Eye Dialectsk

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The term "eye dialect" has come to cover a range of non-standard spellings. At one end, we have a non-standard representation of a totally standard pronunciation, like "wuz" for "was" — and that's how the phrase's inventor, George Philip Krapp, meant "eye dialect" to be used:

The impression of popular speech is easily produced by a sprinkling of such forms as ain't, for isn't, done for did, them for those, and similar grammatical improprieties. This impression is often assisted by what may be termed "eye dialect," in which the convention violated is one of the eye, not the ear. Thus a dialect writer often spells a word like front as frunt, or face as fase, or picture as pictsher, not because he intends to indicate here a genuine difference of pronunciation, but the spelling is merely a friendly nudge to the reader, a knowing look which establishes a sympathetic sense of superiority between the author and reader as contrasted with the humble speaker of dialect.

It's natural to extend the phrase to cover representations of contextual reductions that are also entirely standard, like "ta" for "to" in a phrase like "went ta town", representing the pronunciation [tə]. American, at least, would always say it that way — it would be weird to say [wɛnt tu tɐʊn], unless some special context motivated that hyperarticulation.

And there's a further common extension, to things like "oi" or "ah" for "I" — regional, ethic, or class pronunciations.

Eye dialect is a common feature of comics, and Popeye (see also the Facebook and Wikipedia pages) is no exception. This panel from the 10/16/2022 strip exhibits all three of the subtypes discussed so far:

The spelling "eksposed" is classic Krappian eye dialect; "li'l", "t'be", and "t'all" represent reductions that are pretty much standard for American speakers, and "wrestlin'" is the usual presentation of "g-dropping", which is non-standard (though common) morphology in English around the world.

But something else happens in this sequence from the 9/25/2022 strip (click to embiggen):

The "k" in "amazink person" might represent a glottal stop, though it's not clear where that would come from, given Popeye's normal "-in'" present-participle ending. And the "k" in "parenks" doesn't represent any dialectal pronunciation that I'm familiar with, though that's maybe my ignorance. But the "sk" in "ain'tsk", "can'tsk", "gotsk"? That's apparently meant to signal Popeye's proud membership in some perceptually salient social group, of which he's apparently the only known representative. Though again, I may well be missing something.

I also wonder whether this has always been a feature of Popeye's way of talking, or whether it's an innovation due to R.K. Milholland, who took over the Sunday Popeye strips this year. It's certainly a consistent feature of recent Sunday strips, and I haven't seen it in the weekday strips, which are reruns of older strips due to Bud Sagendorf. Here's a sequence from the Sunday  9/11/2022 strip, which includes "petsk" for "pets", "gotsk" for "gots", and "can'tsk" for "can't":

Update — Ross Presser in the comments links to a "gotsk" from 2014, which makes sense since Randy Milholland is a Popeye traditionalist in such matters. This leaves the question of whether the final "sk" spellings actually represent the way any group of English speakers have ever talked, or alternatively are just an orthographic symbol, maybe generalized from extra final /s/ forms (like "gots" or first-person "needs", etc.) and the Popeye-symbolizing "k" in "eksposed", "amazink", etc.

Update #2 — Bob Shackleton writes:

Your question raises an issue that has absorbed much of my waking life, namely that of Popeye's ethnicity. After decades of research, I concluded that he was probably Dutch, or perhaps Norwegian (and I also thought he was from the docks somewhere around New York), but alas, I was completely wrong. Popeye's creator was from a town on the Mississippi in southern Illinois, and apparently he based him on a local character whose parents were Polish immigrants.

As to Popeye's dialect, it sounds to me like a mixture of features from the NYC area but not clearly from anywhere. 

The Polish connection might explain -ing-ink, but -t-tsk remains mysterious

Some previous LLOG eye-dialect posts:

"Eye dialect", 11/23/2006
"Dialect representation, resented", 11/25/2006
"Eye-dialect in the newspapers", 5/7/2008
"Inverse eye dialect from Doonesbury?", 5/9/2008
"Zippy's th'", 9/15/2008
"Gitting it done", 3/19/2011
"Transcribin' again", 9/27/2011



  1. Chris Button said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 7:49 am

    I’m thinking “gots” (as in “gots to …”) and an extension into contractions like “can’t” and “ain’t”. The “k” then reflecting Popeye’s idiolect that pops up in other words too.

  2. Ross Presser said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 7:52 am

    As a dialect feature in Popeye's speech, "sk" endings are definitely older than this year. I believe they can be heard sometimes in the animated cartoons. But in print, here it is from 2014.

  3. bks said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 8:49 am

    An example from Sinclair Lewis:

  4. F said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 10:22 am

    Maybe it's supposed to represent what it sounds like when he speaks with the pipe in his mouth?

  5. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 11:44 am

    Robin WIlliams uses it in the Altman film, IIRC.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 12:37 pm

    @Jonathan: Robin Williams's portrayal of Popeye came to mind for me too. The movie's IMDb page includes quotes like: Another thing I got is a sensk of humiligration. Now, maybe you swabs can pool your intelligensk and sees that I'm axking you for an apologeky.

    The Popeye the Sailor Wiki says: In addition to a gravelly voice and a casual attitude towards grammar, Popeye is known for having a speech impediment, which either comes naturally or is caused by the ever-present pipe in his mouth. Among other things, he has problems enunciating a trailing "t"; thus, "fist" becomes "fisk" and "infant" becomes "infink." This speech impediment even found its way into some of the titles of the cartoons.

  7. Y said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 12:59 pm

    This goes back to Elzie Segar's original newspaper cartoons, and was continued in the Fleischer Brothers' animated cartoons, as seen from a perusal of their titles:

    "Wild Elephinks", "Vim, Vigor and Vitaliky", "Doing Impossikible Stunts", etc. The pattern isn't regular, but to begin with it was substitution of /k/ for /t/, especially in /st/ and /ts/ clusters and word-finally.

    P.S. I find the drawing in this recent incarnation painful to look at. I can't tell if the artist is trying to make a different "Popeye" or if he thinks he is actually continuing older styles.

  8. Y said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 1:05 pm

    "Insulk", from 1932:

    (From the Lambiek Comiclopedia.)

  9. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 1:06 pm

    Some more details on Popeye's idiolectsk can be found in this blog post by Anna Zanfei.

  10. John From Cincinnati said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 1:13 pm

    Popeye's -sk can be dated at least as far back as his debut animated appearance, July 14, 1933. That cartoon, Popeye the Sailor with Betty Boop, introduced the song "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man". You can watch the whole 7:37 episode here.

    But to the matter at hand, the lyrics have been transcribed here. In the first verse the transcription goes

    I'm strong to the finich
    Cause I eats me spinach

    And in the third verse it goes

    If anyone dares to risk my "Fisk",
    It's "Boff" an' it's "Wham" un'erstan'?

    Not that I think any of you needs help finding the Wikipedia article about that first cartoon, but it's here.

  11. Roscoe said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 1:45 pm

    From 2008: "Plato's Allegory of the Cave, as Explained by Popeye to Bluto":


  12. Jerry Packard said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 2:32 pm

    In the animated cartoons of the 1950s, the intrusive -sk occurred in the spoken track, and I think Y and Chris Button give the context of occurrence a really great description.

  13. Brett said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 7:25 pm

    @John From Cincinnati: Having perused the official sheet music for Popeye's song (or at least, the version of the sheet music that was available from Warner Brothers in the 1980s), the third line in the third verse was actually spelled:

    If anyone dasses to risk…

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    October 24, 2022 @ 2:59 am

    Which (for the benefit of those seeing it in the same font as I) reads "d a s s e s" and not "c l a s s e s" as it appears on my screen …

  15. David Marjanović said,

    October 24, 2022 @ 4:44 am

    /k/ for /t/ makes sense if you have something in your mouth, like a pipe or a toothbrush. Evidently, at least the later writers forgot to imagine what that sounds like and just sprinkled k everywhere.

    Also, that should affect /d/, /n/, /s/, /z/ just as much as /t/…

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2022 @ 10:10 am

    /ŋk/ is a perfectly common word-final cluster in English, and I assume (perhaps wrongly) that that's how "amazink" is pronounced. Using the /ŋk/ cluster where only /ŋ/ is intended, by some sort of misgeneralization, seems like a plausible ESL-ism, and I'm wondering if any Comical Immigrant Group was depicted as having that usage in Comical Ethnic Dialect stories back when Popeye got his start, because I think I've seen that sort of thing in the mouths of "foreign-accent" characters in old books. Word-final /tsk/ in English is much rarer – I would associate it with Slavic toponyms and/or words made up by Mad magazine.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    October 24, 2022 @ 3:31 pm

    /ˈnʌ fɪŋk/is stereotypically associated with uneducated British usage, but I have never encountered /ə ˈmeɪ zɪŋk/ in such a context.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2022 @ 4:24 pm

    Here's a 21st century example from a novel (an English translation of a Spanish original, FWIW), in which "amazink" seems intended to convey that the speaker has a German accent:

    “This is amazink!” Herr Kriegskartoffeln exclaims. “You must tell me, vat did you visper to the donkey?”

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2022 @ 4:32 pm

    And from Leo Rosten almost a half-century earlier: 'One night Mr. Kaplan had delivered a rhapsodic speech on a topic which he had announced as “Amazink Stories Abot Names in US." New York, he had cheerfully confided to his comrades , was originally called “New Hamsterdam.”' Mr. Kaplan should be assumed to be speaking English with a Yiddish-inflected accent.

    I'm sure that if you go back to the old days of vaudeville there were both similarities and differences between Comical German-American Stage Dialect and Comical Jewish Stage Dialect that the better class of dialect-stereotype performer had to master.

  20. chris said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 10:44 am

    Given the statement upthread that Popeye was intended to be Polish, I wonder if it's intended to evoke the -ski/-sky ending of some Slavic names?

  21. MarkB said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 7:16 pm

    My favorite Youtuber – from Kent, UK – says 'somethink' and 'anythink.' Any connection?

  22. Michael Watts said,

    October 29, 2022 @ 9:33 pm

    The "k" in "amazink person" might represent a glottal stop, though it's not clear where that would come from

    /ŋk/ is a perfectly common word-final cluster in English, and I assume (perhaps wrongly) that that's how "amazink" is pronounced. Using the /ŋk/ cluster where only /ŋ/ is intended, by some sort of misgeneralization, seems like a plausible ESL-ism

    Personally I would always read "amazink" as ending in [-ɪŋk], since my grandmother invariably pronounced /-ɪŋ/ that way. This was not a misgeneralization on her part – she was aware of how the words were supposed to be pronounced (and I once offended her badly enough that she spent a while omitting the [k]), but she found that difficult.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    October 30, 2022 @ 5:25 pm

    "I would always read "amazink" as ending in [-ɪŋk]" — I think that most would do the same. After all, the most common words that end in "ink" are glossed in the LPD as being pronounced with /ɪŋk/ — "ink", "think", etc., so there is no obvious reason why "amazink" might be an exception.

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