November 23, 2006

Eye dialect

In posting about Lawrence Henry's American Spectator column on accents, Mark Liberman refers in passing to Henry's "eye dialect", is challenged on this by Daniel Ezra Johnson, and defends his use of the term by saying:

Well, the OED glosses "eye dialect" as "unusual spelling intended to represent dialectal or colloquial idiosyncrasies of speech", which seems close enough in this case.

The problem here is that there are two distinct but related concepts, and we have only one widely used term to label them.

One concept is the OED's: a representation of dialect (or colloquial) pronunciations via unusual spellings.  It would certainly be useful to have a term for this, and "eye dialect" is a nearly transparent candidate for the purpose.

But there's another tradition, in which the term is used for unusual spellings for perfectly ordinary pronunciations, functioning to suggest that the speaker is uneducated or crude -- the sort of person who would spell the words that way.  AHD4's definition links the two (but gives examples only of the second):

The use of nonstandard spellings, such as enuff for enough or wuz for was, to indicate that the speaker is uneducated or using colloquial, dialectal, or nonstandard speech.

Using eye dialect (in the first sense) is a tricky business; no matter what the writer's intent (which might be just to provide local color), it's likely to be understood as expressing contempt, and in any case readers often find it tiresome.  Writers would be well advised to use it sparingly.

Using eye dialect (in the second sense) is pretty much by definition a put-down.

I've always used "eye dialect" in the second sense, so I'd suggest "dialect spelling" for the first sense.  But then who's going to listen to ME?

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 23, 2006 07:04 PM