A full account of the methodology and contents in ECEP can be found in Yáñez-Bouza et al. (2018).

Data compilation

The data in ECEP have been systematically annotated and thematically grouped in three major categories:

(i) Phonology-related data. Each primary source has been examined for illustrative examples of Wells’s Standard Lexical Sets of vocalic variants (1982: 119–20, 127–68). These include 27 sets, 61 subsets and a total of 1,737 example words, of which we have coded 1,395 items for each dictionary. To these we have added 5 supplementary sets of consonantal variants, which number 204 example words in 10 subsets. The relevant segment of each example word has been transcribed into Unicode IPA, and has been further annotated in terms of lexical set, subset and metalinguistic comments. A frequency list is also available with an estimated frequency rate of the lexical item in eighteenth-century British English.

(ii) Work-related metadata: title, year of publication, editions, place of publication, imprint information, physical description, paratext, target audience.

(iii) Author-related metadata: name, life-dates, gender, social class, birthplace, place of residence, occupation.

Bibliographic references consulted have also been documented.

Details of the design of the database are set out in Table 1.

Table 1. Design of the ECEP database.
Phonology Source Author
Lexical set Type of work Name
Lexical subset Title Life dates
Example word Year of publication (of the edition consulted) Gender
(IPA variants)
Edition Social class
Example word frequency Place of publication Place of birth
Metalinguistic comments Imprint
(printers, booksellers)
Places of residence
Metalinguistic attitude Price Occupation
Metalinguistic label Physical description Other biographical details
Compilers’ notes Paratext Works by this author in ECEP
(age, gender, social class, instruction, specific purpose)
References consulted
Compilers’ notes

Data contents

The following documentation is available to users upon request (

  • Complete list of Wells’ (1982) vowel sets, with indication of the excluded items.
  • Complete list of supplementary consonant sets.
  • IPA symbols used in the transcribed items.
  • Correspondence between the IPA symbols and the diacritic conventions used in each eighteenth-century pronouncing dictionary.
  • Frequency list for the example words in the vowel sets.
  • Frequency list for the example words in the consonant sets.

Pronouncing dictionaries

Direct evidence for the historical pronunciation of English often comes from authors who deliberately set out to describe (or prescribe) the pronunciation of their time. In reconstructing the pronunciation of earlier periods of English, we have to rely mainly on indirect evidence, such as rhymes or puns, but from the sixteenth century onwards, direct evidence becomes increasingly available as interest in spelling reform and in phonetics increases. From the middle of the eighteenth century dictionaries are published in which the pronunciation of every word is described, and these provide the source material for ECEP.

ECEP is not intended to be a database of dialectal pronunciation, but it does reflect the variation between the ‘received’ speech of London and of the equivalent in provincial centres such as Edinburgh and Newcastle, as well as providing evidence for change over the course of the eighteenth century.

The sources in ECEP include the earliest available editions of all the accessible pronouncing dictionaries of English printed in eighteenth-century Britain. To date we have examined 11 dictionaries, listed below in chronological order:

  • Buchanan, James. 1757. Linguae Britannicae Vera Pronuntiatio. London.
  • Johnston, William. 1764. A Pronouncing and Spelling Dictionary. London.
  • Kenrick, William. 1773. A New Dictionary of the English Language. London.
  • Perry, William. 1775. The Royal Standard English Dictionary. Edinburgh.
  • Spence, Thomas. 1775. The Grand Repository of the English Language. Newcastle.
  • Sheridan, Thomas. 1780. A General Dictionary of the English Language. London.
  • Burn, John. 1786. A Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd edn. Glasgow.
  • Scott, William. 1786. A New Spelling, Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language. Edinburgh.
  • Walker, John. 1791. A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language. London.
  • Jones, Stephen. 1797, 1798. Sheridan Improved. A General Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language. 2nd and 3rd editions. London.

NB. It was decided to include two editions of Jones’s dictionary because the third edition demonstrates significant changes in which Jones distances himself from Sheridan, most noticeably in recognising a distinction between long and short vowels in the bath and start sets.

Lexical sets

The use of lexical sets and their associated example words is standard practice in studies of variation and change in English; including the full range of example words allows for differences in lexical distribution between the primary sources, and between these and the contemporary accents described by Wells. Thus, a researcher interested in the distribution of words in Wells’s price and choice sets would be able to find how each of the example words from these sets was transcribed in each of the eighteenth-century sources documented in the database, and how phonological variants were perceived at the time in the context of the standardisation of English (e.g. proper, vulgar, etc.).

Overall Wells’s list contains 24 lexical sets for stressed vowels (long, short, diphthongs) and 3 sets for unstressed vowels; this makes 1,737 example words in total, distributed in 27 sets and 61 subsets. For the reasons explained below, we have excluded 342 items, keeping the total for each pronouncing dictionary at 1,395 example words for the vowel sets. Besides, we have added 5 supplementary sets of consonantal variants, which number 204 items in 10 subsets. At the time of writing ECEP contains a total of 17,589 example words fully coded for 11 dictionaries. The data overview is provided in Table 2; methodological principles are further detailed in Yáñez-Bouza et al. (2018).

Table 2. ECEP contents (April 2016).
Lexical sets Lexical subsets Example words

Vowels – Wells (1982)
short: cloth, dress, foot, kit, lot, strut, trap
long: bath, fleece, force, goose, north, nurse, palm, start, thought
diphthongs: choice, cure, face, goat, mouth, near, price, square
unstressed: comma, happy, letter

27 61 1,395

Consonants – Supplementary list
deuce, feature, sure; heir; whale

5 10 204
Total in each pronouncing dictionary 32 71 1,599
Total in all pronouncing dictionaries 17,589

Excluded example words

  • Lexical items created or borrowed after 1800 (source: Oxford English Dictionary, January 2015), given that the scope of ECEP is limited to the phonology of the eighteenth century.
  • Example words not documented in any of the pronouncing dictionaries examined.
  • Proper names and clitic spellings of the type don’t, can’t, on the grounds that they are unlikely to be considered headwords in dictionaries. Country names appear occasionally in lists, but many did not exist at the time; clitics were characteristic of speech, but uncommon in writing before the Restoration period (Lass 1999: 180).

Other notations

  • ‘NID’ (‘Not In this Dictionary’): keywords which do not appear in a particular dictionary, but they do appear in others.
  • NoP (‘No Pronunciation’): keywords listed in a dictionary, but for which no pronunciation is provided.
  • Unclear: keywords for which the notation system in the original source is unclear or ambiguous.
  • At times pronouncing dictionaries do not list the precise keyword, but they do list or make reference to a related word; in such cases we take note of the latter and add an explanatory note for users (e.g. awning for awn in set thought_a).

IPA transcriptions

Our method has been to translate the idiosyncratic notation systems of the dictionaries into Unicode IPA transcriptions, based on the descriptions provided by the authors in the preface or introduction to their works. ECEP aims to reflect the inventory of categorically distinct sounds in the way that the eighteenth-century pronouncing dictionaries document them; we avoid second-guessing issues of phonology here.

Eighteenth-century pronouncing dictionaries tended to use different types of diacritic marks. The correspondence between each idiosyncratic system in the dictionaries examined and the IPA system is provided in a table for users’ guidance (see above).

Two methodological principles were followed for the interpretation of all pronouncing dictionaries. (i) We have consistently used /aː/ in line with the general view by historical phonologists that the backing to /ɑː/ was a later process (e.g. Lass 1999: 104). This concerns the sets bath, palm, start, and variants in face, lot, square, thought, trap. (ii) All the eighteenth-century dictionaries examined describe and/or prescribe a rhotic pronunciation; therefore, we have included post-consonantal /r/ in our transcriptions only when rhoticity is relevant to the pronunciation of the vowel in the example word, namely in the sets cure, force, letter, near, north, nurse, square, start. The exceptions are the subsets cure_ci, cure_cii, force_c, near_c, near_f, north_c, square_c, start_c because the example words in these subsets all have the vowel before /r/ followed by another vowel, as in curious, and therefore rhoticity is not an issue.

Authors typically provide a single pronunciation; if they comment on variation in the pronunciation of a particular word we document that in a separate column for IPA variants.

Metalinguistic comments

When the authors of the pronouncing dictionaries elaborate further on a context in which there is phonological variation, the passage is recorded in the field ‘Metalinguistic Comments’. Each comment is coded according to attitudes (neutral, positive, negative) and labels (e.g. proper, vulgar). We have followed here Sundby et al.’s (1991) A Dictionary of English Normative Grammar.

Frequency lists

Word frequency may be an influential factor in the choice of variants or in the development of sound changes such as those arising through lexical diffusion; therefore, we have compiled a frequency list with an estimated frequency rate of the lexical item in eighteenth-century British English, based on the data available in the multi-genre historical corpus ARCHER (1650–1999), version 3.2 (2013).