This guide is written for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science.
Please look at the contents page for a full list of specific guides on this site.
I have adapted this guide from a schools' pack prepared by the Yorkshire Dialect Society. I am especially grateful to Dr. Barrie Rhodes (who wrote the original guide that I have adapted here), to Jeremy Muldowney and to Brian Spencer for their help, and to the Society for permission to use this material.
This is not a comprehensive guide to academic research. But it should be helpful to those who are to undertake, or guide, small-scale dialect and language variation projects, as part of their linguistic studies. The experience gained in pursuing small-scale research at senior school level should serve as a useful preparation for later work at college or university level.
You may wish to look also at my guide to language investigations. Click on the link below to open the guide:
What is research?
There is nothing complicated about the concept of "research". It is simply "finding out". We conduct simple research often in our daily lives:
These are all examples of simple research.
The main difference between conducting this simple, everyday research and carrying out "academic" research is that, in the main, we are conducting the process for different audiences. Looking up bus times and comparing the prices of goods is likely to be done primarily for oneself. On the other hand, "academic" research (though it may serve to satisfy one's own curiosity) is generally for a wider, more critical audience. This being so, we will find it necessary to be more careful about how we plan, conduct, and report on, the research. We may express our concern for care over these things by the term "rigour" - we aim to be rigorous in our research.
If we want to be rigorous in our research, then we should:
The research process
Research rarely claims to "prove" anything. All it is honestly able to do is to offer evidence that at a particular time, in a particular context and under such and such particular circumstances, this is the picture that seems to have emerged. It is provisional and tentative, in the sense that its findings stand only until someone else comes along and produces different findings from similar research. The process can be envisaged as a cycle, for it is often found that a research project gives rise to more questions than it answers - and these questions point out the direction in which subsequent research can go.
Working from a hypothesis
Many researchers elect to use a methodology that starts with a hypothesis. This is a carefully constructed, unequivocal statement which will guide and focus the research through all its stages.
"Dialect words are to be found in use only in the over-60 age range in this locality" might be a suitable hypothesis in the context of this guide. All the research - its objectives, its methodology, its conduct, its analysis and its reporting - will then be kept on track in trying to find out whether or not this hypothesis seems to be substantiated.
Note that we have not said "...prove that it is true". If we were driven largely by the need to "prove" something, then we might be in danger of letting personal bias and prejudice intrude, unconsciously or consciously skewing our research to achieve this end. The truly rigorous researcher has to be able to detach himself or herself from such motivations, to remain impartial and "distant", and to accept that a hypothesis which is not upheld by the results is just as valuable as one that is. It is the search for apparent truth that is important; revealing it, even though it might not be what one expected or hoped for, is what matters most.
Working without a hypothesis
Research does not always have to follow a stated hypothesis. Some types of research are "open-ended", designed simply to see what they throw up, or to provide a framework, or isolate more specific issues for further research. Such procedures are often used to provide the foundation for tighter-focused, hypothesis-based projects. Some simply serve a purpose in themselves. Sometimes, a "guiding question" might be used instead of a baldly stated hypothesis: "Is there evidence of the preservation of traditional dialect in the XYZ area?"
The quantitative-qualitative debate
Social science research methods can fall anywhere on a continuum between a quantitative pole and a qualitative pole.
Quantitative research is characterised by the collection of data and its processing in an objective, mathematical, close-ended way. It is often claimed to be more rigorous and scientific than research carried out nearer the qualitative end of the continuum. Data and findings are likely to be presented in numerical, tabular or graphic form; statistical processing is frequently used.
Quantitative researchers claim to be able to be objective and "distanced" from the process and findings of the research, letting " the numbers do the work and carry the message". A quantitative research project should allow other researchers to replicate it or use it in a comparative way.
Quantitative research generally
This kind of research is sometimes referred to as being of a positivist orientation or working within a positivist paradigm.
By contrast, qualitative research is more open-ended. It relies more on interpretation than on the apparent objectivity conveyed by the quantitative methods. Qualitative research can be said to have an interpretative orientation or being worked within an interpretative paradigm. The qualitative researcher seeks to get inside the matter under investigation, to dig beneath the superficial characteristics which the quantitative methods tend to measure, and to reveal the "truth", not as an objective reality, but as it is experienced and perceived by the informants.
A great deal depends on the researchers' skill and ability to counter criticisms of subjectivity, selectivity, and the intrusion of personal bias or prejudice. By its very nature, qualitative research cannot be replicated, generalised or used in a comparative way.
Typically, qualitative research
This object is a percussive tool, consisting of three parts: a metal head, a wooden handle and a metal wedge, which secures the head to the handle. It measures 35 centimetres in overall length and weighs 1.5 kilograms. The handle is made of ash, oval in section. For approximately two-fifths of its length from the head the handle is waisted. The head is of forged steel and is double ended One end is a striking end with a face which has been case-hardened. The other end of the head is a curved, two-pronged claw, which can be used for extracting nails by leverage.
The person with qualitative inclinations, on the other hand, might describe the same hammer in this way:
This hammer is a beautifully balanced object. It "falls to hand" comfortably, as a craftsman would say. The slender-waisted ash handle is well polished by years of contact with many different workers' hands. Provided that the handle is gripped correctly, close to the end, it swings in a satisfying way and the striking face makes clean and efficient contact with the object (most often a nail) being struck The claw end of the head is used for extracting nails or for prising apart two layers of timber, for example. It is clear that this particular tool has been well cared for over many years.
Both accounts tell us interesting and valuable things about the hammer - but the information is quite different in each case. The two accounts would serve quite different purposes.
Case studies are a particular form of research within the qualitative orientation. Case studies aim to portray a specific instance. The researcher using a case study approach attempts to penetrate beneath the superficial surface features of situations in such a way that the complexities, multiple interactions and relationships are revealed, which might otherwise remain unexposed by the "scientific" collection of quantitative, statistical data.
Not all social research has to be either/or. A piece of research can be located anywhere on the quantitative-qualitative continuum. In practice, however, it is usual for a project to be located close to or at one pole or the other.
Plenty of researchers choose to approach their task by applying two quite distinct methods on the same phenomenon. This is a process called triangulation. The name comes from the navigational technique of taking sightings (compass backbearings) on three distant objects, which give a more accurate plotting of one's true position than two sightings. As its name suggests, this technique should really involve three different approaches but, in the social science context, the use of more than one is classed as triangulation. It is claimed that a truer picture is likely to emerge if two or more investigative processes are used on the same phenomenon. Researchers, therefore, sometimes approach their investigation by a quantitative investigation and complement this with a qualitative investigation.
The results can be quite powerful, for while the quantitative method reveals the "what", the qualitative complement throws light on the "why".
By now, you may be asking "So, which method should I use in my own small-scale dialect research project? ". Our recommendation would be to employ a quantitative approach as a first venture into small-scale research. It is likely to be clearer, simpler to operate and more efficient in time and labour. The objectivity intrinsic in the numerical treatment of data helps prevent personal bias from creeping in.
Qualitative researchers need a great deal of skill and experience to be able to construct their investigations in such a way that outcomes are not simply self-fulfilling prophesies. They need to be able to counter arguments that personal bias or prejudice has intruded.
But students will probably have met case studies in other subjects, say, geography, sociology or psychology. They may feel familiar enough with such studies to be able to competently employ one in dialect research. The findings of a case study are local, specific and not generalisable to other samples and contexts. The case study to some extent stands on its own; to borrow a phrase from the world of computing, “what you see is what you get” - and one cannot readily "export" it elsewhere.
Yet a case study has the potential to reveal much that is valuable and informative and which can be "lost" or remain "hidden" by the use of a more objective, quantitative approach. If a would-be researcher is inclined towards a case study, he or she should consult more detailed sources of guidance on the methodology.
Ideas for small-scale dialect research
Here are some suggestions for ways in which you may research dialect.
Most dialect research, because of its very nature, will involve conducting a survey of some kind. Suitable survey-type research topics might include:
More sophisticated surveys
Surveys of lexical alternatives
Survey a randomly-selected sample of people, asking them what alternatives word(s) they know for some given Standard English lexical items. For example:
...and so on.
To avoid suggesting the answer you may, instead of Standard English nouns, use a picture or short description to represent the subject.
Such a list should preferably not contain more than, say, thirty words or expressions and these should be selected as being regionally relevant (that is, based on the recognised dialect vocabulary of one of the three historic Ridings of Yorkshire or of another defined locality).
Variation by age or sex
In your research you might group subjects by sex or age. Here are some possible groupings:
At an even greater level of sophistication and complexity might be a project which attempts to measure how knowledge and use of dialect has changed over time. This could be done by collecting data from informants across a stratified age range.
Such a survey could be conducted by face-to-face interview or on a prepared, self completion questionnaire. A variety of mathematical processes could be applied to the data to provide comparative, quantitative results. Between 30 and 50 words should give some useful and interesting data. This could give a picture of change in the levels of knowledge and use over the generations. A qualitative element could perhaps be introduced by asking informants to explain why they had abandoned words they habitually used in the past.
Of quite a different nature would be the analysis of the use of dialect in a work of literature. Several famous authors (Sir Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, the Brontės, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence) frequently had their characters speaking in appropriate local speech styles. The results could, for example, be compared with levels of knowledge and use in the present day.
A comparative study
Another possibility might be a comparative study. The starting point here is someone else's research project. By replicating the research, but changing just one variable, you can compare one piece of research with another. For example, you can copy all the methodology and data collection processes of the original piece of research - but for a different population. The intention here would be to see how one population (represented by a sample) compares with another. If you keep all the other variables constant, you may claim that any differences are due to the characteristics of the two populations. The simpler the original piece of research, the easier it is to make a comparative study.
This may be particularly suitable for students on advanced courses in schools or degree courses at universities - to take studies generally regarded as canonical or authoritative, and seeing whether the findings hold good for a different population (in terms of place or time). So Peter Trudgill's research in Norwich could be repeated with a different sample of respondents, say.
Data collection - methods of collecting and recording data
These are face-to-face interviews, with the researcher completing the documentation. The documentation may be a prepared questionnaire which poses close-ended, objective questions; or it may take the form of a list of fairly open-ended question headings to which the informant can respond in an individual way. It is a good idea to practice and rehearse interviews on a small sample of people who will not be involved in the data collection proper.
You can design these so that they are for the informants' self-completion, in their own time. Alternatively, they can form the basis for an interview with the researcher posing the questions and completing the form with the respondents' answers.
Questionnaires need careful thought and design. The researcher should consider a number of important points:
Here are some practical suggestions:
You may use your questionnaire to collect information other than the raw data of the questions themselves: the age, sex, place of birth and childhood, length of residence in the area, and so on. Use this opportunity to gather this kind of background social information but do not try to make the questionnaire form do too much, or the information you get back will become unwieldy and you will have trouble sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Audio and video recordings
As a researcher you can make audio or video recordings of, say, people who habitually use "traditional dialect" words in their everyday speech. A good approach is to ask the informant to perhaps recount a memorable childhood experience, a "near miss" accident, anecdotes of working life, an account of social conditions as a young person, and so on. Simply asking a person what dialect words they know is likely to be unproductive. Replay the recording to the informant and ask him/her to explain the meanings of any words you are unfamiliar with. Take account of research ethics: always obtain the informants' permission before making any recording. If, after hearing the playback, an informant objects to anything in the recording, then it should be amended or erased.
The data you obtain from this technique will, by their very nature, be very "open ended" and the you will find that they are not easy to analyse in such a way that you can easily organise them. It may take many reviews before you can see any patterns or trends emerging.
If you use digital technologies, then you can easily share the data files from your recordings with other computer users.
Sampling a population
Some generalities about sampling
It is clearly impossible to interview or have questionnaires completed by an entire population (unless a very small settlement or area involved). The researchers' way around this is to draw on a representative sample of that population and generalise the results to the entire population. How large or small a sample needs to be depends on several factors:
Some researchers talk of "drawing a sample frame", appropriate to the needs of the research project. The "frame" includes consideration of not only the size of the sample but also the characteristics of the informants: age, sex, social class, area of residence, length of residence, etc. and this should be in balance with the make-up of the population from which the sample is to be drawn.
In general, the larger a sample as a percentage of a population, the truer the data are likely to be. But for school purposes, samples of between 30 and 50 informants will, in most cases, be adequate. Less than 30 and the collected data are unlikely to give anything approaching an accurate picture of the situation. More than 50 and the data become less manageable in terms of processing, analysis and interpretation.
Obviously, different considerations apply if the researcher is making a case study.
The nature of the sample and the issue of randomness
The type of sample used depends fundamentally on the purpose of the research.
For much research it is deemed desirable, and academically rigorous, to have a genuine random sample of informants, to provide objective and representative data. This type of sample would be needed if, say, the research purpose was to gain a picture of what levels of dialect knowledge and/or use presently exist in a defined area.
Stratified random sample
For some research purposes, a representative cross-section of the population might be needed, to include an appropriate balance (stratification) of age, sex, long-term residents, recent incomers, ethnic minorities, a spread of social classes, and so on, for these and other factors affect the cultural transmission and conservation of "traditional dialect". Within the defined strata, selection is randomised. Stratification inevitably means some loss of genuine randomness but it can be argued that it is likely to be more representative of a population.
Selective or purposive sample
By contrast, if the purpose is to collect and record a comprehensive corpus of dialect words and expressions, it might be necessary to identify and recruit as informants only those people who are believed to be known users of such words. This would be selective or purposive sampling. It is obviously not random and the researcher has to guard against accusations of distorted personal bias in the selection of informants simply to "...prove a point".
In some instances, an opportunity sample might be appropriate. This might take the form, for example, of approaching every nth person encountered in the street and interviewing them. Unlike purposive sampling, this has a degree of randomness about it but is not regarded as being as rigorous as genuinely random sampling.
Sources of samples
Except for opportunity sampling, it is necessary to have some way of making a selection to suit the sample "frame". There are several ways in which this can be done; some ways are more appropriate to the objectives of the research and to the sample "frame" parameters than others. All have drawbacks.
It is possible to select a random sample from telephone directories by, say, picking the first, tenth, fortieth or whatever, entry on each page. There are two major problems. It would not include anyone without a telephone. It does not lend itself to any form of stratification.
Again, stratification is not possible. It does not include those below voting age.
"On the knocker"
This usually takes the form of selecting, say, every tenth house in a street. Age and sex stratification is not always possible. Some crude social stratification is possible if a balanced number of houses is selected in different areas (a council estate, a middle-class estate of owner-occupied houses, an area of predominantly student accommodation, a rural village, an inner city area, and so forth).
From the map
Use a large-scale Ordnance Survey map and demarcate the boundaries of the research's geographical area. Use some kind of random device to select a precise grid reference within the area. It is possible to obtain computer programs which generate random numbers and, if these are of six or eight figures within the range of possible grid references for the chosen area, individual houses (or at least clusters of houses) can be selected. If the result is a cluster, then the researcher can determine that only one, randomly-chosen house within it shall be used. Failing all other means, a blindfold and a pin can be utilised! Obviously, this method of selecting a sample cannot employ stratification.
Post codes can be used in a similar way to grid references. Again, a choice of house within a post code would be necessary and stratification is not possible.
Stratification by stages
It is possible to use a combination of selection devices to progressively arrive at a stratifiled sample, if one is needed. For instance, the map method can be used to randomly select small groups or clusters of houses. A physical visit to each cluster might then enable the researcher to identify informants who fit the stratification criteria - a woman over 65 years of age, a male under 20 years of age, and so on.
Reporting the research - the content of a research report
The background and rationale | The contexts | The literature review | The methodology to be used | Presentation of the collected data | Analysis of the data | Interpretation of the data | The conclusion | Bibliography | Appendices
Written research reports tend to follow a certain pattern. Normally this is divided into sections, or chapters, as follows:
The background and rationale
What prompted the research? Why is it being done? What hypotheses, focuses or guiding question(s) will be used?
Where, geographically speaking, is the research being done? What other contexts are relevant - historical, social, demographic, others?
The literature review
In this section or chapter the writer reviews the main substance of existing literature which has a bearing on the present research. The intention is to show the audience that the researcher has done his or her homework before embarking on the project. Often, some theory or earlier research reported in the literature is what provides the incentive and motivation to carry out one's own research. Readers find themselves asking questions such as:
"Would this really apply in my locality? "
"If this issue had to be researched in a different way, would it produce similar or different results? "
The methodology to be used
Describes how the research is to be conducted. This is normally written in the future or present tenses, as a statement of intent and as though the research has yet to be carried out:
"Informants will be asked to complete a questionnaire...."
Presentation of the collected data
This can be textual, numerical, tabular, graphic or a combination of these. This is normally presented in the past tense, with the research already carried out:
"Only seven people responded to this question".
Analysis of the data
This is a straightforward account of what the data say.
"It will be seen that 20 people had heard this word. Of these, 16 were able to define its meaning. On the other hand, word X had been heard by only 6 people, though 5 of these were able to attribute meaning to it".
The main purpose of the analysis is to identify patterns and trends within the data.
Interpretation of the data
In this section or chapter the writer considers the patterns and trends which emerged from the analysis and attempts to account for these. It is important that the writer remains cautious, tentative and circumspect here:
"It appears from the data that there has been a rapid decline in dialect usage in this community. However, dialect knowledge does not seem to have declined as dramatically".
In interpreting data, the researcher should frequently use words and phrases such as: "...it seems that...“, ”... perhaps.. ", it may be... in these particular circumstances...", in the context of this research..." and other qualifiers.
This sums up the research as a whole. It is important to try to avoid repetition of what has already been presented, if at all possible, though certain important issues may be re-examined in closer detail if necessary. This section or chapter can also contain suggestions for further lines of research which might usefully follow. A critique should be included, where the writer acknowledges any limitations and weakness which he or she has identified in the planning and conduct of the research.
This is a list of the books, articles and other sources the researcher has consulted and used to support the research. There are several alternative ways in which such a list can be constructed. The more usual, recognised formats can be found in British Standards Institute publications. One of the more usual formats is:
Author's surname. Author's initials. Year of publication (in brackets). Title. Place of publication. Publisher.
Beckham, D. (1999) The Failure of the Word; London: Sexton Publications.
Articles from periodic journals normally appear like this:
Blyton, E. (1998) Teach them to speak properly. Journal of Modern Speech, pp. 108-119.
Articles from collected works in a one-off publication follow this format:
Featherstonehaugh, A. and Cholmondeley, Z. "Drawing the boundaries in dialect" in Blair, A. and Brown, G. (Editors) (1987) Dialect Studies in the 20th Century (2nd Edition); New York. Fortune Inc.
Appendices (normally titled Appendix A, Appendix B, and so on) are a part of the report used to store and present supporting data, which would otherwise take up too much space, (and detract from readability) in the main body of the report. Appendices often take the form of tables, charts, lengthy extracts and subsidiary material. They should always be referred to in the main body:
"Appendix D shows... "; "As can be seen from the figures in Appendix B.... "
If an appendix is not referred to somewhere in the main body it is questionable whether it should be included, as there is a danger that appendices can simply become repositories for all sorts of irrelevant material, in a misguided attempt to give the report some physical bulk.
Would-be researchers at school level are advised to read a variety of works by recognised authorities, to gain a feeling for the tenor and register which academic researchers use in their reports. Such works will also provide useful examples of how to use direct and indirect quotation, citations, references and the other conventions of research reporting.
Dialect research and information technology
© Barrie Rhodes and the Yorkshire Dialect Society, 2003-2004; Contact me.