November 25, 2006

Dialect representation, resented

A couple of days ago, I commented on the use of "unusual spelling intended to represent dialectal or colloquial idiosyncrasies of speech" (from the OED's definition of "eye dialect"), noting that this is likely to be understood as expressing contempt.   A case in point, from a letter in the NYT Book Review, 5/8/05, from Butch Trucks (of the Allman Brothers Band), about a Rolling Stone story about the band written by Grover Lewis:

In Lewis's article, all the dialogue among members of our group seemed to be taken directly from Faulkner.  We are from the South.  We did and still do have Southern accents.  We are not stupid.  The people in the article were creations of Grover Lewis.  They did not exist in reality.

(The letter went to the Times because a review, by Roy Blount Jr., of Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader, which reprints the RS story about the band on tour, had appeared in the Book Review on 4/3/05.)

The reference to Faulkner is surprising.  If you go back and look at your Faulkner, you'll see that he is sparing in his use of special spellings of all types, including those representing ordinary casual speech (goin' for going, wanna for want to) and those representing dialect features (ma for my, brotha for brother).   I suspect that he NEVER uses unusual spellings for perfectly ordinary pronunciations (enuff for enough and the like).  He does indicate non-standard and dialectal features of morphology, syntax, and the lexicon, though, as in this dialogue from the black maid Dilsey early on in The Sound and the Fury:

Aint you got no better sense than that.  What you want to listen to Roskus for, anyway.

That's quite enough to let us "hear" the characters in our head and supply some version of the phonetics.  For the classier white characters, like the Compsons, we're pretty much on our own, though we can be sure that their speech had regional features.

As for Grover Lewis, I'll have to get hold of the book to see just how he represented the speech of the Allman Brothers and their crew.   What Trucks tells us in his letter isn't about pronunciation specifically:

We had a road manager that was a graduate of Georgia Tech and before coming with us had been a bank auditor. He was an educated and sophisticated man. Mr. Lewis quotes him as calling the desert as we flew over Arizona "a right smart of sand". I worked with this man for many years and never did I hear him use a phrase that even resembled this.

Lewis, by the way, was a Texan, complete with cowboy boots and a Texas accent.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 25, 2006 02:21 PM