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  • 15 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Language analysis: A story in every word

Updated Thursday 28th July 2005

Barbara Mayor explores the different words we use in different parts of the country, and gives advice on how to get involved in the 'Voices' project, to gather a record of the nation’s speech

Have you ever taken part in one of those impassioned conversations when people from different parts of the British Isles compare their different ways of saying things?

What, for example, did you call those soft shoes with laces that you wore for school sports: was it pumps or plimsolls, daps or tackies or possibly trainers?

And how would you describe ‘a young person in cheap trendy clothes and jewellery’? The answer will probably depend a lot on your age and gender, as well as the place where you (or possibly your parents) grew up!

This website is part of an exciting nationwide project to record the varied speech of the UK. Word4Word is a collaboration between the BBC and The Open University, and is part of Voices, a project between the BBC and the University of Leeds to gather the most extensive record of the nation’s speech in over 50 years.

As well as providing some general information on the English language, we show you how to conduct research interviews into the language of your own community, based on documents that you can download.

How you can get involved

When the last full-scale Survey of English Dialects (and, at the time, that did mean only English, not Scottish or Welsh or Irish) was conducted in the 1940s and 1950s, reel-to-reel tape recording was still a new technology, researchers went round on foot, and there was a heavy emphasis on the words people used for geographical features or agricultural implements.

Today we have at our disposal less intrusive recording equipment, together with the possibility of computerised analysis of language data and the sharing of our findings via the internet. So, in this new electronic era, we would like to invite you to conduct your own piece of research on language variation in the British Isles...

How to conduct your own interview

It goes without saying that all research into spoken language involves listening to people talk! But, if you can record what they say, you will be surprised at how much more information you can gather and how much more insight you can gain.

And if you share that information and insight with others via the Voices website, you will be contributing to a major national survey of contemporary language use in Britain.

If you decide that you would like to get involved with this, the first things you will have to do are:

  • identify a suitably varied group of people to interview (you might want to begin with your extended family, but do think also in terms of the work context, or perhaps a group of people with some shared interest; the BBC advised its own interviewers to choose a maximum of 4-5 people who were ‘good entertaining speakers with rich accents and a fascination with words’);
  • arrange a convenient time and place for the interview;
  • have a set of topics to explore in the interview - but why think up your own when we have the 'Spidergram' of topics that the Voices project used? Get it, and other useful activity sheets, from our Download your kit page;
  • make sure everyone knows what’s involved (academic disciplines that work with people have developed guidelines on the ethics of conducting research - you can find more about this on the British Association of Applied Linguistics website) and reassure them it’s going to be fun – after all your recording may well become a family heirloom or community resource!

Before you start making arrangements for your own interviews, you might find it useful to listen to a discussion between Barbara Mayor of The Open University and BBC broadcast journalist Jodie Campbell, who conducted some of the Voices interviews in the north-west of England.

Amongst other things, you will hear Jodie talk about how she set about persuading people to get involved, and how she made sure that her interviews ran smoothly.


Copyright The Open University



This is Barbara Mayor interviewing Jodie Campbell at Radio Merseyside on Friday 22nd of April 2005


So Jodie, you’ve done quite a number of these interviews for the BBC Voices project, so you are quiet experienced at doing them and I wondered if you’ve got any hints for the kind of people who’ve probably never done this sort of thing before.

When when you first decide that you are going to do an interview how do you go about finding the people and how do you persuade them to take part?


It’s a tricky question. Obviously everything straight away is done over the phone.

When it comes to finding people, it’s finding people that you think would be an interesting group, probably about 4 or 5 people that would be taking part, a good mix of age, a good mix of men and women and probably a good mix of ethnicity, if you can get that, if that’s, you know, something that would be interesting especially for words of a different generation or different background to anybody else taking part.

When it comes to persuading them, it is a case of making that first contact with a phone call, explaining who you are, explaining the project that you are doing.

That you don’t want to take up too much of their time, you will come to their house, you’ll go to a certain meeting point, or a pub, you will meet in their time, on their terms. If they want a box of chocolates or a free pint of beer then that is what you will bring that along to the meeting.

And explain that obviously what they’re getting out of it, is a good conversation, they’re learning a bit about language and words, it is a bit of fun it shouldn’t take more than an hour and then once you’ve made that first phone call, it’s a case of getting onside with one of the key players, you know one of the main characters of the group, if it’s going to be a family and then if Granddad’s the one who is the talkative chap, the one who persuades everyone to kind of come along then speak to Granddad first.

If it’s, I don’t know, a group of nurses and one of them is you friend, you know, speak to the friend first and get them on side, and say you know, “Can you convince some of your friends to come along, maybe if I gave you a letter to explain what is going on or, or if you could get a mobile number for me and I will make contact with them myself”.

Always try and make contact with everybody that is going to take part. Don’t let that key player take control of the group; you need to keep control of the group yourself. So persuading is a case of phone calls, it is a case of letters, explaining what you are doing, and then set up a time, setting up a location. because it has to be on their terms, on their time and exercise caution a little bit, obviously if you are a female you don’t want to go to a pub where there is a huge group of blokes that you don’t know.

Take a friend with you, take your boyfriend, take your girlfriend, take someone with you who is going to be company if it comes to that. If not stick to friends, stick to family. Stick to people that you know.

Make sure that you’ve got the good time, the quiet location so that you’ve got a good acoustic sound in the room. You don’t want people barging in like, you know, with the door, someone coming in and out. Try and get a room to one side so that you can all sit around together.

Now it is going to be quite close proximity, if you’ve got a microphone and you’re moving it around, the microphone can only go so far. So try and get them all quite comfortable.

Explain, “I’m really sorry it seems quite close but you can all move in together a bit more you can all hear what we are all saying”. And then it’s a case of having a bit of a laugh and a joke with the participants beforehand just to try and ease them and explain what you are doing.

For some people when they are about to be interviewed they get very nervous. I mean if you phone them a week before if the person now is listening and is about to interviewed by someone it’s a nerve wracking experience for them so really try and put them at ease straight away. It doesn’t matter what you say, if you fluff any lines, not to worry, this isn’t a microphone, forget that it’s here, we’re just having a chat, in your living room.

Make yourself a cup of tea if you want to. If you want to go to the toilet, feel free. Just keep reminding them that it’s not something to worry about, so it’s straight away really going to people that you know will be around that you think will be involved and that will be good talkers and that are entertaining. People with good accents and people that have good stories.


So would you give everybody one of the sheets with the words on?


Yes. Before you actually go make sure you have copies of everything or spare copies of the spider diagrams and copies of the consent forms if that what it takes for them to actually take part.

Sit everybody down and say to them, “This is what we are doing, this is what we are going to get out of it, I’m just going to give you a sheet with a spider diagram on now and a pen, and if you could fill out the words for me that would be great”.

I found, other interviewers have found, that if they have actually sent them the forms first or sent the spider diagrams a week before, it is the best way to do it because they know what they are doing, the interviewees know what they are getting.

But for me, some of the sheets go missing, there aren’t enough copies and they have forgotten about it and to be honest it is nice to be fresh. You know you go in you there you give them the spider diagram, it’s in their head, they have written down the words they want to talk about and we can start talking about them straight away. It is something that is in their mind and it is good because we know we can get them into a flow we can start talking about stuff and that is how you get the good stories.


Obviously when you get a group of people together it is nice if you’ve got a variety of different voices there, in terms of where people came from, what sorts of places they’ve lived in their lives, what kinds of jobs they have done and so it is quite important to record that sort of information.

What do you ask from them when you ask them to fill in the forms?


Normally I take in like a kind of demographic form to find out their name, their age, where they were born, what their address is at the moment so we have a postcode so that we can pin point exactly where they are at the moment.

And then normally we ask them the questions like, “What did you mum do?” “What did you dad do?” also to find out what occupation they have at the moment. What do you class their accent to be like, so the people that I spoke to in Liverpool or across Merseyside, I said to them, “What would you class your accent as?” Some of the said “Scouse”.

In St. Helens they said it’s a kind of “Parr”; some said “Lancashire”. It is completely different so it is nice to ask them the question about accent and whether or not, they feel if they have an accent at all to be honest with you.

So really finding out about their background within the questions is normally good and also to find out if they actually speak another language maybe.

So that one is always a good one and what language they speak, whether they do speak it, read it, and whether they understand it. So normally those questions would be ideal really.


It sounds to me as though there are rather a lot of things that you have to do before you even start the recording.


Yes, there is.


So what sort of time would you feel you needed to allow with people to cover all those sorts of settling in stages and still allow enough time to do a decent recording covering all the points in the Spidergram.


To be honest with you, I have found, you know, once you’ve obviously packed your bag, and you’ve got all your stuff together and you’ve done your checklist and everything is fine and go to that persons house or a certain location, that it normally take about probably about an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes, and those first 15 minutes is settling everyone, “This is you, this is me, this is Barbara, this is Jodie and everything, and everybody meet altogether, sit down, have a cup of tea, get the forms signed, and then it is a case of “Right, everybody move in a little bit and let’s start with the Spider diagram”.

Start with a few of the easy words first “Tell me about what ‘rain’ means to you, or ‘hot’ or ‘cold”, because nobody really explains much or has stories about ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, so launch into the easy words first and then, kind of, as soon as they start opening up a little bit more or they start talking to you, move on to the words like ‘family’ or move on to ‘what they wear’ or ‘what they do’, and that normally appeals to me when I start doing the interview because I know that ten minutes in, people have relaxed, they have all met one another, they have started to talk, you know who is the good speaker , you know who is shying away a little bit, pull that person in; note that they are not talking much, so ask them a relatively easy question “Oh that person just said that, well Kev, what do you think?”

And if he goes, “Oh I don’t understand the question” say well, explain it to him. Try and open him up a bit more, try and get him to be involved within the group.


From your experience which words you found generated most discussion?


Probably ‘what you wear’ because obviously you’re clothes, or the clobber on your feet, that kind of thing. That was brilliant when it came to all the groups of people that I spoke to, your clothes, ‘what you wear’.

‘What you do’, as in ‘to throw’, that kind of thing. And then ‘family’. ‘Family’ was just such a brilliant one. We could have sat for half an hour talking about family to be honest with you.

Because so many people have so many stories about their siblings, parents or grandparents, or anything to do with family really you’ve always got a good story to tell so it is a case of people could talk for ever so after 15 minutes move it on a little bit.

Going off to interview people might sound like a very formal, and perhaps slightly scary, thing to do. But it doesn’t have to be that way – it’ll go a lot more smoothly and yield richer material if your interviewees are relaxed and enjoying the interview!

To help you feel more comfortable, and highlight some of the mistakes first-timers often make, here’s our guide to getting the best from your interview.

Recording your interview will give you a record which you can listen to afterwards and analyse in detail. If you’ve prepared in advance, and ideally practised, then you should get much better results. To help you get started we’ve gathered together some of the top tips for beginning sound recording.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?