November 19, 2009
Stanley Ellis, who has died aged 83, was Britain's best-known dialectologist and phonetician, and pioneered the forensic analysis of voice recordings, among them the hoax tape that derailed the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry.
In June 1979 the head of the Ripper squad, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, received a cassette tape in the post on which the sinister Geordie voice of an anonymous man taunted him for his failure to catch the Ripper and claiming to be the notorious killer ("I'm Jack"), who by then had murdered 10 women.
The police believed the tape to be genuine, and the hunt switched from Yorkshire to the north-east of England, diverting resources to pursue a suspect who had a strong Wearside accent and several unique speech impediments.
Oldfield consulted Ellis, who played and replayed the tape, repeating key syllables, before pinning the voice down to the Castletown district of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear. Police swamped the area, but Ellis and his colleague, Jack Windsor Lewis, also an expert in linguistics, always doubted the authenticity of the tape, and were sceptical that the man who became known as "Wearside Jack" was responsible for the murders.
Their advice that the tape was a hoax was ignored. West Yorkshire police clung to their belief that the man on the tape was the killer, and that non-Geordies – among them Peter Sutcliffe, the Bradford lorry driver subsequently convicted of the Ripper crimes – could be eliminated from the inquiry. Before Sutcliffe was eventually caught, he had killed another three women.
A quarter of a century later John Humble, a labourer who had lived his whole life within walking distance of Castletown, confessed to having been the voice on the tape, an affirmation of Ellis's skills. In 2006 Humble was jailed for eight years.
In 1975 Ellis and Lewis were also called in to advise on the taped message demanding a ransom for the kidnapped heiress Lesley Whittle during the Black Panther case.
Such was Ellis's accuracy in placing a regional accent to within a couple of miles that he was often likened to Shaw's Professor Henry Higgins in his play Pygmalion, who boasted he could place any man to within six miles – and within two miles in London, "sometimes within two streets".
Stanley Ellis was born on February 18 1926 in Bradford, the son of a wool overlooker. From the city's Grange grammar school, where he was head boy, he won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and served as a navigator in the RAF, being posted (like Professor Higgins's friend, Colonel Pickering) to India, the linguist's paradise. He served in Delhi during partition and was stationed at the airport in Karachi during the last days of the Raj.
At Leeds University School of English he completed an undergraduate dissertation in 1951 and was awarded an MA for his thesis on Lincolnshire dialect. In 1952 he became the principal fieldworker of the 11 phoneticians recruited by Harold Orton, Professor of English Language at Leeds, to carry out the university's extensive survey of English dialects.
Ellis shouldered the lion's share of the caseload, visiting 118 of the 313 – mostly rural – localities chosen, travelling first in a motorcycle sidecar combination; he later loaded his recording equipment (and his young wife and their first child) into a two-ton caravan which he towed behind a Land Rover, and in which they lived on the road for two years.
Ellis interviewed mainly older farming people to gather data on their vocabulary, verbal constructions and dialect words that had passed into vernacular use but were in danger of disappearing. The work was exhaustive and exhausting: he interviewed each subject for some 18 hours, and asked them to complete a 1,300-item questionnaire.
"We stay just long enough in each place to get the milkman and fishmonger organised by the time we have to move on," Ellis's wife Jean told The Daily Telegraph in 1955. The results of the survey began to appear in 1962, in two volumes of what was projected to be a magisterial 12-volume work of reference.
Ellis's expertise was first applied to a criminal case in 1967, when he gave evidence in a court at Winchester. An unemployed man was found guilty of making a malicious telephone call to the fire brigade, the first person in Britain to be convicted on the evidence of a spectrograph, or "voice print".
Ellis testified that in a recording of the call, and of a voice test taken by the defendant, the words "serious at the moment" were common to both. Ellis explained that the words were recorded on two loops of magnetic tape which were fed 200 times through a sonogram, with a spectroanalysis made from the sound frequencies. The result was a graph-like illustration of the voice patterns on both tapes – spectrograms. His success in this case led to a 25-year spell as a consultant to the British security services.
Later he became a lecturer (and subsequently a senior lecturer) in English Language at Leeds University; he also edited Transactions, the journal of the Yorkshire Dialect Society.
In 1983, aged 57, he took early retirement from his university post to devote himself more fully to the forensic voice recognition work he had begun to undertake in the 1960s. To this he added various lecturing activities and also a series of popular broadcasts on Radio 4, in which he resumed his travels around Britain, using his natural geniality to draw from people fascinating illustrations of their local speech characteristics and verbal lore.
In his series Talk of the Town, Talk of the Country, Ellis illustrated his theme with examples, explaining the derivation of Yorkshire dialect words such as "fraunge" (to stroll about); "femmer" (young or tender); and "fettle" (the old word for a strap, which came to mean "get, make, prepare, put right").
He discovered that a runt – the weakest in a litter of piglets – was a "crit" in Northumberland, a "wreckling" in Lincolnshire, a "nizgul" in Herefordshire and a "nestle-tripe" in Dorset.
He also found that north country people were more inclined to cling to dialect than those in the south, who regarded such speech as "non-U"; men, he found, were more likely to stick to the old words than their womenfolk.
Among thousands of regional variations, Ellis noted 88 different words for left-handed, ranging from "gibble-fisted" to "squivver-handed"; while someone silly might be "hatchy", "dibby", "dummy", "half-sharp" or "daft as a dicky-docket".
His own West Yorkshire accent, while broad, modified over the years – and even 30 years before texting and the triumph of the glottal stop he was complaining about a general tendency of language to become simpler and sloppier.
Not everyone appreciated Ellis's efforts, and he was blamed for accepting the inevitability of linguistic changes, such as the intrusive "r" in "law and order", "drawing" and "sawing". "After one broadcast," he told the Telegraph in 1980, "I received a letter saying that it was people like me who were the cause of wife-swapping, spitting in public and dogs fouling the pavement."
Many of Ellis's recordings are now lodged with the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture. In 2004 he became the first recipient of honorary life membership of the International Association for Forensics, Phonetics and Acoustics.
Stanley Ellis, who died on October 31, was thrice married. His first wife, Jean, from whom he was divorced, survives him, as does his third wife, Margaret, and the daughter and two sons of his first marriage. His second wife, Maggie, died in 1996.