Ferntickles or murfles? Survey of England's regional dialects to be revived

Are you terrified by “harvest men” or “long-legged tailors”? Do you have “ferntickles” or “brunny-spots” on your face? If someone called you “gibble-fisted” would you be affronted or amused?

The words for daddy long-legs, freckles and left-handed are all examples of English regional dialect discovered in the 1950s by a team of fieldworkers in what was the most comprehensive survey of its kind ever undertaken.

On Saturday, the University of Leeds announced plans to update the survey by recruiting volunteers to be modern-day dialect researchers, thanks to more than £500,000 of national lottery funding.

The original surveyors set out from Leeds 70 years ago, targeting “old men with good teeth” for two reasons: they were a more likely to be a bridge to the past, and they could be understood.

Stanley Ellis, one of the original survey’s fieldworkers (left), interviews Tom Mason in North Yorkshire.

Stanley Ellis, one of the original survey’s fieldworkers (left), interviews Tom Mason in North Yorkshire. Photograph: University Of Leeds/PA

Fiona Douglas from Leeds School of English, who is leading the project, said the net would be cast wider this time round. “I’m not just going out looking for old men with good teeth who haven’t moved anywhere,” she said. “We will speak to people whose families haven’t stayed in one area for generations, as well as those who can trace their roots back to the same place over hundreds of years. We want to include everyone’s language.”

The lottery money will also allow the digitisation of notebooks, photographs, word maps and audio recordings from the original fieldwork. The extensive Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture (LAVC) will be opened to the public.

Researchers are keen also to speak to descendants of people who took part in the original surveys.

The 1950s map showing regional variations of the word “freckles”.

The 1950s map showing regional variations of the word “freckles”. Photograph: University Of Leeds/PA

Douglas said she had already tracked down three of the fieldworkers who travelled the country, first with notebooks and later with cumbersome reel-to-reel audio recorders that were sometimes hooked up to car batteries because of a lack of mains electricity.

Others to come forward include the children and grandchildren of original respondents.

Some remember Werner Kissling, an ethnographic photographer who worked for the project in the 1960s and captured Wensleydale kids playing “wallops” – a variant of skittles – in the road.

“I’ve heard tell of fieldwork done in fishing boats in the middle of the night and dialect caravans touring the country,” Douglas said.

The original surveyors picked up a wealth of data. As well as “gibble-fisted” for left-handed, they discovered cack-handed, cat-handed, coochy-pawed, left-kaggy and squippy.

Freckles were called ferntickles, murfles, brannyspreckles, brunny-spots, vrackles and frantittles. A packed lunch might have been bait, jock or snap.

Douglas said dialect was a way of looking in at a window to the past. “Sometimes people feel embarrassed saying ‘oh it’s slang’. When you say to somebody, it’s not, and it’s got a really long, distinguished and historical pedigree, suddenly you get people with this sense of empowerment.”


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