Eye dialect is the use of words that are deliberately misspelled but properly pronounced. The term was coined by George Philip 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.
Some authors who use eye dialect include Harriet Beecher Stowe, Maya Angelou, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Greer Gilman, Alex Haley, Joel Chandler Harris, Russell Hoban, Terry Pratchett, James Whitcomb Riley, J.K. Rowling, Robert Ruark, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Paul Howard, and Irvine Welsh. 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.
The term eye dialect was first used by George Philip Krapp in 1925. "The convention violated", he wrote, "is one of the eyes, not of the ear.". According to Krapp, it was not used to indicate a real difference in pronunciation but
the spelling is merely a friendly nudge to the reader, a knowing look which establishes a sympathetic sense of superiority between the author and reader as contrasted with the humble speaker of dialect.— George P. Krapp, The English language in America (1925)
The term is less commonly 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.
In an article on written representations of speech in a non-literary context, for instance transcription by sociolinguists, Denis R.Preston argued that such spellings serve mainly to "denigrate the speaker so represented by making him or her appear boorish, uneducated, rustic, gangsterish, and so on".
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". Other writers have noted that eye dialect is employed in racist ways, with accented white speech transcribed using standard spelling, while accented non-white speech is transcribed with non-standard spelling.
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 combined eye dialect with pronunciation spelling and nonstandard grammar in the speech of his uneducated characters. An example in Bleak House is the following 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 his Discworld series, Terry Pratchett makes extensive use of eye dialect to extend the caricature of his characters, including changing the font used for certain dialogue. Death, for example, speaks in small capitals, while the dialogue 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.
American cartoonist Al Capp frequently combined eye dialect with pronunciation spelling in his comic 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.
Some 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, etc.
Examples in other languages
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 were spelled "што"). The character is a delivery driver in Siberia and the eye dialect emphasizes his uneducated nature.
The whole Russian Padonki dialect is based on deliberate misspelling of words.
- Apologetic apostrophe
- Eye rhyme
- Inventive spelling
- Satiric misspelling
- Sensational spelling
- Spelling pronunciation
- SMS language
- Walpole (1974:193, 195)
- Rickford & Rickford (2000:23)
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- Preston, Denis R. (1985). "The Li'l Abner Syndrome: Written Representations of Speech". American Speech. 60 (4): 328. doi:10.2307/454910.
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- Nuessel, Frank H. Jr. (1982), "Eye Dialect in Spanish: Some Pedagogical Applications", Hispania, 65 (3): 346–351, doi:10.2307/341268, JSTOR 341268
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- Bowdre, Paul H., Jr. (1971). Eye dialect as a literary device. In J. V. Williamson & V. M. Burke (Eds.), A various language (pp. 178–179). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
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- Macaulay, Ronald K. S. (1991). Coz It Izny Spelt When Then Say It: Displaying Dialect in Writing. American Speech, 66 (3), 280–291.
- Preston, Dennis R. (1982). Ritin' fowklower daun 'rong: Folklorists' failures in phonology. The Journal of American Folklore, 95 (377), 304–326.
- Preston, Dennis R. (1983). Mowr bayud spellin': A reply to Fine. The Journal of American Folklore, 96 (381), 330–339.
- Preston, Dennis R. (1985). The Li'l Abner syndrome: Written representations of speech. American Speech, 60 (4), 328–336.
- The dictionary definition of eye dialect at Wiktionary