Sunday, June 12, 2011

Portraying Accents in Fiction: A Comment on Evelyn's Comment.

Evelyn made one of her usual  astute comments on my last post. She pointed out how often authors try to emulate the accents of  lower class speakers by not using accepted spelling when representing their speech.  She cites Mark Twain's representation of Jim's speech, as opposed to Huckleberry Finn's.

Of course, the joke in that novel is that Jim, whose speech is so disvalued, is the most decent and rational character in the novel., so much so that Huck even apologizes to him, an unheard of behavior in the 19th century South.  Twain is showing that whites have a lot of apologizing to do to African Americans.  The whites who call Jim a nigger are boorish, rude, and ignorant.  Evelyn is correct that authors use this device as a way of stigmatizing certain people.  Mark Twain turns this practice on its head in Huckleberry Finn.

Evelyn says that  if you use a quasi-dialectal spelling for some characters,, to be fair, and not seem to be mocking members of one group,you should use dialectal  spelling for every character, but that this would become tedious. She's right, 

We are geared to read standard spellings and if some characters' speech is spelled non-standardly, it slows down the reading process. It also often makes it difficult in some  instance to know what a character is saying,  There is no one  accepted way to portray any dialectal speech in  fiction. 

Worse, without intensive training in articulatory phonetics, people really don't know what sounds speakers are actually making--including those   their  own speech.  People monitor their own speech as sounding like prestigious speakers.  In  the now outdated tape "American Speech, my students laughed as Appalachian or other speakers claimed they spoke like Walter Cronkite a,  a highly respected newscaster.  People from all over the country have seriously told me that they don't have an accent and that they speak like TV announcers. 

When a Chicago speaker who pronounces bad like "beeyud, "bus like "boss"  and John like  "Jan", I have to repress a smile.  No national newscaster uses those pronunciations, , but Chicago speakers are unaware of how they really sound,  Interestingly, older Chicago speech did fit the industry standard for broadcasting, but in the last 50 or so years the Great Lakes cities have shifted their vowel pronunciations drastically/ (If I can think of a way to explain how vowel systems change without  going into a big explanation of phonetics, I'll do a post on the Great English Vowel Shift in the 16th century,  A similar vowel shift in taking place in much of    the Midwest and West in America. today,

Authors who try to recreate a southern, western, or New England accent by misspelling, typically  make a hash of it.  Moreover, readers who haven't ever heard the accent which is supposedly being portrayed have no idea of what it really sounds like.  That's probably true of my attempts to present accents in these posts.  I  wish there was a way of recording speech in thus blog so you can hear me and I could hear you.

Evelyn is a mathematician and a gifted musician,  She also commented that language isn't a algorithm. Yea Evelyn!