Mass Observation, everyday talk, and political language in Worktown

Undergraduate Research Scholarship project 2020

Department of English Language and Linguistics

Project academic: Joe Spencer-Bennett

Project summary

In 1937, an organisation called Mass Observation (M-O) was set up to observe the minutiae of everyday British life, including the talk of ordinary people on street corners, in buses and pubs.

M-O used their observations of everyday talk to advise politicians on how to communicate with the people. In WWII, M-O encouraged the Government to develop a personalised ‘language of leadership’ based on their ideas about how ordinary people talked.

This project focuses on the couple of years before the War (1937-1939), during which M-O put a lot of energy into investigating life in Bolton (‘Worktown’). It asks two broad questions:

  1. What did M-O have to say about everyday talk in Worktown, and how did they find out about it?
  2. What did they have to say about political language in Worktown, to whom did they say it, and how did they find out about it?

What you will do 

  1. Conduct searches of the M-O digital archive ( to find documents relevant to the questions above.
  2. Download and record details of those documents using a system to be agreed in the early stages of the project.
  3. Produce a timeline of M-O comments on everyday talk and political language in Worktown, in order to develop an understanding of how their ideas about political language developed in the years before World War II.

Skills required

  1. Interest in the ways in which language is used in British politics and in vernacular British English, and/or in mid-twentieth century British social history (though no particular knowledge will be assumed here)
  2. Basic knowledge of linguistic concepts such as ‘accent’, ‘vernacular’, ‘standard English’
  3. Ability to conduct keyword searches and to download and keep records of documents, using a computer programme such as Excel or Word (exact process to be agreed)
  4. Willingness to read through quite large amounts of very interesting but often sketchy and hard to decipher hand-written material (applicants could try a few searches of the archive to see what I mean if they wish)

How will the project benefit you?

  1. The material in the Mass Observation archive is fascinating, and, in terms of the questions we are asking here, underexplored – there’s plenty to be found out about this very significant moment in British social, political and linguistic history!
  2. The Mass Observation archive is a well-organised and well-documented online archive, so it provides a nice introduction to working with social-historical archives.

Where now?


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