As dialect studies continue to fascinate linguists, Chris Sladen salutes an early Oxford pioneer.

hanks to Simon Winchester's The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998) and The Meaning of Everything (2003), the image of James Murray, trimly bearded Victorian editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, seated in his Banbury Road scriptorium while his assistants toil over piles of 'slips' sent in by contributors, is familiar across the world. By contrast, Joseph Wright, an equally hirsute Banbury Road resident and editor of the English Dialect Dictionary, published as a part-work between 1898 and 1905, has had little public exposure; the 80th anniversary of his death earlier this year passed virtually unremarked, save, as we shall see, in his native Yorkshire, yet his story was as remarkable, his output as prodigious, as those of Murray.

Joseph Wright arrived in Oxford in 1888, aged 33, as lecturer to the Association for the Higher Education of Women (lucky bluestockings got Gothic, Anglo-Saxon and Old German), and deputy lecturer in German at the Taylor Institution. Other University appointments followed: Deputy Professor of Comparative Philology in 1891; Professor 10 years later. During his early years in Oxford, he also taught in local schools and, crucially, published in 1892 a grammar of his native dialect of Windhill, in the West Riding.

Although Oxford colleagues may have thought this book an oddity, it caught the attention of the Cambridge philologist W W Skeat, founder of the English Dialect Society, which, in 1884, had voted to produce a dialect dictionary. By 1890 a million slips of paper had been accumulated, each bearing an individual dialect word, its meaning, pronunciation, county of origin and an illustrative sentence. Skeat persuaded Wright to take over as editor. By 1893 the material - slips for the letter 'S' alone weighed more than two hundredweight (102 kg) - had arrived in Oxford and Wright had embarked on the 'one thing' by which he would wish to be remembered.

Wright had been born in 1855 in Idle, near Bradford, hence his frequent boast: 'I've been an Idle man all my life, and shall remain an Idle man till I die.' The Wrights were a poor family and, like the Scots Calvinist Murrays, a dour lot: no drink, cardplaying, dancing or theatre-going. When, as a young man, Joseph brought home a copy of Shakespeare's plays, his mother threw it into the street (but, says Joseph's wife Elizabeth - also his biographer - 'her Yorkshire pudding was food for the gods').

Joseph started work aged six, leading a donkey cart loaded with tools from the nearby stone quarry to the smithy for sharpening. A year later he became a mill worker at Saltaire, the 'model village' founded by Titus Salt, earning an extra sixpence (2.5p) per week for working in what locals called 't'slave 'oil [hole]'.

Wright learned his numbers and alphabet at Salt's factory school, but claimed it was not until he was nearly 15 and earning over £1 per week as a wool-sorter that he could read a newspaper. He then embarked on French, German and Latin at night school; mathematics and Pitman's shorthand at the mechanics' institute. He also ran his own night school, charging workmates twopence (1p) each a week, and recited Yorkshire dialect poems at library 'penny readings'. During a shut-down at the mill in 1876, and having saved the substantial sum of £40, he visited Heidelberg to improve his German.

Back in England, Wright combined study at Yorkshire College of Science (later the University of Leeds) with school-mastering. A pupil recalled how 'with a piece of chalk [he would] draw illustrative diagrams at the same time with each hand, and talk while he was doing it'.

In 1882, having passed the London University Intermediate BA exam, Wright returned to Heidelberg. He was intending to study mathematics but switched to comparative philology, obtaining a PhD three years later, and continuing his study of literature and phonetics at Leipzig. He did translation work for German publishers; then, back in London, he was recruited (by Professor Max Müller) to Oxford.

Wright published many works of grammar, often with his wife Elizabeth, whom he had taught as a student at LMH; most of them were of the German, Middle English and Old English, Gothic and Greek languages, although, perhaps perversely, he claimed: 'From a linguistic point of view I love the Lithuanians more than any race under the sun.' But it was the dialect dictionary that captured his imagination. He feared that the spread of education and the speed of modern communication were bringing about the death of 'pure dialect speech', even in country districts, and determined to stem that disappearance.

A room was provided by the officials of the Clarendon Press for Wright and his team of part-time assistants, mostly female, one of whom later described its long, bare tables and shelves as 'like an empty workshop, not a scholar's den. The floor was strewn with packing cases filled with the accumulated slips ... and the dust of 20 years!' Wright himself thought the communal tea-breaks worth recording: 'The porter ... supplied good tea ... at a very reasonable price per head. Cakes we each bought in turn.'

Wright personally supervised the slips' transcription and the correspondence with hundreds of contributors; over 12,000 queries went out during the production of the first volume, 150 of them dealing with the words 'by' and 'by(e)' alone. He found contributors enthusiastic in the North and West of England, but in Kent and Surrey 'there is no such anxiety on the part of the natives'.

Difficulties arose over finance. The University Press, already stretched by the cost of The Oxford English Dictionary, declined to publish Wright's dictionary, fearful that his team might never finish. Commercial publishers also turned it down; Wright is said to have invested £25,000 of his own in the end. He also wrote to hundreds of potential subscribers, who paid one guinea (£1.05) for two 300-page 'parts' each year, which were eventually bound into six volumes.

When the work was completed in 1905, one reviewer aroused Elizabeth Wright's fury by focussing on possible errors and seeking to 'enhance the value of his superior knowledge of those unimportant details by captious criticism of the whole work'. Joseph was more phlegmatic: 'I do not care a snap of the finger for the charge of the reviewer that ... the work ... shows signs of haste and perfunctory treatment .... Our motto has been "Ohne Hast und Ohne Rast".'

Wright's final years at Oxford were not uniformly happy. He was elected to the British Academy in 1904, and accumulated honorary degrees and distinctions from British, European and American universities. He and Elizabeth continued to publish philological works and became comparatively wealthy, building themselves a handsome detached house in Banbury Road, named 'Thackley' after Joseph's birthplace. But their two children both died young and there are signs of differences of opinion between Wright and other academics.

Wright was an active supporter of degrees for women, but argued they should not become voting members of the University because they were, '... less independent in judgement than men and apt to run in a body like sheep', an unsurprising simile for a Yorkshireman, but not likely to endear him to his female students.

In the late 1920s, the University turned down Wright's offer of £10,000 towards improvement of the Taylorian; he sensed a plot to hand over the Taylorian and adjacent buildings to the management of the Ashmolean, his sworn enemies, and the money went instead to the University of Leeds. When he died, in February 1930, the substantial obituary notice promised by the Oxford Magazine failed to appear.

Wright's name is kept alive in his native county, both by the Yorkshire Dialect Society, which had 80th-anniversary celebrations on the agenda for its Spring 2010 meeting, and by a number of academics at the University of Leeds, notably Clive Upton, Professor of Modern English Language. A Leeds student has also been working on the dialect dictionary's original slips. In 2004 the British Library posted a sound archive of northern English speech on the internet and, yet further afield, the University of Innsbruck is working to digitise Wright's dictionary.

In Oxford, Wright's passion for dialect has not gone unappreciated since his death. Lynda Mugglestone (Professor of History of English, now working on a new book about dictionaries) says lexicography has been a popular option for second-year undergraduates doing the language course, with Wright's work having special interest for those studying the use of dialect by Victorian novelists. With the syllabus under review, however, the second-year language paper will disappear after 2011-12, and language work will move to the first year, with perhaps an option for further work later. The future of the specialist language and medieval course is currently under discussion.

More hopeful is a planned Master of Studies (MSt) postgraduate course, elements of which will include dialect and nonstandard language. Meanwhile, the streetwise end of the informal language market is catered for by OUP's Susie Dent from TV's Countdown, whose periodic 'language reports', such as Larpers and Shroomers (2004), analyse gangsta rap and online lingo. Tangible evidence of Wright and his work is less easy to spot than that of James Murray and his OED team. Murray's house 'Sunnyside' and its famous red letter box still stand in the Banbury Road; 'Thackley,' however, was demolished years ago and replaced by brutalist flats named 'Thackley End'.

New editions of the Wrights' grammars continued to appear late in the 20th century and may be found in college, faculty and major public libraries as well as Bodley, along with OUP's 1981 reprint of his dictionary. If you want to handle Wright's original, leather-bound edition, you face a steep climb to the Taylorian's 'Linguistic' room. His portrait by Ernest Moore hangs in the main hall.

For serendipitous enjoyment I recommend an afternoon in the Upper Reading Room with Wright's dictionary, even if clothbound (and now printed in Japan); only those in a 'zwodder' (a dreary, stupid state of mind - Somerset) would fail to judge his life's work as 'gradely' (decent, orderly, of a good sort - Lancashire, Yorkshire, etc.).

Chris Sladen (Christ Church 1953) is an occasional contributor to Oxford Today. Further reading: E. M. Wright, The Life of Joseph Wright (1932) OUP.