A UK map which someone has labelled to show where dialects are spoken, with some descriptive words about speakers of each dialect.
Map of the United Kingdom with notes

Perceptual dialectology

Perceptual dialectology is used to explore how non-linguists see regional language variation. This topic ties into what is known as ‘folk linguistics,’ or the beliefs that non-linguists have about language. These beliefs include everything from what makes different accents sound differently to one another, where exactly these accents are spoken, and even why non-linguists think there is so much (or so little!) accent variation. 

This method of data collection also tells us something about how non-linguists feel about people who speak with these accents. In other words, perceptual dialectology is not only used to collect data on attitudes about language, but it also looks at how non-linguists view the people who speak with these accents.

To explore these insights into language and social attitudes, perceptual dialectology researchers use a map task. You can see an example of a completed map task in the image at the top of this page, which is also available in full using this link.

Here, a participant has drawn labels and boundaries on a blank map of the United Kingdom to show where they think different accent groups can be found geographically. We can see which sounds and words are salient to the participant, as well as how the participant distinguishes between one accent from other, geographically-close accents. The map also reveals how the participant feels toward particular accent groups and their speakers. For example, this participant appears to associate speakers from Liverpool with being ‘cheeky’ and ‘feisty’. 

Notice as well that this participant has far fewer boundaries and labels for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales than they do for England. This lack of detail might suggest that the participant is more familiar with English accents, forming views about speakers from other parts of the United Kingdom which are more heavily based on stereotypes. Another participant might hold completely different opinions about people from the same region.

To explore the robustness of these attitudes, therefore, a researcher might want to collect many completed maps. Doing so would form an overall map of language attitudes from a particular community or group. If a large number of maps were combined into a single ‘master’ map, any unique or rare opinions would be less influential on the labels and boundaries drawn. Having these maps (whether in isolation or combined), allows us to look at the differences between how linguists and non-linguists understand accent boundaries.

For example, the United Kingdom is known to have a large amount of regional variation right across the country. However, individual participants tend to draw maps which don’t come close to describing the real amount of accent variation that is present. Of course, there are many possible reasons for this apparent ‘gap’ in knowledge. These might include not being exposed to speakers of different accents or that non-linguists are using different criteria to differentiate between accents.

One benefit of this data collection approach is that the participants have a lot of control over their responses. This control comes from the maps being blank to start with. As such, researchers can gain real insight into a participant’s perception of accent boundaries and their language attitudes. It is also possible that many participants would find this task less intimidating than being interviewed directly.

Later on in this week of the course, we’ll discuss both the positive and negative aspects of a range of sociolinguistic data collection methods. 

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: Accents, Attitudes and Identity

University of York

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