Monday, 6 May 2013


OK, tell me this: can you translate the following conversation, in a language that you almost certainly speak?
Jon do?
A dee nah. 
Answer after the fold.

Obviously the language is English. This was a short exchange between me and Mr T not long ago. Written in standard orthography, it looks like this:
What do you want to do?
I don't know.
(It was a thrilling conversation, I think you'll agree.)

I presented it to you in 'eye-dialect', which is the name for representing speech the way it is pronounced, often used for dialect speech in novels and so on. Happily, the term was coined by George P Krapp, according to Wikipedia. Wikipedia also provides the following example from Bleak House:
...there wos other genlmen come down Tom-all-Alone's a-prayin, but they all mostly sed as the t'other wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded as to be a-talking to theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t'others, and not a-talkin to us.
I find it utterly infuriating to read in a book. I am perfectly capable of imagining a person's accent, thanks very much. It's also incredibly patronising: in what way is sed pronounced any differently from the standard prononciation of said? It might possibly indicate a higher vowel (technical term - the tongue is higher in the mouth when the vowel is formed), but forgive me if I doubt Mr Dickens' phonetic analysis. It's not meant to convey a dialect at all, but low intelligence through the association of non-standard spelling with stupidity.

Anyway, back to the point. Eye-dialect is not much use because it isn't standardised, so it's not clear what it means. That word nah that I used, for instance? I assumed that you are an English speaker and so will not pronounce that final /h/. But if you are an Arabic speaker, you might think that it was meant to be said out loud. The pronunciation guides in phrasebooks intended for holiday makers are particularly bad in this respect. What use is the pronunciation guide 'pie-ay-yer' for paella? Apart from not being very accurate, it would be understood by most American speakers, almost all Scottish speakers and some English speakers as having a /r/ sound on the end. Which it shouldn't.

I could also present the conversation in IPA, which is what linguists use to represent speech as it is spoken. In IPA we would have this:
And if you can read IPA, as many of my readers can, you would understand it to mean something specific (and hopefully correct - I'm not a phon person...) which represents what I clumsily tried to do with the eye-dialect above. (In fact, this is still not totally accurate, because it's an idealised version of what was said. A narrow phonetic transcription would include a lot more information about how it was actually said.)

Incidentally, if you were wondering how the hell we got that pronunciation out of those words, and even more how we understood each other, well that my friend is the miracle of communication. Several things happen at once:

  • In casual speech, unstressed syllables are reduced and sometimes omitted. So the word I, pronounced like eye in careful speech, is often /ə/ (like the last vowel in Laura). The word to is omitted completely, as it is unstressed. What is also completely omitted, which is more surprising as it's got an important role in the sentence and is not unstressed, but it's a common phenomenon. Just listen when people ask frequently-asked questions. You'll hear it left out a lot. 
  • In casual speech, sounds that are adjacent to each other become more like each other (this happens in formal speech too, but more so in casual speech). Sometimes this means that sounds change, and sometimes it means that consonant clusters become simplified. So, for instance, now that we've lost the word to, we've got the string want do. That has a consonant cluster of /ntd/ in the middle (ignore word boundaries). /n/ and /d/ are very similar to each other in lots of ways, and /t/ is a little bit different. That means that the /t/ just isn't pronounced. 
  • Mr T exaggerates his Northumberland accent sometimes, and don't is pronounced something like deen't /diənt/ and know as knaa /naː/. These words undergo the sound changes discussed above. 


  1. I thought it was from a crime drama and a cop walks into the post-mortem room, sees a man's body and says 'John Doe?' and the guy in the white lab coat says 'Adina', who is a mutual friend with a girls name.

  2. In my accent the maximal reduction is [dʒwɑnˈdu]? [ˈɒɾəno]. (No secondary stress, no vowel length.) Americans are an explicit bunch.

  3. Sorry, that [ɒ] is a typo for [a].