The Survey of English Dialects was undertaken between 1950 and 1961 under the direction of Professor Harold Orton of the English department of the University of Leeds. It aimed to collect the full range of speech in England and Wales before local differences were to disappear. Standardisation of the English language was expected with the post-war increase in social mobility and the spread of the mass media. The project originated in discussions between Professor Orton and Professor Eugen Dieth of the University of Zurich about the desirability of producing a linguistic atlas of England in 1946, and a questionnaire containing 1,300 questions was devised between 1947 and 1952.
313 localities were selected from England, the Isle of Man and some areas of Wales that were located close to the English border. Priority was given to rural areas with a history of a stable population. When selecting speakers, priority was given to men, to the elderly and to those who worked in the main industry of the area, for these were all seen as traits that were connected to use of local dialect. One field worker gathering material claimed they had to dress in old clothes to gain the confidence of elderly villagers.
The Survey was one of the first to make tape recordings of informants. However, the early tape recordings were of such poor quality that they were unusable. Only 287 of the 313 sites had a recording made, and the recording is not always of the same informants that answered the questionnaire. Most of the recordings are of inhabitants discussing their local industry, but one of the recordings, that at Skelmanthorpe in West Yorkshire, discussed a sighting of a ghost. These recordings are now all freely available online through the British Library, together with some transcriptions in the X-SAMPA phonetic alphabet.
Most of the sites were small villages. The literature usually refers to the "four urban sites" of Hackney, Leeds, Sheffield and York, where large parts of the questionnaire were not asked as the residents were unlikely to be familiar with the agricultural subject matter. There were also some sizeable towns (e.g. Fleetwood, Newport, Washington) and some suburbs of towns (e.g. Harwood in Bolton, Wibsey in Bradford); although the full questionnaire was administered at these sites, some of the questions focused on agriculture found no answer. It was originally planned to survey urban areas at a later date, but this was plan was abandoned owing to a lack of financial resources. In the Introduction volume, Harold Orton wrote, "For our investigation of the town dialects we contemplate the use of a 'short' questionnaire, which will omit the books relating to husbandry, but on the other hand will include more notions relating to the life of the artisan and the syntactical aspects of his speech." One of the main fieldworkers, Stanley Ellis, later wrote, "The problems of the investigation of town dialects … are so complex as to be insoluble, in the opinion of this reviewer".
404,000 items of information were gathered, and these were published as thirteen volumes of "basic material" beginning in 1962. The process took many years, and was prone to funding difficulties on more than one occasion.
In 1966, Eduard Kolb published Linguistic atlas of England: Phonological atlas of the northern region; the six northern counties, North Lincolnshire and the Isle of Man, which mapped variation in the most linguistically diverse part of England. This book is out of print and very rare.
The basic material had been written using specialised phonetic shorthand unintelligible to the general reader: in 1975 a more accessible book, A Word Geography of England was published. Harold Orton died soon after this in March 1975.