A few years ago, my young daughter was reading aloud a story about pirates. She was puzzled to encounter this sentence: “Argh! That pesky bird stole my ‘at.” What, she wanted to know, was “’at” supposed to be? I explained that it was the word “hat” and that the apostrophe indicated that the pirate did not pronounce the “h” at the start of the word. She evidently thought this was a rather strange thing to do with spelling, but accepted it and moved on. Over the years since she will have encountered a wide range of other characters whose speech is marked as non-standard: Hagrid in Harry Potter, Rob Anybody in Wee Free Men, Jim in The Ruby in the Smoke. She knows how to read sentences such as “I dunno”, “I didnae think of that” and “Ah, go boil yer heads, both of yeh.”
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Literature is a key way in which we can improve our understanding and empathy for people from very different backgrounds. I want her to experience books which represent a diverse range of voices. But problems arise because at the same time as learning to decode these respellings, my daughter will have taken in the messages that go alongside them. Asif Agha has argued that the use of re-spelling is always an implicit commentary on the ways in which the speech of the character differs from the “proper” way of speaking. He writes that “armed with the folk-view that every word has a correct spelling and a correct pronunciation, the reader can only construe defective spelling as an implicit comment on defects of pronunciation” (2003: 237).
Such re-spellings are not randomly allocated. Typically, high status speakers are represented as speaking entirely standard English, with no attempt at representing any feature of their accent. It is characters from less prestigious geographical and socioeconomic backgrounds who have their speech extensively respelled. As Agha notes, novels “do not describe the value of accent, they dramatize its uses” (257). When such representations and judgements are repeated multiple times across multiple books, the child reader is learning to associate certain kinds of speech with certain kinds of person. This creates a challenge for writers: how can they represent the speech of characters from different social and geographical backgrounds without reinforcing simplistic or negative stereotypes?
Students on my third-year undergraduate module “Dialect in Film and Literature” have been investigating these issues in relation to six different children’s novels. They have worked in small groups to produce blogs about their findings. For the purposes of this exercise, ‘children’s novels’ were defined as books currently on sale in the children’s section of the Sheffield branch of Waterstones. They range from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) to The Wee Free Men (2003), and take in a number of different accents from ‘Native American English’ to ‘Pirate English’.
You can read the students’ blogs here: https://dialectinchildrenlit.wordpress.com/
Agha, Asif. 2003. “The Social Life of Cultural Value.” Language & Communication 23 (3–4): 231–73.