Colloquial Language and Orthography

Although feminist researchers tend to pride themselves on such things as inclusiveness, awareness of power disparities, careful introspection, and so on, some of them apparently don’t know how to go about it, and seem incapable of differentiating good research from bad research through the fog of feminist methodological ideology.

I came across this example in Shulamit Reinharz’s book Feminist Methods in Social Research, where she is discussing the “display” of interview research. Marianne Paget, who undertook a study of female artists, depicted their interview transcripts using spelling that was intended to reflect the colloquial, non-“correct” iteration of her participant’s spoken words. According to Paget, such a formulation of her participants’ speech was necessary to depict “the inner turmoil of the self in solitary discordant discourse with its own voices.” In the quoted passage in Reinharz, Paget writes:

“I decided it was tiime that I ghot into the real worldn art ws the fake one,” or “its not productive n it n n I’m hh ah parasite to: society becuz I’m not contributing anything that can be utilized.” Of course, these are not just her own voices. They are the voices of her family and friends, the voices of her peers, other women’s voices, the voices of her countrymen and her man. She didn’t just do this to herself. Though she says, “I put myself thru that,” she was trained.

The practice of using orthography to represent certain styles of spoken dialect is known as eye dialect, and it comes in two common forms, helpfully differentiated by Arnold Zwicky at Language Log:

The problem here is that there are two distinct but related concepts, and we have only one widely used term to label them.

One concept is the OED’s: a representation of dialect (or colloquial) pronunciations via unusual spellings.  It would certainly be useful to have a term for this, and “eye dialect” is a nearly transparent candidate for the purpose.

But there’s another tradition, in which the term is used for unusual spellings for perfectly ordinary pronunciations, functioning to suggest that the speaker is uneducated or crude — the sort of person who would spell the words that way.

As you can see, Paget’s treatment of words like “because” and “through” falls into the second category; there is no functional difference in pronunciation between the words because and becuz, or between through and thru, yet the latter forms are represented by Paget as being “true” representations of her participant’s speech. Ironically, Reinharz posits this formulation of the speech transcript as enabling “the speaker’s meaning and multiple voices [to] come through.” But of course, the eye dialect that falls into the second category has no relation to the participant’s speech whatsoever, and is purely and wholly imposed on the speech by Paget herself.

According to Reinharz, open-ended interview research is preferable to survey research or other quantitative methods due to its ability to allow for greater depth of understanding on the part of the researcher, to allow the participant’s voice to come through unadulterated by the voice of the researcher, to allow participants active involvement in the construction of data about their lives, and to counteract the mainstream tendency for women’s voices to be mediated by the voices of men. Considering these four posited characteristics of feminist interview research, Paget’s work seems like an egregious breach of feminist research ethics, and it reflects very poorly on Reinharz that Paget’s passage was selected uncritically as an example of an unadulterated representation of a participant’s speech.


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