The Ojanen-Vasko Cambridgeshire Corpus

Anna-Liisa Vasko's dialect research began in the early 1970s upon joining the Dialect Syntax Group in Helsinki, which was coordinated by Professor Tauno F. Mustanoja, University of Helsinki. The group's aim was to collect a corpus of continuous spontaneous speech, which would in time supplement the Leeds Survey of English Dialects (SED). Anna-Liisa Vasko was assisted in the project by Harold Orton, Clive Upton and Stewart Sanderson (University of Leeds), and she also had the opportunity to listen to the SED tapes from Elsworth that had been recorded by Stanley Ellis. Vasko took particular care in adhering to the selection criteria and documented thoroughly any background information on the informants.

[It] was extremely interesting to be intimately involved with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and to respond to challenges that one would never confront when collecting research material in a library (Vasko 2005: 260).

The Cambridgeshire dialect area was of particular interest, because the SED material includes only one locality from within the area (Elsworth, see map below). The lack of material was perhaps because of the generally held view that the speech of Cambridgeshire is less non-standard than, for example, the speech of Yorkshire. However, Cambridgeshire is considered to be part of a relic area and thus less susceptible to the influence of the standard than some of its neighbouring counties. In addition, Cambridgeshire has characteristics of a transitional area (Vasko 2005: 1-4).

The region used in the Cambridgeshire Corpus adheres to pre-1974 county borders (see map below). This distinction is now historical, since the county reorganisation of 1974 integrated Cambridgeshire, Isle of Ely and Huntingdonshire into the Cambridgeshire county known today.

The Cambridgeshire dialect

The earliest works about speech in the Cambridgeshire area are centred on the University, the landmark of the county. However, those records focused on words and forms of the standard language or were spoken by Received Standard speakers (Coates 1976: 2 in Vasko 2005: 10). Thus they serve little purpose in studying the folk speech of the area, but they do provide an interesting point of comparison for lexical studies and diachrony. Serious work in dialectology did not begin until the late 19th century, and any records of rural or folk speech before then have to be derived from, for example, spellings in documents, local glossaries, travel literature and comments of antiquaries, orthoepists and grammarians.

Another problem in finding out any historical evidence of the Cambridgeshire dialect was that it had been neglected or, at most, very poorly covered in early dialectal studies. It was often overshadowed by its neighbouring counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Some aspects of the dialect were, however, recorded in Forby's Vocabulary of East Anglia (1830).

The reasons for a lack of interest in the dialectal study of Cambridgeshire speech can be formulated into, and attributed to, three assertions: Firstly, Cambridgeshire speech doesn't differ much from the standard language or, secondly, that of its neighbouring counties. Thirdly, it has been said that Cambridgeshire speech is similar to Cockney. Although these assertions are historically founded, recent study has proven them to be inconclusive and in need of further research (see Vasko 2005 for a detailed account on the assertions).

The corpus

In its present state, the Ojanen-Vasko Cambridgeshire Corpus of the speech of 44 informants from 26 villages. The total word count is 239,206 and the stripped word count (i.e. words spoken by the informants only) is 190,462.

The corpus is still a work-in-progress, with a large amount of tape-recorded speech yet to be transcribed and included in the corpus as an extension.

Map of Cambridgeshire Proper and the localities visited. The county borders are those of pre-1974. Cambridgeshire is split into two shires or jurisdictions: Cambridgeshire Proper (as depicted on the map below) and Isle of Ely (covered in the Tammivaara-Balaam Corpus).


1 Boxworth 7 Waterbeach 13 Fulbourn 19 Gamlingay 25 Harston
2 Swavesey 8 Wicken 14 West Wickham 20 Kingston 26 Newton
3 Over 9 Burwell 15 Shudy Camps 21 Toft 27 Cambridge
4 Willingham 10 Swaffham Prior 16 Castle Camps 22 Lt. Eversden 28 Elsworth (also SED)
5 Rampton 11 Swaffham Bulbeck 17 Bartlow 23 Harlton  
6 Landbeach 12 Lt. Wilbraham 18 Bassingbourn 24 Barrington  

Sample #1

E.S. from Willingham.
Recorded in 1974.
Age, sex: 82, male.
Occupation: Farmworker.
Description: E.S. tells in a dialect typical of North-West Cambridgeshire speech about "ol' Charlie" the donkey.

Yeah. Oh yes, I got to riding ol' Charlie. [CHUCKLE] Yeah, well, I 'm been right down Merrills and down Tent 'Ill an' = I 'm gone back two hours. I couldn't find him an' I = I thought myself I was to get a raidin' if I go 'ome without him an' I suddenly dawn and I wonder if he 's down Lord's Ground Drove, and I went down Lord's Ground Drove and he were near the bottom end o' Lord's Ground Drove. And I walked up to him, I got on his back, start him off.

Download the sound clip by right-clicking here and choosing Save As from the menu. MP3 2:08 1,94mb.

Sample #2

E.T. from Willingham.
Recorded in 1972.
Age, sex: 72, female.
Occupation: Housewife.
Description: E.T. tells about her memories of her father from the wartime.

So. Anyway we go' on with the sweepin' but I always remember that. 'Cause Dad would, you know a = he didn't disturb, as long as he had a happy time. And I always remember saying t' 'im = when he come 'ome from the war. You know, he come 'ome that Feast Sunday night. An' I often used to stan' and look up them stars. You know, Dick and his Plough. One = one, two, three. One, two, three, four...

Download the sound clip by right-clicking here and choosing Save As from the menu. MP3 1:03 1mb.

Sample #3

A hand-drawn illustration (drawn by E.W.)
of a turf spade.

E.W. from Swaffham Prior.
Recorded in 1975.
Age, sex: 72, male.
Occupation: Farmer.
Description: E.W. explains turf-cutting.

Yes, uset' = I er I kept the cows, I kept the cows in the Burwell Fen area, when I 'way from = when I was 'leven, till I was fourteen to sixteen, you can say. I used to go out with 'em like in the daytime an' = old turf cutters what used to dig the peat then out the fenland, they used to be down there an' they used to be a-diggin'...

Download the sound clip by right-clicking here and choosing Save As from the menu. MP3 1:59 1,67mb.