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Eye dialect is the use of nonstandard spelling for speech to draw attention to pronunciation. The term was coined by George P. Krapp to refer to the literary technique of using nonstandard spelling that implies a pronunciation of the given word that is actually standard, such as wimmin for women; the spelling indicates that the character's speech overall is dialectal, foreign, or uneducated. This form of nonstandard spelling differs from others in that a difference in spelling does not indicate a difference in pronunciation of a word. That is, it is dialect to the eye rather than to the ear. It suggests that a character "would use a vulgar pronunciation if there were one" and "is at the level of ignorance where one misspells in this fashion, hence mispronounces as well."
The term is less commonly also used to refer to pronunciation spellings, that is, spellings of words that indicate that they are pronounced in a nonstandard way. For example, an author might write dat as an attempt at accurate transcription of a nonstandard pronunciation of that.
The rest of this article will discuss the former definition. See pronunciation spelling for the latter.
Some notable authors who utilize eye dialect include Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, William Faulkner, Robert Ruark, Charles Dickens, Alex Haley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Terry Pratchett, Russell Hoban and Ian Fleming.
However, most authors are likely to use eye dialect with restraint, sprinkling nonstandard misspelling here and there to serve as a cue to the reader about all of a character's speech, rather than as an accurate phonetic representation.
While mostly used in dialogue, eye dialect may appear in the narrative depiction of altered spelling made by a character (such as in a letter or diary entry), generally used to more overtly depict characters who are poorly educated or semi-literate.
Eye dialect is often employed when authors wish to establish a sympathetic sense of superiority between themselves and the reader as contrasted with the nonstandard speech of the character. Such spellings serve mainly to "denigrate the speaker so represented by making him or her appear boorish, uneducated, rustic, gangsterish, and so on". "The convention violated is one of the eyes, not of the ear".
Jane Raymond Walpole points out that there are other ways to indicate speech variation such as altered syntax, punctuation, and colloquial or regional word choices. She observes that a reader must be prompted to access their memory of a given speech pattern and that non-orthographic signals that accomplish this may be more effective than eye dialect. Frank Nuessel points out that use of eye dialect closely interacts with stereotypes about various groups, both relying on and reinforcing them in an attempt to efficiently characterize speech.
In The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, John Dufresne cites The Columbia Guide to Standard American English in suggesting that writers avoid eye dialect; he argues that it is frequently pejorative, making a character seem stupid rather than regional, and is more distracting than helpful. Like Walpole, Dufresne suggests that dialect should be rendered by "rhythm of the prose, by the syntax, the diction, idioms and figures of speech, by the vocabulary indigenous to the locale."
Eye dialect, when consistently applied, may render a character's speech indecipherable. An attempt to accurately render nonstandard speech may also prove difficult to readers unfamiliar with a particular accent.
Examples in English
Charles Dickens may have used eye dialect more than any other author in English, combining it with pronunciation spelling and nonstandard grammar in the speech of his uneducated characters. An example in Bleak House is dialogue spoken by Jo, the miserable boy who sweeps a path across a street:
- ...there wos other genlmen come down Tom-all-Alone's a-prayin, but they all mostly sed as the t'other wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded as to be a-talking to theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t'others, and not a-talkin to us.
Here wos, sed, and wuns indicate standard pronunciations.
In contemporary novels, eye dialect can be found in Forrest Gump (by Winston Groom) and The Help (by Kathryn Stockett).
The American cartoonist Al Capp frequently combined eye dialect with pronunciation spelling in his strip "Li'l Abner". Examples include lissen, aristocratick, mountin [mountain], correkt, feends, hed, introduckshun, leppard, and perhaps the most common, enuff. Only his rustic characters are given these spellings; for instance, the "overcivilized" Bounder J. Roundheels's dialogue contains gourmets, while Li'l Abner's contains goormays.
In his Discworld series, Terry Pratchett makes extensive use of eye dialect to extend the caricature of his characters, even going to the point of changing the font used for certain dialog. Death, for example, speaks in small capitals, while the dialog of a golem who can only communicate by writing resembles Hebrew script, in reference to the origins of the golem legend. Eye dialect is also used to establish a medieval setting, wherein many characters' grasp of spelling is heavily based on phonetics.
Many cartoonists and comic book creators eschew phonetic eye dialects in favor of font changes or distinctive speech balloons – Swamp Thing, for example, has traditionally been depicted using "crusty" yellow speech balloons and dialogue heavily laced with ellipses, suggesting a gravelly voice that only speaks with great effort. Robotic and computer characters often use square speech balloons and angular fonts reminiscent of OCR-A, suggesting a stilted, emotionless cadence. An example of a comic that does both is The Order of the Stick, where some characters (particularly ones that are unusual in some way, such as being undead or from another plane of existence) will have oddly colored word bubbles, whereas Dwarves speak with eye dialect.
Novelist Ian Fleming makes extensive use of eye dialect in his James Bond series of novels. The first major instance is in the second book, Live and Let Die. In chapter five, entitled "Nigger Heaven", whilst on a mission in New York City, James Bond witnesses this conversation in Harlem between a man and a woman: 'The man's voice suddenly sharpened. "Wha' dat Birdie he mean tuh yuh, hey?" he asked suspiciously. "Perzackly," he paused to let the big word sink in, "perzackly wha' goes 'tween yuh 'n dat lowdown ornery wuthless Nigguh?" ' Another example comes from Dr No. The Caymanian friend of James Bond named Quarrel has this to say to Bond, and here we see Ian Fleming clearly use eye dialect, with phrases such as "de udders" to describe "the others": "Dese is sly folks, cap'n. Dat man mus' of come sneakin' down soffly behind de udders to ketch us comin' out after de dawgs had passed. He sho is a sly mongoose, dat Doctor feller."
Examples in other languages
In the Chilean comic Mampato, the character Ogú replaces hard ⟨c⟩ with ⟨k⟩ (e.g. ⟨komida⟩ instead of ⟨comida⟩), to show that his accent is strange.
In Russian, Vasiliy Shukshin's story "Мой зять украл машину дров" ("My son-in-law stole a carful of firewood") has the main character say "Што?" for "What?" instead of the expected "Что?" (что is normally pronounced [ʂto], not [tɕto], as if it was spelled "што"). The character is a delivery driver in Siberia and the eye dialect emphasizes his uneducated nature.
The novel Zazie dans le Métro is famously written in French that disregards almost all French spelling conventions.
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