Scillonian Dialect Project

This project investigated the variety of English spoken by the population of the Isles of Scilly (a group of islands 28 miles off Land's End, Cornwall).

This project investigated the variety of English spoken by the population of the Isles of Scilly (a group of islands 28 miles off Land’s End, Cornwall). Census data shows considerable continuity in the original Scillonian population from the nineteenth century onwards, however, it also shows a steady flow of immigration, with incomers accounting for approximately one fifth of the local population. scilly

These population shifts have occurred alongside significant changes to the local economy: once sustained by fishing and farming industries, the islands’ predominant industry is now tourism. These economic and demographic shifts make Scilly a fruitful environment in which to examine the processes involved in language variation. In particular, the islands’ location permits us to examine the nature of insular communities and the influence of complex social structures. This not only enhances our understanding of “a lesser-known variety of English” (Trudgill 2002: 29), it also helps us to further understand the correlation between social networks, traditional practices, family ties, heritage and language change.

The historical trajectory of Scilly’s variety of English was documented by first seeking to establish the variety’s genealogy. Recordings held in the Isles of Scilly Museum’s Oral History Archive suggest that there are similarities between Scillonian English and Cornish English, but these connections were not observed in historical accounts of the dialect (including an academic account of Scillonian English written in 1979 by Charles Thomas). In order to examine this apparent language change, the interaction between language production and what individuals perceive about the variety and its historical associations was considered. The demographic and diachronic distribution of language features was considered, and the folklinguistic ways in which these features are perceived were studied. The analysis used recordings of elderly speakers held in the Oral History Archive, and compared these with present-day interviews recorded with speakers of different generations from the same Scillonian family. Attitudes to the dialect were considered via on-line tests where locals, tourists and those who have never been to Scilly were asked to evaluate the localities and social attributes associated with the voice samples they hear. In taking these approaches, this project demonstrated methods for combining production and perception-based studies of language variation.

This project built upon previous collaborations between the principal investigator and the Isles of Scilly Museum, the Council of the Isles of Scilly, the Five Islands School and the Isles of Scilly Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership. As such, it innovatively embedded the research in a history of knowledge exchange. This relationship was key to fully understanding how language features correlate with the social life of speech communities. The AONB Management Plan (2010-2014: 28) highlighted the importance of consultation and noted that “Scilly has rich and varied cultural associations that span politics, religion, art, literature, folklore, local tradition and lifestyles.” By combining ethnographic insights into the community, engaging community members (via archive recordings and community collaboration) and gaining access to the historical documentation relating to Scilly held by on the islands, this project achieved a comprehensive understanding of Scilly’s sociolinguistic context and served as an exemplar of publicly engaged sociolinguistic research.

Project Team

  • Dr Emma Moore (Principal Investigator – University of Sheffield)
  • Jamie McLaughlin (Developer – The Digital Humanities Institute)