A leading authority on English dialects, he was born at Bradford on 18 February 1926 into a Methodist family that worshipped at the Lidget Green chapel. He was educated at Grange Grammar School, where he became head boy. He won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and after war service with the RAF in India he returned to read English at Leeds University, gained an MA for a study of Lincolnshire dialect and became a lecturer there. His research into English dialects under Harold Orton took him all over the country and contributed to the Survey of English Dialects (in four, three part volumes, 1962-1971). He gained a reputation as a real-life Henry Higgins, whose acute ear could detect slight but significant linguistic variations. He established himself as a pioneer in forensic voice analysis when he gave evidence at Winchester Magistrates Court in 1967. In 1979 his verdict that a recorded message from the 'Yorkshire Ripper' was a hoax was disregarded by the police, but later proved to be correct. He was actively involved in the Yorkshire Dialect Society and became a consultant to the security forces. In 2004 he was made an honorary member of the International Association for Forensic Phonetics & Acoustics.
His friendly, approachable personality made him a good interviewer and a popular teacher. He broadcast regularly on Radio 4 and later took part in radio phone-ins, answering questions about the origins of names and place-names.
In his early years he became a local preacher, training in the Great Horton Circuit under the Rev. Arthur Bailey, and was actively involved in youth work. For many years, until they disbanded in 2007, he attended the annual reunion of Methodists who had come to know each other during national service in New Delhi, India. He spent his retirement in Harrogate, where he died on 31 October 2009.