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’.)
After 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 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.