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.


  1. That Leonard piece is excellent. My eye caught “right or wrong” an I thought Hey — he’s not being consistent! just before my eye moved on to “people say yir beein inconsistent.”

  2. Regarding the “z”, rather than the “u”, what modern dialects of English don’t voice final s?
    Has anyone else noticed that Emeril Lagasse, in his show on the Food Network, has lots of them devoiced? (“Cook at four hundred deegreese.”) Is that his personal thing or some stage enunciation? I have not heard it from other Portuguese-Americans from Fall River. Continental Portuguese has /S/ where non-Carioca Brazilian has /z/, but I can’t think how that would give a native speaker of American English /s/.

  3. Good question. I’ve noticed that a number of native speakers say because with a final unvoiced /s/, which threw me for a loop the first time I heard it; it still seems strange, and I wonder how it got started.

  4. Hmm. As a Missouri(a) native from just south of Pike County, I can say that “[wʌz] or [wəz]” as a back of the backwater pronunciation is still correct, and “[wɒz] or [wʊz]” are what the town people use. There really is that much difference between out-rural and city folk (if one can call Hannibal, Canton, or their sister across the river, Quincy, cities). Part of it is status, I think. The country folk are proud to be that, and hold on to such things. The city folk believe that ‘correct’ prounciation is a sign they’re better than the hicks.

  5. Fascinating! Once again, I bless the powers of the internet to shed light on such matters virtually instantaneously. Thanks, sisuile, and I hope Twain scholars take notice of such things.

  6. I loved that passage by Leonard too. The phonetic spelling “emdy” is reminiscent of “Embra” for Edinburgh, as used by Irvine Welsh (among others).

  7. I doubt the Twain scholars will. *grins* Thet may make the pilgramage to Hannibal once or twice during their scholarly careers, and interact almost exclusively with town folk. It’s the linguists who are going to notice the difference, and only by being in town for a few weeks, since, like many places, they hide it around strangers. If I’m speaking Broadcast English when I go into a store, I get the same back at me, or something close. If I’ve had local radio on for an hour or two prior and slip into Missoura dialect, something compleatly different comes back to me.

  8. Isnt’ the final unvoiced /s/ in words like “because” almost exclusively a New York/New Jersey dialect, and in fact stereotypically Jewish? I’d always assumed it was interference from Yiddish/Russian/German, all of which devoice final consonants.

  9. I say “because” with an unvoiced final “s”. I always thought it was normative (though I knew lots of people voice it)! I’m originally from Brookline MA, and as far as I know it’s the norm there. (Also, the final vowel is “au”, like it’s spelled, not “uh”!)

  10. After not seeing my sister much for 30 years and studying German in the meantime, I noticed that she vigorously aspirated final t’s when speaking English, as is obligatory with German.
    Sentences beginning “So then…..” (questions) or on the pattern “So….then” (decisions) are also common in Minnesota English (e.g., “Fargo” the movie), and that was another thing in my German text.
    Large areas are more heavily German.American than Scandinavian-American.

  11. David,
    I live in Newton, MA. I know a number of people who grew up in Brookline but I believe all of them voice final s. The ones who do not are all transplants from New York. Since Brookline has a large Ashkenazi population, then if it really is very common among your acquaintances in Brookline that might support my theory that this distinctive pronunciation is a legacy from immigrants from Eastern Europe speaking German/Yiddish/Russian.

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