Do you speak Courier?

In the book I’m reading at the moment (Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde), the author makes interesting use of typefaces to show the characters are talking different languages. For example, some characters speak in Courier Bold, while others speak Old English in an Old English style typeface:

Example of 'Old English' using an Old English typeface

The seventh revealment of St. Zvlkx

I’ve come across authors using fonts designed to look like foreign alphabets to show that their characters are speaking in a foreign language without having to write in that language, but don’t know of any other authors who use fonts in quite the same way as Jasper Fforde. Here are some examples of faux foreign fonts:

Examples of faux foreign fonts

Sources: &

A way to indicate that characters are speaking in different dialects or varieties of a language is to use non-standard spellings – an eye dialect. Using non-standard spellings suggests that a particular dialect is being used, but doesn’t usually represent the pronunciation precisely. Here’s an example:

`Hush! Don’t `ee sing so loud, my good man,’said the landlady; in case any member of the Government should be passing, and take away my license.’
`He’s told `ee what’s happened to us, I suppose?’ asked Mrs Durbeyfield.
`Yes – in a way. D’ye think there’s any money hanging by it?’

From Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Some authors try to represent the pronunciation of dialects more faithfully, for example:

`Whet are ye for?’ he shouted. `T’ maister’s dahn i’ t’ fowld. Go rahnd by th’ end ut’ laith, if yah went tuh spake tull him.’
`Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
`They’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll nut oppen’t an ye mak yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
`Why? Cannot you tell her who I am, eh, Joseph?’
`Nor-ne me! Aw’ll hae noa hend wi’t,’ muttered the head, vanishing.

From Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

What do you think of eye dialects and dialect writing?

This entry was posted in English, Language.

14 Responses to Do you speak Courier?

  1. Drabkikker says:

    As is widely known, the Na’vi speak Papyrus.

  2. Drabkikker says:

    Regarding the Chinese, I know there are some fonts around that look deceivingly like genuine characters, until you rotate them 90 degrees. Can’t find a good example just now, unfortunately.

    Another famous example of ‘eye dialects’, of course, can be found in the Asterix comics, where Greeks, Egyptians, Goths, Vikings and the like all speak their – historically wildly inaccurate – typographical sociolects.

    Ah! Searching for suitable Asterix examples I found this interesting blog post on the use of typography in cartoons:

  3. Jerry says:

    I like the use of different fonts in comics, and I absolutely love the Asterix (Asterix And The Goths) that Drabkikker mentioned. In a piece of literature? I’m not sure.

    Eye dialect, however, can be very effective, as it describes the character. And some dialects just sound funny, so that could give another dimension to a story as well.

  4. When writing fiction, dialects need to be treated carefully, otherwise they get too cumbersome for the reader. The example you gave from Wuthering Heights there is very much toeing the line. Whereas the author’s intention may have been to make the story more authentic and realistic, if dialect is too thick in their prose it has the opposite effect of pulling the reader out of the story.

    Personally, I think one of the best writers of dialectical English is Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God. If you haven’t read it, check it out — it’s brilliant. She was an anthropologist as well as a folklorist, so she did a lot of work that was oriented around preserving black culture before and up to the Harlem Renaissance.

  5. Andrew says:

    Fonts are like the accents of written language, you see something written in that Old English and you automatically read it in your head with an old English accent 🙂


  6. Paul S. says:

    Terry Pratchet does the same thing in some of the Discworld books: a Hebraic font for the Golems; one that looks a bit like Arabic for Klatchian.

  7. prase says:

    “an ye mak yer flaysome dins till neeght”

    No idea what it means. A question for the native English speakers: is it comprehensible to you? Immediately, or after some thinking?

  8. Simon says:

    prase – I doubt if many native English speakers unfamiliar with Yorkshire dialect would be able to make much sense of Joseph’s ramblings. I would guess it meant “and you make your something somethings until night” – not sure about flaysome dins, but dins could be noise.

    According the reader’s guide to Wuthering Heights, the passage I quote means:

    ‘What do you want?’ he shouted. ‘The master’s down in the fold [sheep pen]. Go round the end of the barn if you want to speak to him.’
    ‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
    ‘There’s nobody but the mistress, and she’ll not open it for you if you make your dreadful din [noise] till night.’
    ‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
    ‘Not me. I’ll not have anything to do with it,’ muttered the head, vanishing.

  9. Juan Shimmin says:

    Prase: I can basically read the dialects above, though some of the dialect terms I’m just guessing (like “flaysome”). I imagine non-Brits would have more trouble as they may not be familiar with the dialects.

    I’m always torn about this kind of thing. On one hand, I’d like to see more “regional” characters in fiction, and it’s quite hard to do in written English; readers default to assuming everyone’s SSE or General American unless it’s made obvious. On another hand, when’s the last time you saw extensive use of phonetic spelling for the standard dialects? “Mei ded’s lwking fu thu cet” seems weird; “Me dad’s lookin’ fo’t cat” seems a lot less weird, but they’re both just “My dad’s looking for the cat”. Because standard written English isn’t much more appropriate for those than for any other dialect, and using a different system just for non-prestige dialects highlights them in a way that can come across as negative. Also, as people have said already, extended dialect writing can get irritating (Mark Twain, I’m looking at you).

    But it seems quite difficult to convey less standard dialects convincingly, and therefore to demonstrate that someone’s from those regions without explicitly saying so. And it seems unconvincing if characters that should have strong nonstandard accents “sound” too much like the standard ones in their dialogue. I suppose working in the grammatical aspects of dialect without worrying too much about the pronunciation seems best to me, but that can easily end up very stereotypical.

    On yet another hand… I notice this doesn’t bother me in Welsh, but then Welsh is much more phonetic than English, and colloquial writing has an established culture of reflecting dialectal differences in writing. I suspect it’s related to having such a distinct literary variant; English doesn’t have distinct literary/colloquial written forms, so all writing is expected to adhere to the standard form and very little variation is tolerated, especially in spelling.

  10. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Doonesbury did something like this once. At a party to celebrate the end of the 1980s, one character came dressed as the newspaper USA Today and spoke in a distinctive typeface with lots of bullet points, imitating the characteristic way USA Today summarized news.

  11. TJ says:

    Very interesting. Many artists do in fact make some pieces which can be read in English (i.e. Latin letters from left to right) and Arabic from right to left at the same time. A friend of mine in college times, who was an artist, used to have a signature similar to those. It was his surname.

  12. Lev says:

    Asterix – what nostalgia! Also, some languages there are represented with some sorts of “eye dialects”. E.g., there was a Germanic tribe that added the suffix “ken” to some words (I read that in German).

    A good example of dialect writing is Forrest Gump the book. The whole book is narrated by Forrest Gump in a southern US dialect, and most words are spelled in a non-standard way. When I read it, I didn’t recognize the words visually, and had to mentally pronounce them. The effect was that I imagined Gump’s voice. Very nice.

  13. Can I just say I love your blog! You are pointing out and saying all the things that I find interesting and sometimes inconspicuous about language text and spoken! And it is true, I am a big medieval fiction book lover, and I have always known the text language font to be in reference to the character’s spoken language in the story. I guess in reading this type of genre, I got so use to seeing the text language font (medieval english) that I could tell so much about the story setting already! It’s so funny how often we can come across these kinds of nuances in written language, that when somebody asks “How’d you guess that was…?” The response is often “I’m not really sure.”

  14. k says:

    Terry Pratchett also does very good “eye dialects”, even though it’s set in a fantasy world…

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