My Antonia


Willa Cather

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My Antonia: Dialect 1 key example

Book 1, Chapter 13
Explanation and Analysis—Bohemian English:

Ántonia and her family speak in a "Bohemian" dialect of English, emphasizing their foreignness and immigrant status in comparison to their neighbors. In Book 1, Chapter 13, Ántonia explains to Jim that:

“My papa sad for the old country. He not look good. He never make music any more. At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never. When I beg him for play, he shake his head no. Some days he take his violin out of his box and make with his fingers on the strings, like this, but never he make the music. He don’t like this kawntree.”

In this written version of spoken English, Cather spells English words idiosyncratically to represent Ántonia’s accent, such as "kawntree.” Nonstandard syntax and grammar add to the realism of the Shimerda family's dialogue. In depicting the Bohemian family’s speech in this way, Cather adds to the realism of the novel. The reader can get a sense of how these characters might sound as well as what they’re trying to convey.

As Ántonia grows older, her English becomes more stereotypically American, marking her growth and her assimilation into American life. However, the book also makes frequent, vague references to spoken Bohemian Czech. Jim can't understand any of this speech, so it isn't represented as words by the narrator—even though he hears a lot of it, as it's the language in which Ántonia and her family primarily communicate. The stark omission of this language on the pages serves as a reminder that English was not the only language spoken in the United States when the country was in its early stages of expansion. Even though Jim doesn't "record" Bohemian Czech, it's just as present as spoken English.