Literary Dialect Transcription

Sean O'Casey

Sean O'Casey, ca. 1924

We normally discuss spoken accents or dialects. But what about how they are written?

Phonetic transcription isn’t so common in English-language literature these days. And that’s probably for the best. As a reader, I hate it when old novels spell out a character’s accent. I understand the importance of Huckleberry Finn, for example, but I cringe reading Jim’s dialogue, of which this is typical:

“What do dey stan’ for? I’se gwyne to tell you. When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’ k’yer no’ mo’ what become er me en de raf’.”

I know it’s a classic and all, but … ugh. Given, if you’re acquainted with contemporary African American Vernacular English, you’ll have an idea of what Twain is indicating here. But as a reader, stretches of text like this are maddening, the textual equivalent of walking through molasses. Writers have mostly stopped pulling stunts like this, and with good reason.

And yet. While the reader in me is aggravated, the accent nut is fascinated. As awkward as spellings like this can be, they can tell us a lot about the way accents have changed.

A relevant example would be the writing of Irish Playwright Seán O’Casey. O’Casey wrote in the vernacular of working-class Dublin (aka “local” or “popular” Dublin), a dialect of which we have precious few recordings that pre-date the mid-20th-Century. In Juno and the Paycock, a play set during the Irish Civil War, he provides us with a rich look at early-20th-Century Hiberno-English. Take a read:

Boyle: Aw, one o’ Mary’s; she’s always readin’ lately — nothin’ but thrash, too. There’s one I was lookin’ at dh’other day : three stories, The Doll’s House, Ghosts, an’ The Wild Duck — buks only fit for chiselurs!
Joxer: Didja ever rade Elizabeth, or Th’ Exile o’ Sibayria? — Ah, it’s a darlin’ story, a daarlin’ story!
Boyle: You eat your sassige, an’ never min’ Th’ Exile o’ Sibayria.
Joxer: What are you wearin’ your moleskin trousers for?
Boyle: I have to go to a job, Joxer. Just afther you’d gone, Devine kem runnin’ in to tell us that Father Farrell said if I went down to the job that’s goin’ on in Rathmines I’d get a start.

While this is a work of fiction, we can make some interesting deductions. For example, the th before r as in words like “try” (thry) and “after” (afther), corresponds to a feature of Irish English whereby ‘t,’ when pronounced near ‘r,’ is dentalized (pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the teeth). This trait is recessive in contemporary Dublin, but spellings like this suggest how very widespread it was 90 years ago.

Also interesting is what isn’t represented. For example, contemporary local Dubliners will often drop the “t” at the end of words, as in are ya goin’ ou’ or it’s good, isn’t i’. The fact that there are almost no noticeable transcriptions of this kind in Juno and the Paycock suggests this feature may not have fully emerged until a bit later in the 20th-Century. So we can get hints as to what has been lost as well as what has been gained.

Of course, these are vague impressions from a literary work, rather than any kind of rigorous analysis. But they illustrate the way this type of writing can arguably serve an important historical purpose. So I’m on the fence. How do we feel about the linguistic value of this kind of dialogue, no matter how much of an eyesore it may be?

*Fans of Irish English will notice that there is a phonetic transcription of sorts in the title:  ‘Paycock’ is a rendering of ‘peacock’ in traditional Dublin English.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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31 Responses to Literary Dialect Transcription

  1. Mark Paris says:

    I wonder how big the risk is that the phonetic spelling doesn’t actually capture the pronunciation for all readers. I have run into that problem when I try to show how I pronounce words but realize that my “phonetic” spelling would actually be pronounced differently by different people. For example, some people pronounce “hawk” like “hock” but I pronounce it “hawk.” Not very informative, unless you already know what I’m talking about.

    • trawicks says:

      You bring up a very good point. The possibilities of misunderstanding are two-fold: (1.) the reader may not be acquainted with the accent being represented, and (2.) your OWN accent may differ from the reader’s, yielding a different kind of transcription than the reader would create.

      • I ran into this in online roleplaying games (text-based); there was a character I intereacted with regularly who was played by an American, but spoke entirely in a broad, transcribed-phonetically southern-Irish sort of accent. I had no trouble reading him (he sounded, read aloud in the way that seemed obvious to me, just like the impression of my great-grandmother that my mom does), but there was another player — from Australia — who simply could not make heads nor tails of a single thing he said, because she tried reading it out ‘phonetically’ and it was total gobbledygook.

        In scenes with her, his player had to drop back to typing standard English spellings for the words he was using and just referring to the fact that there was an accent in descriptive text around the dialogue.

  2. Amy Stoller says:

    There is indeed a difficulty if the reader doesn’t share the writer’s underlying assumptions about how sounds are represented. Most Americans are bewildered by this exchange:

    “He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ‘ther’ means? because they do not know that the “r” in “ther” is silent. And of course the joke in the name Eeyore is also lost on them.

    On the other hand, I think Twain did a masterful job in capturing Jim’s dialect, with the possible exception of “wuz” – and perhaps I think that’s an exception because I don’t know how Twain pronounced “was” and the difference that “wuz” was meant to represent. I have heard recordings of former slaves, and I think Twain did something important in conveying the differences in language from “standard” American English.

    Less-well-written eye-dialect (often really eye-accent), however, gives me a pain. There are playwrights and novelists who could benefit from Shaw’s solution in Pygmalion:

    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 athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f’them? [Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.]

    • trawicks says:

      I quite agree with you about Twain’s dialogue from an objective standpoint. While I have an aesthetic aversion to this kind of thing, I’m amazed at how accurate and nuanced his representation of AAVE is. As you can glean from the tone of the post, I have extremely ambivalent feelings about transcriptions of this kind: as an accents/dialects fan, I eat this kind of stuff up with a spoon; but as a reader, I have the opposite reaction.

      • Amy Stoller says:

        As a dialect coach, I can’t stand it when it shows up in play-scripts. By all means incorporate dialect, I want to tell these writers, but for the love of all that’s holy, use standard orthography! Of course, sometimes there is no standard orthography, as many dialects simply lack a written form, or at least lack a generally agreed-on written form. But it can be a real headache.

        As a reader, though, my reaction depends partly on the writer’s skill, and partly on my familiarity with the accent/dialect.

        I’ve certainly come across many egregious examples of eye dialect, not least from English writers attempting to convey an American accent. But there are bad attempts a-plenty on both sides of the pond, and often of regional accents in the writer’s own county.

    • NV says:

      “And of course the joke in the name Eeyore is also lost on them.”

      It was lost on me until just now. Wow! I can’t believe I never figured that out. I thought it was just a silly name.

      • Amanda says:

        I only recently realized what “Eeyore”” was meant to represent and it was only because I was watching the Russian version of the cartoon, where his name is “Ee-ya.” Pretty much the only time literature in translation made something more clear.

    • dw says:

      I don’t know how Twain pronounced “was” and the difference that “wuz” was meant to represent.

      “was” is one of those words (“of” is another) that historically had the LOT vowel, but where North American English generally has STRUT as a result of restressing of the weak form with schwa.

      Maybe this development was still under way in Twain’s time?

      • NV says:

        In the South, you’ll find that a lot of those words still have LOT (or THOUGHT in some cases, e.g., because) to this day. It’s probably changing there too now though.

        • trawicks says:

          In addition, the LOT vowel encompasses at least the vowel in “what” in New York City English. Hence the distinct New York Pronunciation of “what” as wa:t (thanks to NYC’s LOT-fronting). I would logically assume the same to be true of the vowel in “was,” but I can’t recall if I’ve heard this or not.

      • Amy Stoller says:

        Yes, I wondered about that; that was pretty much all I could think of.

  3. AL says:

    I agree these types of writing can be difficult to read (like molasses) but I think I like it because it helps me understand the intended accent if it is an accent I’m unfamiliar with, i.e., in cases where I would be unable to conjure the sounds in my mind if the narrator just said, “this person is speaking in such-and-such accent”.

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    I wonder if future linguists will do the same with Irving Welsh’s writing. It took me about 15-20 pages to finally get the feel for Trainspotting.

    • trawicks says:

      Of course, just to illustrate my own hypocrisy about this, I love Irvine Welsh! My aversion to accent transcriptions in older literature may be that you aren’t given as much time to adjust. Whereas with Welsh (or A Clockwork Orange, for that matter), I find the adjustment part of the fun. It’s a very subjective thing.

      • Aidan says:

        I love most of Welsh’s writing and I find the writing in dialect brilliantly accomplished but I can’t see how somebody unfamiliar with Scottish accents would enjoy it. It would help for them to watch Trainspotting as a film first I guess.
        I don’t think it’s that uncommon to have one or two characters whose dialect is rendered in the text. I notice it a lot in British books where there is a character from outside the region where the book is set or to emphasize a ‘character’. I don’t notice it in Irish writing as much except for Roddy Doyle. From a marketing point of view it is a dangerous strategy.

        • trawicks says:

          It’s probably more common in the the British Isles than in the States. Because we don’t have many “traditional dialects” here, attempts to transcribe an American dialect would mostly be phonetic. It may also be a product of us recognizing our own accent features less than the average Briton.

  5. Marc L says:

    When that nonsense came about recently publishing a new edition and changing the word “n….” to “slave,” to make it more acceptable for school curricula, thereby ruining the author’s intent, avoiding the social and historical context, the author’s specific purpose and making it inexact, because nobody used the word slave for n…. in any conversational way, I took a look at Huckleberry Finn, which I hadn’t read since childhood (this is a long way to go to get to my point), I really couldn’t stand reading the dialect. But I have an idea: Mark Twain was writing in the 19th century. What if he had access to books on tape? Writers in that era commonly used orthographic means to represent dialect – think of Mr. Dooley. I doubt that readers of the time were put off by it at all. Today, with access to recorded sound and film, we have another way to get the feel of dialect in a work of art.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a very good point: readers in the 19th-Century were probably much more accustomed to this kind of thing. Also, as spelling was slightly less standardized than it is today, they may have had an easier time reading intentional mispellings.

  6. Amy Stoller says:

    In addition, the LOT vowel encompasses at least the vowel in “what” in New York City English. Hence the distinct New York Pronunciation of “what” as wa:t (thanks to NYC’s LOT-fronting). I would logically assume the same to be true of the vowel in “was,” but I can’t recall if I’ve heard this or not.

    Ben, what ARE you talking about? LOT is merged with SPA (PALM)* in NYC, and “what” is in the STRUT lexical set. As a third-generation native New Yorker, I’m on solid ground here.

    Moreover, both LOT and SPA are very back in broad Noo Yawk accents (there’s some eye-dialect for you!), and they may incorporate slight lip-corner protrusion. There may be some variation, with fronting of LOT/SPA in New York Irish. But I only hear “what” with [a] when it is being yelled:

    Mom: Junior!

    Junior: Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?!

    Mom: I’ve told you a thousand times …

    (Pity I can’t attach a sound file.)

    * That’s a whole other conversation.

    • trawicks says:

      I’d like to hear that clip as well 🙂

      Just to be clear, WHAT and WAS are similarly pronounced in most accents most of the time, in that the vowel hovers around schwa (perhaps more opener in GenAm, but no need to open up the commA vs. STRUT can of worms). Where serious distinctions can be made are in the relatively uncommon situation where those words are given more prominence. “He was” or “Two plus two equals what?” So in some sense, the above dialogue is actually an example of this.

      Now, NYC English is about as diverse as you can get in terms of accents. I don’t want to suggest any feature is typical of all New Yorkers. But I have definitely heard several opener variants of “what,” ranging from [wɑt] to [wat], which would strongly suggest to me that this vowel, when stressed, is assigned to LOT for at least some New Yorkers.

      Which brings me to where I respectfully disagree with in what you wrote above. I don’t think you could say New York City English, as a whole, completely merges PALM and LOT. This seems true of certain words (for example, some New Yorkers notably pronounce “job” with the back vowel you mention above). And there may be some New Yorkers where the two are indeed the same. But I don’t believe a New Yorker who pronounces “father” as [fɒəðə] would pronounce LOT as [lɒət]. Otherwise he would probably sound Bostonian!

      • Amy Stoller says:

        “But I don’t believe a New Yorker who pronounces “father” as [fɒəðə] would pronounce LOT as [lɒət].”

        I’ve never, in mmmmph-mmmph years of living here, heard [fɒəðə], though I may have heard something fairly close to [lɒət].

        What I’m trying to say is that there is a phonemic merger of SPA (PALM) and LOT, even though can be some phonetic variation in their realizations. I also think that many New Yorkers have a complete phonemic merger of CLOTH and THOUGHT, but that some New Yorkers still have a split (I’m not positive, however, that the split – if it’s not the product of my imagination – is completely in line with the Wells lexical sets).

        In SPA/LOT I hear a range from ɑː to ɑ̹ː. In CLOTH/THOUGHT (where there is merger) I hear a range from ɒ to the characteristic ɔə of “Coffee Talk.”

        The word “what” on the other hand, when stressed, typically takes ʌ, not a, except perhaps in especially contentious renderings of phrases like “whaddaya want” and Junior’s deathless line in the dialogue I provided earlier. But I’ve never ever heard “was” pronounced with a in this burg.

        And these, too, are naturally my personal observations! If I ever hear anything that proves me wrong, I’ll gladly admit it. I don’t mind learning something new, even though I sometimes have to be hit over the head with it first!

        • Amy Stoller says:

          In CLOTH/THOUGHT (where there is merger) I hear a range from ɒ to the characteristic ɔə of “Coffee Talk.”

          That looks confusing, but I do mean that where there is merger, the phonetic realizations, whether more or less lip-rounded, are reasonably stable throughout the merged sets.

          Where there is a split, there’s less lip-rounding in CLOTH words, more, and possibly also diphthonging, in THOUGHT words.

          That’s how I hear it, anyway.

        • NV says:

          “…I’ve never, in mmmmph-mmmph years of living here, heard [fɒəðə]…”

          What about the way Ray Romano says father here? I don’t know if it’s [ɒə], but it definitely sounds New Yorkish to me.

    • trawicks says:

      PS I do want to make a correction on the previous comment, though. I really should have identified that as a personal observation — commented a bit too fast there!

  7. Eek says:

    Perhaps it’d be best if the IPA or sort of phonetic script was to made a literary standard, its symbols as recognizable as ampersands, pilcrows, and hashes.

    pɹæps ɪd bi bɛst ɨf ðɪ aɪ pi e ɔɹ sʌm sɔɹɾə fənɛɾɪk skrɪpt wʌz tə bəkʌm ə lɪɾɚɪ stændɚd ɪts sɪmbɫ̩z æz ɹɛkəɡnaɪzəbɫ̩ æz æmpɚsændz pɪlkɹoz n̩ hæshɨz

    (note this to be an approximate representation of my most relaxed pronunciation during hurried speech and that I am clearly no phoneticist)

    • m.m. says:

      [pɚhæ̞ps ɨd bi bɛst ɨf ðə aɪ pi eɪ ɚ sɜ̙m soɹɾəv fənɛtɪk skɹɪ̞pt wɜ̙z tə bɨkəm ə lɪɾɝɛɹi stɛændɝd ɨts sɪmbəlz æ̞z rɛkəgnaɪzəbəl æ̞z ɛæmpɝsɛændz pɨlkrəʊz ənd ha̝ʃɨz]


      • trawicks says:

        Haha — Can I just say, with the recent advancements in web browser technology, I’m so glad I’m actually able to write in the IPA. ( I shudder thinking back on the days when X-SAMPA was necessary).

  8. Anders Lotsson says:

    Another example is Shaw’s play Pygmalion, where there are several varieties of severe Cockney accents represented. They’re obviously different, and some are even more difficult to understand than the others.

  9. Amy Stoller says:

    @NV: Ray Romano is from Queens. For whatever it’s worth, I hear a very open, very back ɒː, not ɒə, in his “father.”

    • NV says:

      Fair enough, but it’s still [ɒː] and not [ɑː], i.e., it’s somewhat shifted. I hear the difference. I also think he would use a different sounding vowel in lot itself. That word might be in the video actually.