Mark Liberman has a very interesting Language Log post that takes off from an LSA paper by Alexandra Jaffe about “Transcription in Sociolinguistics: Nonstandard Orthography, Variation and Discourse”:
She started with her own work on the “polynomic” orthography of Corsican, where “variation in spelling is understood to be a systematic representation of coherent linguistic systems (regional dialects of Corsican)”. In contrast, she observed, we Americans most often use respelling to index stigmatized dialects. This effect is especially striking when the respelling represents ubiquitous, pan-dialectal pronunciations, like “wuz” for was, “hist’ry” for history, or “subjecks” for subjects.
Mark then repeats a quote from her handout, which I liked so much I will pass it on in my turn; it’s by the Glasgow poet Tom Leonard (see this post for more by him):
Yi write doon a wurd, nyi sayti yirsell, that’s no thi way a say it. Nif yi tryti write it doon thi way yi say it, yi end up wit hi page covered in letters stuck thigither, nwee dots above hof thi letters, in fact yi end up wi wanna they thingz yi needti huv took a course in phonetics ti be able ti read. But that’s no thi way a think, as if ad took a course in phonetics. A doan’t mean that emdy that’s done phonetics canny think right—it’s no a questiona right or wrong. But ifyi write down “doon” wan minute, nwrite doon “down” thi nixt, people say yir beein inconsistent. But ifyi sayti sumdy, “Whaira yi afti?” nthey say, “Whut?” nyou say “Where are you off to?” they don’t say, “That’s no whutyi said thi furst time.” They’ll probably say sumhm like, “Doon thi road!” anif you say, “What?” they usually say “Down the road!” the second time—though no always. Course, they never really say, “Doon thi road” or “Down the road!” at all. Least, they never say it the way it’s spelt. Coz it izny spelt, when they say it, is it?
Perhaps if I reframe the first sentence as “normal” English, it will help those unfamiliar with the dialect: “You write down a word, and you say to yourself, that’s not the way I say it.” Let’s see, nwee is “and wee” and emdy is “anybody”; let me know if there’s something you can’t figure out.
He then discusses Mark Twain’s famous use of carefully rendered dialects in Huckleberry Finn, and in an update quotes an intriguing suggestion by Ben Zimmer:
I’ve often wondered whether Twain’s “wuz” is properly understood as eye-dialect (i.e., a mere respelling indexical of the quoted speaker’s low status, education, etc.) or as a pronunciation spelling indicating a real dialectal difference. It’s possible it could have been the latter when used by Twain or other keen-eared 19th c. writers if, for instance, “was” had a standard pronunciation with an open back rounded vowel (IPA turned script-a, as in the British pronunciation given by the OED), while “wuz” represented a once-nonstandard (now standard) Amer. pronunciation with an open mid back unrounded vowel (IPA wedge). I don’t have any evidence for this shift in the pronunciation of “was”, but it’s something to consider.
Makes sense to me; I hope someone will investigate it.