spelling was phonemic, says english professor

Uh-oh. On Saturday I read a review of Will Self’s The Book of Dave which discussed his use of non-standard spellings to represent what his characters say. For example:

“We dunno nuffing abaht í . . . Iss gawn.”

Non-standard spellings are discomfiting at best, but horrifically, the comment which the reviewer made was this:

“Self’s phonemic spellings are a droll barrier between us and his speakers. Only when you have sounded it out do you realise it is something you might hear on a London street … And this is just the condition of his satirical dystopia: a weird world whose elements are, you must see, familiar.”

Well, maybe so, but: phonemic?! Since when has a geminate n been phonemic in English? or a geminate f, or s, for that matter? When did the phoneme h reappear in southern English? And when has a glottal stop ever been attempted to be represented with a diacritic on the preceding vowel, as we must assume the monstrosity of “í” is intending to convey?

Without having read the book I can’t really comment on the drollness of the spellings, but I’m sure they are, indeed a barrier. Non-standard spelling does usually have the effect of distancing the reader from characters whose speech is non-standardly represented. As my first year tutorial group could tell you, ‘eye dialect’ is usually reserved for the productions of uneducated, ‘regional’ speakers – or even if it’s done “affectionately” that’s the effect it typically has. Eye dialect works best if the reader shares the dialect of the writer and knows in advance which dialect the non-standard spellings are supposed to represent, so that they share some awareness of the stereotyped features which will be exploited in the non-standard spellings.

Of course, when non-standard spellings are being used as a literary device they never have either the accuracy or the consistency which would allow for the supposed pronunciations to be adequately recovered by a reader who didn’t share all that background with the writer. So, just in the tiny fragment quoted above, it would be surprising if there wasn’t a word-final glottal stop in ‘about,’ and what I imagine is the same vowel in ‘thousand’ and ‘how’ is represented as both fouzand and ow elsewhere. There doesn’t seem to be any indication of schwa at all, but that’s perhaps forgiveable.

Without phonetic accuracy, internal consistency, and of course, perhaps above all, a few minimal pairs, there is no way that Self’s cleverness can be characterised as phonemic. This might be a professor of English speaking, but he’s only betraying how much his department (in a university where the great Daniel Jones was professor of phonetics for nearly thirty years) needs to revise their basic linguistics terminology.

(And if you did happen to be a first year linguistics student who arrived here by googling for eye dialect: please practice your conventions for citing web resources, and then refer to Meyerhoff (2006).)

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2 thoughts on “spelling was phonemic, says english professor

  1. I think those of us who have spent all or most of our lives in places where the letter R is pronounced more often than it is in South-East England (and some other parts of England and Wales) could have fun phoneticising the speech, of, for instance, some BBC newsreaders. In my case the places with Rs are Ross-shire, Bristol, and back in Ross-shire again (a total of over 30 years out of my 40).

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  2. Hi Peter,

    i think you’ve indirectly demonstrated my pet point about non-standard spellings! They’re only good for demonstrating *difference* – and ‘good’ doesn’t mean very much in this context :)

    Be warned about the mythology of “phonetic spellings” too – they’re usually not, in fact, very phonetic. They’re usually contrived by taking a particular grapheme which has the feeling of having a fairly consistent spelling-to-sound correspondence, and using it in non-conventional places. That’s not the same as using universally agreed symbols such as the IPA provides, with fixed (if generic) symbol-to-sound values, and using them with linguistic significance to show either a phonemic *analysis* of the language variety in question or a narrow, phonetic *transcription* of it.

    Features like rhoticity, meanwhile, which characterise some varieties of english and not others, are often not the only or the most significant of the differences between dialects (only, for whatever reason, salient to speakers of other dialects).

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