The amount of pleasure one gets out of dialect is a matter entirely of temperament.
—Oscar Wilde (1882)
I’ve recently finished re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld™ novel Raising Steam, and I was again struck by his humorous use of non-standard spelling to draw attention to his fantasy characters’ personalities and backgrounds. One of the protagonists, Simnel, who has invented the first steam locomotive on Discworld, speaks with a very familiar ‘accent’: “Well, I remembered what Dad said about t’time he were watching t’kettle and noticed t’lid going up and down…”. This is how a Yorkshire dialect is usually represented (definite article reduction, use of were instead of was) – which is odd, considering that this is from the mouth of a character who lives on a disc supported by four massive elephants which in turn are supported by an enormous turtle.
What Pratchett was doing with his Disc-dwelling ‘Yorkshireman’ was using a literary device called ‘eye dialect’ to establish that the character was like the stereotypical bluff ‘Northerner’: straight-speaking and honest, but canny, too. According to the OED, this technique refers to “unusual spelling intended to represent dialectal or colloquial idiosyncrasies of speech”. Essentially, the dialect – and, by extension, the pronunciation – is visual rather than aural – hence ‘eye’ dialect. The use of eye dialect, though, carries a certain amount of ideological baggage and often says more about the author than the character.
There are, however, two distinct senses of the term ‘eye dialect’. The one defined by the OED points up regional or dialectal differences from the mainstream/standard, as in Pratchett’s characterisation of Simnel. But there is another definition which – according to The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) – is glossed as “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”. Although it is possible for the first sense to suggest some degree of authorial disdain, the second definitely conveys a superior, condescending or patronising attitude. And yet, there are some writers who can turn this to their advantage.
One of the best examples I know of inverting assumptions about language can be found in the late Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard’s ‘Unrelated Incident (3)’ (the full poem is here):
this is thi
six a clock
man said n
a talk wia
iz coz yi
mi ti talk
(This is The Six O’Clock News, the man said. And the reason I talk with a BBC accent is because you wouldn’t want me to talk about the truth with a voice like one of you riffraff…)
Dealing as it does with confronting and challenging linguistic prejudice, it is commendable that the poem is now a compulsory part of study for an AQA English Language GCSE qualification in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. His friend and fellow Glaswegian, James Kelman, with an equally distinctive style and approach to language, has been quoted as saying:
Writers who are using phrasing and rhythm and grammar in a different way from the standard English literary form – in other words, trying to capture language as it is used by their own community – well, it’s a form of English, but it’s inferiorised. It gets pigeon-holed as, at best, vernacular literature.
When Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994 with a novel written in the Glasgow dialect, the media storm was predictable and, just as predictably, some of the reactions were arrogant and childish: one judge (who obviously didn’t vote for him – if indeed she had actually read the book) dismissed him as “just a drunken Scotsman railing against bureaucracy” and threatened to resign if he won. As I recall, she didn’t resign, but the linguistic barbarians were obviously at the gate and they were even refusing to wipe their feet.
Regional dialects and non-standard pronunciations continue to be stigmatized and ridiculed, as Kelman pointed out, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the use of eye dialect by writers who most certainly wouldn’t think of re-spelling their own dialect (or the dialect they consider to be prestigious if it differed from their own) in the same way.
There are political, economic and historical reasons why one dialect might be considered to have a higher status than another, but there’s also a certain amount of linguistic arbitrariness, often based solely on prejudice, when it comes to representing this on the page. Possibly the best advice that can be given to any writer who is tempted to use eye dialect as a substitute for characterisation, but wants to avoid coming across as a supercilious twit, is ‘if in doubt, leave it out’. Or, as our Cockney friends might or might not put it, if in daht, leeve it aht!