What Is Eye Dialect?

Eye dialect
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Eye dialect is the representation of regional or dialectal variations by spelling words in nonstandard ways, such as writing wuz for was and fella for fellow. This is also known as eye spelling.

The term eye dialect was coined by linguist George P. Krapp in "The Psychology of Dialect Writing" (1926). "To the scientific student of speech," Krapp wrote, "these misspellings of words universally pronounced the same way have no significance, but in the literary dialect they serve a useful purpose as providing obvious hints that the general tone of the speech is to be felt as something different from the tone of conventional speech."

Edward A. Levenston notes that "as a device for revealing a character's social status," eye dialect "has a recognized place in the history of narrative fiction" (The Stuff of Literature, 1992). 

Examples

  • "When de fros' is on de pun'kin an' de sno'-flakes in de ar',
    I den begin rejoicin'--hog-killin' time is near."
    (Daniel Webster Davis, "Hog Meat")
  • "I was readin' in a piece av a docthor's paper the vet brought round a linimint for the mare, about some man in Dublin that makes legs betther than the rale thing—that's if you're to believe what he sez in the advertisement."
    (Lynn Doyle [Leslie Alexander Montgomery], "The Wooden Leg." Ballygullion, 1908)
  • "Some eye dialect forms have become institutionalized, finding their way into dictionaries as new, distinct lexical entries:
    helluva . . . adv., adj. Informal (intensifier): a helluva difficult job, he's a helluva nice guy.

    whodunit or whodunnit . . . n. Informal: a novel, play, etc., concerned with crime, usually murder.
    In both these examples, the deviant elements--'uv' for 'of,' 'dun' for 'done'--are totally deviant from standard spelling."
    (Edward A. Levenston, The Stuff of Literature: Physical Aspects of Texts and Their Relation to Literary Meaning. SUNY Press, 1992)
  • "The lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.

    "Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.

    "Shut up he explained."
    (Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrunts, 1920)

    Appeals to the Eye, Not the Ear

    "Eye dialect typically consists of a set of spelling changes that have nothing to do with the phonological differences of real dialects. In fact, the reason it is called 'eye' dialect is because it appeals solely to the eye of the reader rather than the ear, since it doesn't really capture any phonological differences."

    (Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, American English: Dialects and Variation. Blackwell, 1998)

    A Cautionary Note

    "Avoid the use of eye dialect, that is, using deliberate misspellings and punctuation to indicate a character's speech patterns. . . . Dialect should be achieved by the rhythm of the prose, by the syntax, the diction, idioms and figures of speech, by the vocabulary indigenous to the locale. Eye dialect is almost always pejorative, and it's patronizing."

    (John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. Norton, 2003)

    Further Reading