Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

01 March 2013

The British Library VoiceBank: An Introduction

Jonnie Robinson and Holly Gilbert write about the British Library's VoiceBank - a collection of 15,000 recordings made by the public during the Evolving English exhibition. It includes voices from around the world with wonderful examples of everyday speech, accent and dialect. Read more below...

The Herculean task of cataloguing the British Library VoiceBank is now underway. The VoiceBank is a collection of sound recordings made by visitors to the Evolving English exhibition which took place at the British Library between November 2010 and April 2011. The exhibition looked at the history and diversity of the English language in all its forms so it was a good place to collect some new information about contemporary variation in spoken English. For this purpose, tucked just inside the entrance were three specially constructed booths containing a telephone and a set of instructions. On lifting the phone receiver, contributors heard prompts that asked them to provide anonymised information about themselves including gender, year of birth, whether they spoke any languages at home other than English and where they thought their accent was from. They were then give the option of talking about a word or phrase that they found interesting or amusing or of reading the popular children’s story ‘Mr Tickle’, or both. Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Sociolinguistics and Education at the British Library and curator of the Evolving English exhibition, describes the reasons for using the Mr Tickle text in a previous blog post and on Radio 4’s Today programme. Around 15,000 people contributed to this incredible collection and we are now in the process of uncovering the exciting diversity and rich research potential of the recordings. You may even have made a recording yourself.

After listening to a mere 1,920 of the VoiceBank recordings, the variety in terms of age and geography is already astounding. The oldest participants were born in 1928 and include a German refugee who explains how her family used the word ‘emigranto’ to describe the mixture of languages used at first by immigrants which combined German syntax with English words such as in the term ‘geboiltes egg’ as well as a man from Tyneside who uses the word ‘dunch’ to mean ‘collision’. The youngest contributor is a boy from Chicago born in 2003 who simply says ‘bagel’. The contributors have accents that come from across the world including of course a huge number of locations in the UK and Ireland, as well as many other European countries from Portugal and the Channel Islands to Serbia and Estonia. There are voices from African countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria and contributions from Russia, Australia and New Zealand as well as many parts of Asia and the Middle East including India, Japan, Israel and Iran. South America is represented by voices from Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela and there are contributions from several US states, Canada and the Caribbean. So far no voice from Antarctica but you never know, according to Wikipedia the first child was born in the South Pole in 1913.

We’ll be writing more about some of the fascinating words and phrases discussed by the participants in the coming weeks. The first batch of 1,731 VoiceBank recordings has now been uploaded to the Sound and Moving Image catalogue and is available in the British Library Reading Rooms. Right now I’m researching the word ‘shuntler’, used by one contributor’s mum in Chesterfield, Derbyshire in the north of England but thought to be a made-up word by his dad. A Sheffield dialect dictionary published in 1891 may contain just the information I need…


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