables piggy-back queries: searches within the previous results. Markus gives an example of what you can do:

It will also be possible to combine the class of variants with that of the headwords and thus, by way of a regional filters, generate regional glossaries. This is achieved with the help of the Last-result button. . . . For example, if the combination of headword with dialect, say Yorkshire, produces 7,000 results of headwords – which means that the entries of these headwords somewhere contain the abbreviations for Yorkshire – , then it may occur to the user to start a new query on this subset of entries to find out which of the compounds, combinations and derivations in these entries are affiliated with Scandinavian (Norvegian, Swedish etc.) origin. With the help of this Last-result tool the complexity of queries can be carried to an extreme.

Whether you’re into extreme dialect-digging or just want to scratch the historical surface of local vernacular, the English Dialect Dictionary Online is worth bookmarking and is a laudable public and scholarly resource.

Thanks to Jonathon Green for the tip-off.


16 Responses to English Dialect Dictionary Online

  1. This is fantastic. Thanks for the post! English dialect is always of interest.

  2. Betty says:

    Thank you for getting the word out about this. I love to read about word origins, dialects, etc., so I’m looking forward to checking this out.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re welcome, Betty. Wright’s work deserves to be better known outside specialist circles, and this project will definitely help towards that end.

  3. old gobbo says:

    Like the rest, my sincere thanks for making this known. You are quite right, the archive PDFs are not easy to use. This is fantastic news.

  4. flissw says:

    do you know of this? http://mepolisis.com/download-ebooks-pdf/45088-thesaurus-of-traditional-english-metaphors.html – I proofread a small bit of it years ago and it seemed like a fascinating collection (with a bit of a Cumbrian bias perhaps) of old dialect.

  5. […] The Wool-Gatherer (1818): ‘Gang after your braw gallant, wi’ your oxterfu’ ket.’ The English Dialect Dictionary adds oxter-bound ‘stiff in the arm and shoulder’, oxter-deep ‘up to the armpits’, […]

  6. […] Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary notes the use of fooster in Cornwall but nowhere else outside […]

  7. […] means a low growling or grumbling sound, but lacks a definite line to curmudgeon. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary includes curmullyit: someone with ‘a very dark complexion and ill-favoured […]

  8. […] This matches sense 19 (of 21) in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary: ‘The shape or fashion to which a thing is cut; figure, bearing; […]

  9. David L. Gold says:

    Is there any evidence that Wright was systematic in his fieldwork, that is, if he had evidence that a certain usage was found in one place, he tried to ascertain whether it was also current in other places in the United Kingdom?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t know much about his fieldwork, I’m afraid. This is probably addressed in dialectological works such as Markus, Upton, and Heuberger’s Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary and Beyond.

      • David L. Gold says:

        Thank you for that reference.

        It not being readily accessible at the moment, I have read the preliminaries in volume 1 and leafed through the whole volume.

        That cursory examination has led me to draft these remarks for two articles of etymological interest in which systematic fieldwork might have been criterial in determining whether certain proposed etymologies are right. I look forward to constructive criticism from readers of this blog.

        Georg Wenker (1852-1911), the founder of the Deutscher Sprachatlas, pioneered systematic topolectology in 1876; by 1887 he had sent about 50,000 questionnaires to about as many schoolmasters, of whom about 45,000 had responded; and by the late 1880s he was well-known in also in non-German linguistic circles as the founder of systematic topolectology.

        Did Wright (1855-1930), who knew German (he held a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg, was deputy lecturer in German at the Taylor Institution, later became professor of comparative philology at the University of Oxford, and throughout his career published extensively on German), follow in Wenker’s footsteps? He should have, for only systematic fieldwork results in an accurate picture of spatial currency and a knowledge of the spatial currency of a linguistic feature is often essential in working out an etymology and in evaluating one.

        Wright said that his dictionary “contains […] the exact geographical area over which each dialect word extends” (vol. 1, “Preface,” p. [v]), a remark which, if accurate, implies systematic fieldwork, but I find no explicit statement or other evidence that his fieldwork was systematic, that is, if he had evidence that a certain usage was found in one place, did he try to ascertain whether it was also current in other places in the United Kingdom?

        He also wrote that “In thousands of instances it will be noticed that there is no previously printed authority for the use of words in some districts. In all such cases I give the initials of the persons who supplied the information ; and I may add that one of my senior assistants has spent over a fortnight in verifying those initials ; so that they may be accepted as correct” (idem, p. vi), but that remark does not help answer our question.

        Wright did mention having carried out systematic fieldwork with respect to one feature of pronunciation (“The number of queries was proportionately greater in the C-words than in A and B, owing to the great importance of attaining accurate information about their pronunciation ; as it is of special value to students of English philology to know in which districts the initial guttural has remained and in which districts it has become the affricate ch” [ibidem]).

        Many entries in each volume include the notation “Not known to our correspondents,” those entries being, so far as I can tell from a quick glance, those for which basic information was lacking, such as a definition or a spatial label.

        Overall, however, one gets the impression that Wright was not systematic. If so, when a usage has one or spatial labels, we are to infer that correspondents in other parts of the British Isles were not queried rather than they were queried and reported “not known here.”

        Seeing the circular mentioned in the following passage might help us decide whether Wright carried out systematic fieldwork:

        “In 1889 it was thought the material sufficiently complete to enable me to begin to edit the work for the press. I accordingly prepared several articles and had them printed. These articles convinced me that at least twice the amount of material which had then been collected would be required before attempting to edit the Dictionary. I issued a circular stating the kind of help wanted, and sent it to all the printed newspapers and public libraries in the United Kingdom as well as to many thousand people who might be likely to help in the work. By this means the number of volunteer helpers was increased to over 600. It then became advisable to form local Committees in various parts of the country with the object to getting all the books relating to the respective districts read […]” (p. vii).

        One gets the impression that the volunteers were called on to be either just excerpters or excerpters who might have had other tasks too. In any case, the passages just quoted furnish no proof that a systematic attempt was made to determine the spatial currency of lexemes or their meanings.

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