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Scientists launch app to document English dialects


A team of researchers from England and Switzerland has developed a smartphone app in English that identifies regional accents based on the pronunciation of words and phrases. It follows hugely successful similar crowdsourcing linguistics apps in German and Swiss-German. 

Researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Zurich and Bern have developed a free app in English, called English Dialects (available for iOS and Android) to try to document how language has changed in different parts of England over the past 60 years. 

Users make voice recordings using the app, which asks them to choose their pronunciation of 26 different words before guessing where exactly they are from.    

“We want to document how English dialects have changed, spread or levelled out,” said Adrian Leemann, a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics. “The first large-scale documentation of English dialects dates back 60-70 years [known as the Survey of English Dialects].” 

“We hope that people in their tens of thousands will download the app and let us know their results – which means our future attempts at mapping dialect and language change should be much more precise,” said Leemann. “Users can also interact with us by recording their own dialect terms and this will let us see how the English language is evolving and moving from place to place.” 

Swiss German dialects 

The English language app, launched on Monday on the App Store and Google Play, follows the hugely successful versions in German, which recorded over one million hits in four days on Germany’s Der Spiegel website, and in Swiss-German dialects [Dialäkt Äpp], which was created in 2013 and downloaded 88,000 times. 

Thanks to the Swiss German app, researchers were able to gain insights into the development of dialects by identifying the origin of a speaker based on their pronunciation and use of 16 terms. 

The researchers published their results for the Swiss-German app in the January 4 edition of the journal "PLoS ONE", using data from nearly 60,000 participants. 

“Results reveal a relative stability for phonetic variables, while lexical and morphological variables seem more prone to change,” they wrote. 

The more people who use the crowdsourcing dialect app, the more precise the data becomes, the University of Bern said in a statement.

swissinfo.ch with agencies

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