Background and history

Tauno F. Mustanoja's house

The dialect project was started at the English Department of the Helsinki University in the early 1970s. Professor Tauno F. Mustanoja, who held the chair of English Philology in the years 1961-1975 and was the author of the widely recognised Middle English Syntax, was the initiator of the project in co-operation with Professor Harold Orton, University of Leeds. The original idea of supplementing the Leeds Survey of English Dialects (SED) was reflected in various aspects of the Helsinki project too, e.g. data collection methods, informant selection criteria, etc. The fieldworkers of the 1970s subcorpora (Cambridge, Devon, Isle of Ely, Somerset, Suffolk) were also provided with sample recordings from SED and were given assistance by the scholars at Leeds.

The Helsinki Dialect Syntax Group, as it was called then, met at Tauno F. Mustanoja's home, which provided the setting for planning the project and gave the senior members of the team a chance to assist and share their experiences with the rest. One of the principles the fieldworkers decided on was that since variation in some areas of grammar was evident even in the range of the same local dialect, it would be necessary, in order to best study this variation, to record longer passages from fewer speakers rather than to gather short interviews from a larger number of speakers.

Matti Rissanen, Merja Kytö, Ossi Ihalainen
ICAME 1987 (Helsingin Sanomat)

After Prof. Mustanoja's withdrawal from the project, Ossi Ihalainen succeeded him as the project leader in 1981. Ihalainen's expertise in using computers to aid language study gave birth to the idea of creating a computerised collection of English texts. This project came to be in 1984, when Matti Rissanen and Ossi Ihalainen co-directed the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts: Diachronic and Dialectal project. The original aim was for the Corpus to contain a diachronic part covering the period from circa 750-1700 (Helsinki Corpus of English Texts) and a dialectal part based on transcripts of interviews with speakers of British English dialects from the 1970s.

Concordance slip used in
early computer corpus research.

Ossi Ihalainen was the initiator of the computer-readable Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects (HD) (see e.g. Ihalainen 1988a, 1988b, 1990a; Ihalainen et al. 1987). Since computer technology was only taking its baby steps in the early 1980s, the compilation of a computer corpus was a time-consuming and complicated task. The dialect project was coordinated by Ihalainen until his premature death in 1993. Kirsti Peitsara took charge of the project in 1997, and in 2007 the responsibility was handed over to Anna-Liisa Vasko.

The planned completion date for HD was postponed in order to include a considerable amount of material donated to the project by Anna-Liisa Vasko, one of the original 1970s fieldworkers, who rejoined the project in summer 2000.

Ossi Ihalainen

Dr. Ossi Ihalainen was one of the pioneers in the use of computer corpora in linguistic research. His interest in using computers in dialectal studies spawned the Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects, to which he also contributed his own fieldwork in the Somerset region.

Before his untimely death in 1993, he was professor of the English Department in the University of Helsinki, and one of his plans was to develop the department into an international research centre and archive for British dialects.

Dr. Ihalainen was also a member of the advisory board of International Computer Archive of Modern English, which has played a key role in developing and coordinating work on computerised corpora and software.

Source: Rissanen, Matti. 1993. "Ossi Ihalainen (1941-1993). In Memoriam." in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 3/94. 241-242.