Dialectology (from Greek διάλεκτος, dialektos, "talk, dialect"; and -λογία, -logia) is a sub-field of historical linguistics, the scientific study of linguistic dialect. It studies variations in language based primarily on geographic distribution and their associated features (as opposed to variations based on social factors, which are studied in sociolinguistics). Dialectology treats such topics as divergence of two local dialects from a common ancestor and synchronic variation.

Dialectologists are ultimately concerned with grammatical features which correspond to regional areas. Thus they are usually dealing with populations living in their areas for generations without moving, but also with immigrant groups bringing their languages to new settlements.

William Labov is one of the most prominent researchers in this field.


Dialect studies began in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The idea of dialect studies began in 1876, by Georg Wenker, who sent postal questionnaires out over Northern Germany. These postal questionnaires contained a list of sentences written in Standard German. These sentences were then transcribed into the local dialect, reflecting dialectal differences. Many studies proceeded from this, and over the next century dialect studies were carried out all over the world. Joseph Wright produced the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary in 1905. Traditional studies in Dialectology were generally aimed at producing dialect maps, whereby imaginary lines were drawn over a map to indicate different dialect areas. The move away from traditional methods of language study however caused linguists to become more concerned with social factors. Dialectologists therefore began to study social, as well as regional variation. The Linguistic Atlas of the United States (1930s) was amongst the first dialect studies to take social factors into account.

In the 1950s, the University of Leeds undertook the Survey of English Dialects, which focused mostly on rural speech in England and those areas of Wales that had always spoken English.

This shift in interest consequently saw the birth of Sociolinguistics, which is a mixture of dialectology and social sciences.

Methods of data collection

Dialect researchers typically use questionnaires to gather data on the dialect they are researching. There are two main types of questionnaires, direct and indirect.

Researchers using direct questionnaires will present the subject with a set of questions that demand a specific answer and are designed to gather either lexical or phonological information. For example, the linguist may ask the subject the name for various items, or ask him or her to repeat certain words.

Indirect questionnaires are typically more open-ended and take longer to complete than direct questionnaires. Researchers using this method will sit down with a subject and begins a conversation on a specific topic. For example, he may question the subject about farm work, food and cooking, or some other subject, and gather lexical and phonological information from the information provided by the subject. The researcher may also begin a sentence, but allow the subject to finish it for him, or ask a question that does not demand a specific answer, such as “What are the most common plants and trees around here?”

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