Eye dialect

Eye dialect

In orthography, eye dialect is the use of non-standard spellings (spellings considered incorrect) to create the effect of a dialectal, foreign, or uneducated speaker.


In some cases, eye dialect is intended as a relatively faithful representation of a non-standard pronunciation. For example, where Standard English has word-initial [ð], African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has word-initial [d] instead; therefore, an author might respell that as dat in utterances by a speaker of AAVE. (Some such respellings are well standardized, to the point that they might no longer be considered respellings.) Similarly, eye dialect may be used as a sort of ad hoc phonetic alphabet to convey the standard pronunciation of a word that a reader might not recognize.

In other, more controversial cases, words may be respelled even when their pronunciations do not differ significantly from their standard pronunciations. For example, an author trying to convey the effect of an uneducated speaker might respell says as sez, reflecting its (perfectly standard) pronunciation as [sɛz]. The line here may sometimes be blurry; for example, going to (in the sense of "he's going to do it") may be pronounced either as or as ['gʌnə]. Respelling it as gonna does unambiguously identify the latter pronunciation; but since this is already the more common pronunciation in colloquial American English, doing so might be seen as comparable with re-spelling says as sez.


From Joel Chandler Harris's tales of Uncle Remus, set in the U.S. in the post–Civil War South:

"'You er stuck up, dat's w'at you is,' says Brer Rabbit, sezee, 'en I'm gwine ter kyore you, dat's w'at I'm a gwine ter do," sezee.
— "The Wonderful Tar Baby Story"

Eye dialect is also found in representations of the speech of various Londoners in Sherlock Holmes stories. Some of Mark Twain's books are also full of eye dialect, as Simon Wheeler's narrative in "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County", which begins:

There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley…

Other literary uses of eye dialect are to represent foreign accents, such as in Charles Godfrey Leland's Hans Breitmann's Ballads:

D’VAS near de state of Nashfille,
   In de town of Tennessee,
Der Breitmann vonce vas quarderd
   Mit all his cavallrie.
Der Sheneral kept him glose in gamp,
   He vouldn’t let dem go;
Dey couldn’t shdeal de first plack hen,
   Or make de red cock crow.
— Breitmann Goes to Church

Zora Neale Hurston is also a writer well known for the use of eye dialect in her stories about the life of African Americans in the rural southern United States, a fact that has caused some controversy about her stories:

"Looka theah, folkses!" cried Elijah Mosley, slapping his leg gleefully, "Theah they go, big as life an' brassy as tacks."
— "Spunk"

One of the most famous instances of eye dialect in literature is in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion:

THE FLOWER GIRL: Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy atbaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f'them?

An excellent example of the use of eye dialect in the representation of Australian English, for which the eye dialect spelling Strine is sometimes used, is in the book Let Stalk Strine, by Afferbeck Lauder (a pseudonym of Alastair Ardoch Morrison), itself eye dialect for alphabetical order.

Eye dialect can occur with fictional dialects as well, as in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit:

Troll's Pocketbook: 'Ere, 'oo are you?

In his Discworld series, Terry Pratchett makes extensive use of eye dialect to extend the caricature of his characters, even going to the point of changing the font used for certain dialog. Death, for example, speaks in all capitals, while the dialog 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 character's grasp of spelling is heavily based on phonetics.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly used eye dialect for most of the characters in his classic comic strip, Pogo, and, like Pratchett afterward, used unique fonts for many of his supporting cast.

Many 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.


The use of eye dialect has been criticized on the grounds that the definition of standard speech is subjective and regionally biased, and that it is often overused or misused to represent what is actually quite standard speech. Further, many people feel that even when phonetically accurate, drawing attention to perceived non-standard pronunciation supports or implies a value judgement of such speakers as poorly educated or less articulate, that the assumption that the reader shares the same standard of pronunciation as the writer is inherently inappropriate, or that the use of eye dialect is simply mockery.

Speakers of non-standard dialect may take offense to intentional misspellings as a misrepresentation of their educational status. Further criticism surrounds the assumption that the person who speaks the dialect is uneducated and cannot spell properly — that speech and spelling would match the outsider's point of view.


  • Vivian Cook's page of common eye dialect
  • 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.
  • Fine, Elizabeth. (1983). In defense of literary dialect: A response to Dennis R. Preston. The Journal of American Folklore, 96 (381), 323-330.
  • Ives, Sumner. (1950). A theory of literary dialect. Tulane Studies in English, 2, 137-182.
  • Ives, Sumner. (1971). A theory of literary dialect. In J. V. Williamson & V. M. Burke (Eds.), A various language (pp. 145-177). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Krapp, George P. (1926). The psychology of dialect writing. The Bookman, 6, 522-527.
  • 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.


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