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Linguists are generally scornful of "eye dialect", in both of the common meanings of that term:

  1. As an "unusual spelling intended to represent dialectal or colloquial idiosyncrasies of speech", like roight for right or yahd for yard;
  2. As a "the use of non-standard spellings such as enuff for enough or wuz for was, to indicate that the speaker is uneducated".

The first kind of eye-dialect is seen as inexact ("you should use IPA") and the second kind is seen as snobbish.  I'm generally more curious than censorious about both of these practices; but in any case, I recently saw a case of the first kind that struck me as especially interesting.

Rcently Clark DeLeon ("Fluffya tawks OK? Roight?", 3/23/2014) took up the piece by Daniel Nester ("The Sound of Philadelphia Fades Out", NYT 3/1/2014) that Joe Fruehwald criticized earlier here on LLOG ("Not So Fast with the Funny Fading Dialect Stuff", 3/4/2014).

What stuck with me about DeLeon's post was not what he had to say about Philadelphia speech, but a bit of Boston eye-dialect that he threw in along the way:

Boston still has a neighborhood accent that's easy to mimic and recognize. For instance, say PSDS out loud, speaking the individual letters real fast. (In Boston you would need these before you could try on a pair of pierced earrings.) Say it again, PSDS.

This joke/observation is not original to DeLeon — there's a post from 2004 that also mentions BSNDS for "bears and deers", CS for "Sears", GS for "jeers", PS for "pears", etc.  I won't be surprised if Ben Zimmer can turn up an example from the 19th century.

But PSDS is a case where the use of eye dialect is worthwhile, in my opinion.  It rings as true to me as it did to "Susan" back in 2009 (though I never had the specific experience she describes):

Oh yeah! I moved to the area when I was a little kid (about 30 years ago). A woman in a department store asked if I had PSDS. I said, "What is P.S.D.S.?" She replied, "You know, PSDS," grabbed an earlobe, and wiggled it back and forth. "Oh! Pierced ears!" That's exactly how it sounds to someone from the west coast!

And in addition to the obvious Boston-area r-lessness, the "PSDS=pierced ears" equivalence illustrates four or five important things  about the phonetics and phonology of American English — and about phonetics and phonology in general.

1. Lenition of /t/ in the environment s_#V – i.e. word-final /t/ after /s/, before a following vowel-initial word.

Examples are "past actions", "most accomplished", "based on" —  or "pierced ears".

This is related to the more general lenition of /t/ in the context C_#X, for which the sociolinguistic literature uses the (lamentably misleading) name "t-d deletion". There's also the lenition of /t/ in the context V#V ("put off", "at all", "fat Albert", …), and in fact the general lenition of syllable-final consonants.

But with specific relevance to this case, the word-final /t/ in cases like "pierced ears" has little or no aspiration following the release into the following vowel, so that the resulting CV transition sounds like /d/ rather than /t/.  If this were not true, we'd have PSTS, not PSDS.

Here are a couple of examples from TIMIT:

The sentence is "Medieval society was based on hierarchies", and the first syllable should sound to you as if it might have been "dawn".

2. Syllable-final (and especially phrase-final) /z/ is usually voiceless, and thus distinguished from /s/ only by the duration of the preceding vowel (on average longer than before /s/, other things equal) and the duration of the voiceless fricative noise (on average shorter than for /s/, other things equal).  This means that the /s/ in  [ɛs] – the standard pronunciation of "S" — overlaps phonetically with the /z/ at the end of "ears".

Here are a couple of TIMIT examples — versions of "Iris thinks this zoo has eleven Spanish zebras":

Spectrograms of the two audio clips, in which the voicing status of the final /z/ is clear:

3. The unstressed central (underspecified?) vowel assimilates to its context. As a result, the vocalic reflex of /r/ in "pierced" and "ears" — schwa between /i/ and /s/ or /z/ — is raised and fronted to the point that the [ɛ] of S is a good match.

4. Perception of word and syllable boundaries depends (only) on context-conditioned phonetic variation.  And also,

5. Allophonic variation is gradient.

Therefore the four-word — and four-syllable — phonemic sequence


overlaps phonetically (in this variety of English) with the two-word phonemic sequence


 There's also something to be learned from the fact that Boston-area "ears" seems like (and is?) two syllables, while Boston-area "yard" seems like one. But I've got to be leave for the rest of PLC38.



  1. Linda said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    Perhaps this is the place to share a sketch by The Two Ronnies.

  2. Robert Coren said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 9:59 am

    Probably the most annoying instance of "eye-dialect" I've ever come across is the published text of George Bernard Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion, in which, instead of simply indicating in stage directions that one character has a Cockney accent, another is Scottish, and a third is American, Shaw attempts to represent these characters' speech in a way that approximates the way a speaker from Southern England would spell what they sound like. The Cockney character, especially, has a lot of dialogue, and it's seriously painful to read.

  3. Efgé said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 10:44 am

    The most painful instance for me was by Iain M. Banks where, as Wikipedia says, "A quarter of the book is told by Bascule the Teller and is written phonetically in the first person. The phonetic transcription and shorthand corresponds to the modern use of text-messaging. No dialect words are used, but there are (inconsistent) hints of a Scottish and a Cockney accent".

  4. Cindy said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    Shortly after I moved to Texas 25 years ago, I went to fill up my car and get a carwash. The attendant told me the code to enter for the carwash was TN. I was puzzled as there were only numbers on the keypad, no letters. Then I realized he was saying "ten" with a Texas drawl. I should have realized sooner as we always teased my mother, who was from Houston, for calling our dad, Jim, Jee-yum (GM?).

  5. Paul Kay said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

    Decades ago, when I was in graduate school in the Boston area, there were things called want-ads. You could communicate the text of a want-ad to a newspaper with a phone call. A local friend turned up the following want-ad: FOR SALE: Volkswagen common gear… For those whose memories don't go back that far, there used to be a Volkswagen sports model called the Karmann Ghia.

  6. Mr Punch said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    I once knew a girl called Dea, an old family name, who was creeped out that everybody in Boston seemed to know who she was.

    [(myl) Or my once-upon-a-time neighbor in Somerville, a woman named (I first thought) "Ian". But we digress...]

  7. Adam said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    The way I intuitively read "PSDS" was — I'm not sure I'll use any other terminology right, so I'll use poetic terminology — iambic rather than trochaic: PS DS. This doesn't strike me as an unusual way to render that string of letters out loud, but it also doesn't sound at all recognizably like the Boston-accent pronunciation of "pierced ears," and it's interesting to me that neither DeLeon nor Mark Liberman in this post has pointed that out. I'm pretty certain that I would pronounce both "PS" and "DS" iambically in order to abbreviate, for example, "PlayStation" and "Nintendo DS."

    [(myl) True enough, especially if you're used to the game consoles. So that's one more interesting thing about the example -- I assumed that the repetition of "S" would tend to lead to destressing, as in initialisms like CBGB or AC/DC.]

  8. Brett said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

    @Paul Kay: I now understand one more joke from The Producers.

  9. Seonachan said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 6:59 pm

    There was a kid in our neighborhood north of Boston whose surname I always assumed was Jumper, based on the local non-rhotic pronunciation "jumpah". Turns out he was an Italian kid named Giampa. This uncertainty on my part over when to "re-rhoticize" led to a lot of confusion in high school German class, where the teacher had a heavy local accent.

  10. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 30, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

    What a coincidence that I was just, literally within the last half-hour, thinking about eye-dialect while showering. I've been reading a series of novels set in eighteenth century Scotland and the author uses a fair amount of eye-dialect.

    In the shower I was thinking about the problems with eye-dialect, but also that it serves a very legitimate need in such narratives. I found myself wishing that everyone knew IPA, but then assumed for these purposes it would be so awkward as to cause more problems than it solves.

    I suppose that one is tempted to say that an author should manage to convey the sense of an unfamiliar dialect much more subtlety, with chosen unfamiliar terms and different usages, rather than with the crude technique of eye-dialect. But then, on the other hand, often what the author is attempting to convey is that this isn't subtle at all, it's overwhelming.

    Outside of such justified aesthetic purposes for narrative, I am deeply suspicious of eye-dialect, however, for the reasons mentioned in the post and elsewhere. It is sort of useful for revealing things about writers regarding who and when and how they choose to use eye-dialect — in journalism, especially. It's pretty much like how and when some people choose to mimic the dialect of others, especially for mockery, when relating an anecdote.

  11. Larry Sheldon said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 3:03 am

    I remember as a little kid how hard it was to read things like "Brer Rabbit".

    If it was just written straight and I read it out loud it came out sounding like my mother.


  12. richardelguru said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 6:13 am

    Back in the whateveries many, many decades ago, back in London (UK) too I happened upon this conversation reported from (IIRR) Sainsbury's:-

    Customer: F U N E M?

    Salesgirl (hey this was the whateveries): S V F M.

    C: F U N E X?

    S: S V F M N X.

  13. MattF said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 7:30 am

    Since 'eye-dialect' seems to get mostly negative reactions, I'll offer a positive example: Russell Hoban's masterpiece 'Riddley Walker.' It's all eye-dialect, and it's great.

  14. Rodger C said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    At this point I'll insert the obligatory reference to Dennis Preston's "'Ritin' Fowklower Daun 'Rong: Folklorists' Failures in Phonology," JAF 95 (1982).

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 9:58 am

    Even if a critical mass of both readers and writers knew IPA (which is not the least bit plausible), using standard English orthography to represent "regular speech" and IPA to represent marked-in-context dialect would still create the effect of (gratuitously?) exoticizing the latter. In places like Germany and Italy where there are kinda-sorta-regularized orthographic conventions for transcribing at least some of the major regional dialects, they don't use IPA do they? They use pretty much the same character set as is used for the prestige variety, but with particular words spelled differently in a fashion that cues the intended pronunciation reasonably well for a non-specialist who doesn't know IPA.

  16. Mark F. said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    Eye dialect is especially distracting when you don't speak the dialect of the originally intended audience. There's a character in several Terry Pratchett novels, parodying Dr. Frankenstein's assistant, who calls his boss "marthter" (if I recall correctly).

    But a more tightly on-topic question – are "buzz" and "biz" just isolated counterexamples to the generalization about syllable-final /z/, or is it generally false for accented syllables? Or do I just think I pronounce the /z/?

    [(myl) YMMV, but here's the pronunciation of "buzz" from the MW online dictionary:


  17. Joshua said,

    March 31, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

    Living in the Boston area in the early 1990s, but not being from the area, I once had occasion to write to a local radio talk show host, whose name I had never seen in print but only heard on the radio. I sent the letter to "R.V. Nelson." Some time later, I found out that his name was actually "Avi Nelson."

  18. Adam Funk said,

    April 3, 2014 @ 3:05 am

    One of the Boston ducks (amphibious ex-military vehicles used for tours) is named "Miss Emma Science" after the place with the big van de Graaff generator.

  19. Azimuth said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

    Authors don't realize that a little eye-dialect gives the flavor, and a lot makes you stop reading at page 30.

    To get in touch with my Vermont heritage, I attempted "Danvis Tales" (Rowland E. Robinson), but was defeated by its 19th Century folksiness:

    "Hohn! I swan, I'd know 'baout it," with a blank stare toward the far-off hills of his birthplace; "I do' know 's I raly wanter hoof it clearn ov' to Danvis t'day!"

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