We Said, They Sed: Accents and When We Spell Them Out

Casey Donahue

Accents are identities, and everybody’s got one. 

With pinched vowels or dropped consonants, we give hints to each other about our home, heritage, class, gender, and age. But how would you spell your accent? Do your trademark pronunciations sound as the dictionary says they should? If not, do you ever spell your shibboleths differently, changing get to git or smart to smaht when it suits the moment? If there is power in speech, there is power in spelling. For centuries, writers have made deliberate choices about when and how to depict an accent on paper. These writers are not neutral recorders of human sounds; they are cultural gatekeepers.

Imagine you’ve been hired to novelize the television series Schitt’s Creek. In your dialogue, will you spell out those little vowel suffixes that Alexis Rose adds to the end of her words when she’s excited (Ew-uh! David-ah!)?  Even trickier is Moira Rose, the only character who fully pronounces the t’s that fall between vowels in words like charity or ability. How do you spell an accent characterized by its articulation of letters that are already there? Any decisions you make will carry powerful assumptions about the world’s ability to understand a certain type of person.

Schitt’s Creek, which skewers the culture of American mega-wealth, is a low-stakes hypothetical. The comedy punches up. This is not always the case with accent transcription. Writers often operate from positions of greater power than the speakers they record. Anglophone writers have long used phonetic spellings to depict the speech of certain classes, ethnicities, and races. In many dialect-heavy works of the last two centuries, these spellings form a boundary between mainstream society and those speaking from the margins.

In the working classes of Charles Dickens’s London, phonetic spellings abound. What becomes wot, and was turns to wos. Victuals are spelled wittles and you do not boil them, but bile ‘em. Some of these spellings are defensible; there are arguably enough differences between victuals and wittles to justify Dickens’s use of the latter. Other spellings simply stress the inferiority of a speaker’s English. In Bleak House, when the homeless boy Jo speaks the words done, says, and said, they appear on page as dun, ses, and sed. These spellings are aggressively phonetic, but they don’t tell us much about what makes Jo’s vowels unique. It is possible that the medial u in dun implies a sound that’s higher in the mouth and less elongated than the elite society accents that became “The Queen’s English” of today. But Dickens does not phoneticize his upper-class characters, so we cannot compare pronunciations on paper. 

Twice in the same paragraph, Jo says the word give, which Dickens spells conventionally at first, and later as giv. Perhaps Dickens had a specific sound in mind when he omitted that already-silent e; but vowel specification is hardly the main effect. Inconsistent spellings trip us up, make us giggle. They do not show that Jo has his own variety of English, replete with unique rules and origins; they tell us he speaks bad English.

Spelling an accent is different from recording a dialect’s grammar. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses dialectal grammar for nearly every character, and he explains his choices in the book’s preface. The “ordinary Pike County dialect” of the title character reveals itself in Huck’s double negatives and folksy contractions–ain’t or hain’t. These are syntactic and lexical tactics to make Huck’s narrator voice believable. But in the realm of spelling, Twain reserves the severest phoneticizations for the enslaved man Jim.

Twain occasionally uses non-standard orthography for white characters (sure as shore and obliged as obleeged), but he doesn’t let it disrupt the reader’s flow. The spelling of Huck’s speech—with some comedic exceptions—is conventional. If Jim is gwyne or gwyneter somewhere, Huck is simply going. Twain manages to honor Huck’s colloquialisms while still granting him standard spellings. Jim does not receive the same orthographic benefit of the doubt. Twain’s unequal standards allow us to better relate to an uneducated white boy than to an uneducated Black man.

Race is the most problematic American arena for accent transcription. For generations, crude depictions of African American speech have entrenched negative stereotypes. The Federal Writers Project (FWP), which recorded more than 2,400 life histories of former enslaved persons in the late 1930s, is a case study in dangerous spelling.  

The majority of FWP interviewers were white, and they did not transcribe the dialogue of their subjects in real time. They constructed conversations ex post facto, relying on field notes and memory. The ethical and linguistic hazards of this interview technique are uncountable. The FWP’s Associate Director instructed interviewers to capture “peculiar idiom[s],” while the white southern folklorist John Lomax developed a “Negro Dialect” to help FWP writers standardize Black speech. Lomax decreed that the word poor, for example, should be spelled po’, not poe. This seemingly banal ruling suggests an ingrained bias: po’ and poe both reflect the non-pronunciation of an r. But if poe looks like its own word, the apostrophe in po’ implies the lack of something—an insufficiency.

One FWP interview features Frances Batson recalling her own emancipation: “After freedum mah br’er en a Yankee soldier kum in a waggin en git us. Mah white folks sed, I don’ see why you ez takin’ dez chilluns.”

Again, we encounter the word sed. How is this different from other contemporary pronunciations of said? Black southerners were not an island in a sea of white Americans who pronounced longer diphthongs. For that matter, what was the originally intended pronunciation of the word said? And why do Frances Batson from Nashville and Jo from Dickensian London merit the same special spelling?

The most frequent dialect word in the FWP Ex-Slave Narratives is wuz—another construction of dubious phonetic usefulness. Historian Catherine Stewart argues that the FWP’s transcriptions “reveal more about how the black vernacular was used to represent black identity than about the actual speech patterns.” Dr. Lauren Tilton notes that the FWP also interviewed poor southern white Americans, but it disproportionately phoneticized African Americans. These interviews occurred during the Great Depression, as Americans strived to envision a new national economy and deliberated over which types of citizens deserved state welfare. In this critical moment, the FWP’s spelling choices—much like Twain’s treatment of Huck and Jim—gave readers a way to differentiate the intelligence and civic legitimacy of poor white and poor Black Americans.

English is not a phonetic language. There’s no way to apply non-standard spelling to a speaker without making a statement about that person’s strangeness. The attention that Dickens and Twain gave to colloquial speech earned them legacies as linguistic pioneers. Dickens is credited with the first printed usage of over 250 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Twain is celebrated as a “prodigious noticer” of local talk and the father of American comedy, to boot. But praise for their grammatical and lexical choices obscures the fact that they were not fair spellers.

I’m left to wonder whether it’s ever appropriate to phoneticize a voice. Can non-standard spellings celebrate, not mock, a linguistic difference? There may be answers in the work of Zora Neal Hurston. While transcribing Barracoon—a series of 1927-1928 interviews with Cudjo Lewis—Hurston defied her editors and wrote her subject in dialect. Lewis, born Oluale Kossola, was the last living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. He was from West Africa and retained West African memories and speech patterns. Hurston chose to honor those remnants by spelling his words as she heard them.

Hurston, like Dickens and Twain, wielded awesome authority over the remembrance of human voices. Unlike these men, she did not announce or presume her authority over entire speech patterns. Lewis is virtually the only speaker in Barracoon, so Hurston’s spellings are less vulnerable to double standards. She immersed herself in Lewis’s community, compensating him for his time, spending hours in the quiet with him. Though Hurston later worked as a FWP interviewer, she eschewed the flattening absurdities of Lomax’s “Dialect.” Baracoon was an oral history approved by the man who told it. It was the voice of someone who lived through the same institution that kept all of Hurston’s grandparents in bondage. Respect, reimbursement, and partnership existed between writer and speaker. Hurston phoneticized her subject, but by the time of publication, that subject was a friend.  

Image: Vowel chart according to the International Phonetic Alphabet. Source: Wikipedia. Modified by Casey Donahue.

Casey is a dual Masters candidate in History and Foreign Service. He studies peace processes and sociopolitical movements in the Irish and Middle Eastern spaces. Casey is a former classroom teacher and political risk analyst. He currently works as an elementary school tutor.

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