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Eye dialect is a literary method for portraying speech patterns visually on the printed page. This is achieved by altering the spelling of words, so that, for example, “your highness” might be spelled “yer ‘ighness.” In this way, readers can get the effect of a strong accent or dialect by phonetically pronouncing dialogue while they read. The literary term for this kind of creative misspelling is “metaplasmus.” The term “eye dialect” refers to how these speech patterns are conveyed to the reader’s eye, instead of to the ear, the usual means for interpreting speech.
For hundreds of years, lexicographers, teachers and other language professionals have worked to standardize the spelling of words in English and other languages. This was eventually achieved through the creation of dictionaries, style guides and similar reference works. Metaplasmus in its various forms plays on these standardized spellings through the creation of non-standard spellings for literary purposes. These can be employed for a variety of reasons, such as improving the rhythm in poetry, or to create a humorous effect. Eye dialect is one of the most common applications of metaplasmus.
Standardized spellings aside, different people use language in very different ways. Pronunciation of the same word can vary by country, and even within different regions of the same country. For some people, dialect can be further determined by ignorance of proper usage. For example, a Western novel may have an uneducated prospector say “There’s gold in them thar hills!” instead of “in those hills.” The misspelling of “there” is metaplasmus; its use as part of a comical non-standard phrase is eye dialect.
Eye dialect can be employed to make a fictional character’s dialogue seem more authentic and realistic. This, in turn, can aid characterization, the creation of believable characters. It can also be used to create dialogue that is colorful and interesting to read. Sometimes its purpose is purely whimsical, to provide humor or comic relief. It can also be an effective way of portraying a character’s mental state, such as the use of slurred words to show drunkenness.
The novelist and short-story writer William Faulkner often employed eye dialect to convey the speech patterns of the American South. Modern authors use it as well; J.K. Rowling employed the technique when writing dialogue for the character Hagrid in the Harry Potter series. Comic books and comic strips have made extensive use of many forms of metaplasmus. In the Fantastic Four comic books, Stan Lee used eye dialect to contrast the tough, streetwise character of The Thing with his more intellectual teammates. Screenwriters and playwrights, such as David Mamet and the Coen brothers, sometimes write dialogue in eye dialect as an aid to characterization.
There's always a fine line between using this device for effect as opposed to using it so that it makes the character a caricature, or starts being pejorative, and sounding as though the writer is making a joke that is racist or otherwise insensitive. This is most common when using eye dialect to portray African-American speech. There's a big difference between capturing the dialect and being downright racist.
Writers who use a lot of eye dialect should make sure they have editors who are sensitive to its over-use and who can edit it out without destroying the writer's voice, or the story.
I've seen this used all my life, but didn't know there was a specific term for it. But "eye dialect" makes sense when you think about it.
Margaret Mitchell used it a lot in "Gone with the Wind" when the slaves were speaking. It did catch the flavor of their accents and gave the reader an idea of how they must have sounded.
Mark Twain also used this device quite a bit in "Huckleberry Finn." The conversations between Huck and Pap are absolutely hilarious. Writing them in standard English would not have been nearly as funny. As it is, the reader can hear the conversations almost as clearly as if they were present in the room.
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