The dialects of Joseph Wright

  • Themes: Books, History

Joseph Wright, author of the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, and one of the 19th century's most remarkable examples of social mobility, only learned to read at 15. He left an indelible mark on the English language.

The English Dialect Dictionary.
The English Dialect Dictionary. Credit: RichardBaker / Alamy Stock Photo

If you read Virginia Woolf’s diaries you will know that she was often a sharp critic of others. That’s why I was particularly pleased to discover that one of my heroes, the English dialectologist and lexicographer Joseph Wright (1855-1930), managed to pass the Woolf test. In the entry for 13 July 1932, she had written: ‘Old Joseph Wright and Lizzie Wright are people I respect… How rare it is to meet people who say things that we ourselves could have said: their attitude to life much our own.’

While Woolf may have thought of Joseph Wright as ‘one of us’ with a similar attitude to life, his life story could not have been further from her own. She had an upper-middle class upbringing in London, surrounded by books and the well-known intellectual friends of her father, while Joseph Wright grew up in an impoverished family in Yorkshire. At the age of 15 he could still neither read nor write, yet he rose to become an esteemed Oxford professor through the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Wright is most famous for raising the profile of English dialects by the publication of his splendid English Dialect Dictionary, published in six volumes between 1898 and 1905. This magnificent record of regional England codified dialect words which had previously been excluded from mainstream dictionaries.

Dictionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had the power to standardise and legitimise language, and Wright’s work did just that for regional varieties of English. As Woolf wrote in her diary, ‘Everybody knows now about dialect, owing to his dixery [dictionary].’ It documented the colourful language of locals: in Sussex, to ‘yape’ was to gossip; in Kent, an‘aquabob’ was an icicle; in Cornwall, a ‘zawn’ was a cave; in Hampshire, if someone was ‘floddy’, they were plump or stout; and in Yorkshire, ‘zookers’ was an exclamation of surprise.

Many of the words in Wright’s dictionary may no longer be spoken, as Standard British English has slowly replaced regional dialects, but this makes Wright’s magisterial volumes all the more important. They give us a rare glimpse into the cultural, social, political, and natural history of regional England at the turn of the 20th century, a world that might otherwise be considered ‘vulnerable’ or ‘endangered’.

Wright’s dictionary traced the history of dialect words over two centuries. The project was too large in scope for a single editor. Instead, it was crowdsourced, inviting members of the public across England to read their local books, to collect quotations of their local words and phrases, and to send them to Wright in Oxford. Hundreds of people took part in the process, many of whom were women. The final text ran to 5,000 pages and used 500,000 quotations to demonstrate the meaning of 100,000 headwords.

Many of Wright’s crowdsourcees were also helpers on the Oxford English Dictionary, which was being created at the same time by one of Wright’s good friends, James Murray. The two men lived near each other in north Oxford, and often met for tea in Murray’s garden. Sometimes, as in the photo below, they were joined by the Cambridge etymologist Walter Skeat, who had founded Wright’s dictionary and the English Dialect Society which supported it.

Wright and Murray had more in common than just lexicography. They were both autodidacts who had risen from humble beginnings. Murray had left school at 14, taught himself 25 languages, and had worked his way up within the philological world. Joseph Wright’s story is even more inspiring.

As I relate in my book The Dictionary People: the unsung heroes of the Oxford English Dictionary, Joseph Wright was born into a poor family in the coal mining township of Idle, Yorkshire, in 1855. Many years later he would joke, ‘I have been an Idle man all my life, and shall remain an Idle man till I die.’ Anyone who knew him and his unmatched work ethic got the joke.

Joseph had a feckless father, who died when he was 11, and a hard-working mother who raised her four sons by working at washing and charring. Joseph admired his mother and always spoke of her dignity and kindness, even though she had put him to work in a local mine at the age of six. He had worked as a donkey boy, driving a donkey-cart from 7am until 5pm, and carrying tools for the quarrymen, each of whom paid him one penny a week. When he turned 56, he had a birthday party in Oxford and proudly announced, ‘I have earned my living for half a century.’

At the age of seven, Joseph’s mother moved him from donkey boy in the quarry to doffer in the spinning department of the local mill, replacing the bobbins on the spindles. The mill was an hour’s walk from home, which he took by himself at 5 am. He worked as a ‘half-timer’ from 6 am to 12.30, with half an hour for breakfast at 8am. ‘I remember how my legs used to ache on a Monday morning, when I started work again after some rest on a Sunday, but they got right again in the course of the week.’ He reminisced towards the end of this life, ‘I went through many hardships as a lad but I didn’t feel they were hardships at the time, I always felt I was getting on.’

In the afternoons Wright went to a special school for half-timers. It was the only schooling he ever had, and while most half-timers stayed until the age of 13, Wright was in full-time work long before then. ‘When I left school I knew very little more than when I first went. I knew the alphabet, and had a smattering of elementary arithmetic, and I could recite parrot-like various Scriptural passages, and a few highly moral bits of verse; that was almost precisely the extent of my educational equipment after three or four years of schooling. Reading and writing for me were as remote as any of the sciences.’ He also knew nothing of Standard English as all he spoke was a strong Bradford dialect.

At the age of nine, Joseph moved on to wool sorting, working from 6am to 5.30pm. His life changed one lunchtime, six years later, when one of his fellow sorters was reading aloud from a newspaper about the Franco-Prussian war. Wright was mesmerised by the vivid tales of battle and got a sudden desire to want to read. He began to teach himself using two books: the Bible and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Wright practised writing during his lunch hour. An older man, Alfred Brooks, who was educated, took an interest in the 15-year-old who was left-handed, and encouraged him to use his right hand, but Wright ended up being ambidextrous and was famous at Oxford for writing on a chalk board simultaneously with two hands. He soon attended night school for ‘the working lads’ three nights a week. He taught himself from Cassell’s Popular Educator, which, published fortnightly, contained lessons on subjects as varied as geology, book-keeping, chemistry, Italian, French, and Greek. Undisturbed by outside noise, every spare minute that he had, he studied – every lunchtime, every night until 2am, and all day on Sunday after chapel. Fellow workers recalled looking across at Joey and seeing him with several books propped up in front of him while he sorted the wool. He loved languages and went to night school to learn French and German. He slept very little, but still reliably turned up for work at the wool mill at 6am each day.

Many years later, his wife Lizzie remarked to him, ‘I can’t think how you managed to learn all that when you were working at the mill from six in the morning till six at night.’ ‘Oh! It wasn’t as bad as that’, he replied. ‘I stopped at half past five.’

He attended night classes at the Mechanics Institute in Bradford (which provided adult education courses) twice a week to learn arithmetic, Euclid, algebra, and shorthand, walking three miles each way. At the age of 18, while still working as a wool sorter during the day, he needed money to buy books so he began his own night school. Up to a dozen young men would crowd into his mother’s small house – some stood, some sat on the floor, some perched on the bed.

At the age of 21, while the mill was temporarily closed, he used his savings to travel to Germany to study German and mathematics in Heidelberg, walking all the way from Antwerp. On his return he left the mill and got a job as a schoolteacher in Bradford, studying part-time at the Yorkshire College of Science (later Leeds University). At 27 he passed exams for a London BA degree, and returned to Germany where he got his PhD in Greek and became a leading figure in historical linguistics and Continental philology. He worked at the University of Leipzig until the age of 33, when he moved to Oxford as lecturer in Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Old German to the Association for the Higher Education of Women.

Meanwhile, Walter Skeat had begun to compile a comprehensive English Dialect Dictionary, which he handed over to Wright in 1891. Wright eventually became a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and had one of the most prestigious academic positions in the world: professor of comparative philology in the University of Oxford.

Wright fell in love with one of his most able students, Elizabeth Mary Lea (Lizzie), whom he married. Their love letters are charming and provide an insight into the early days of their romance. After Joseph’s death in 1930, Lizzie published their love letters and a biography of him. It was these that Virginia Woolf had read with such relish in 1932, and which had moved her to feel such an affinity for the Yorkshireman who had begun life as a donkey boy but ended it a respected scholar. She even modelled one of the characters in her novel The Years on Wright (Mr Robson), the father of the main protagonist’s friend in Oxford, and captured the kindness and gentleness of Jospeh Wright.


Sarah Ogilvie