Dialect

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by

Mark Twain

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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Dialect 2 key examples

Dialect
Explanation and Analysis—Huck Finn:

Huckleberry Finn features several different dialects. Twain makes this clear in the detailed “Explanatory” he includes at the beginning of the book:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri Negro dialect; the extremist form of the back-woods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘‘Pike County’’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. 

The most obvious dialect is that of Huck, as it appears in the style of his narration throughout the entire novel. His is an example of the “Pike County dialect” that Twain mentions, which is both specific to Huck’s particular location in Pike County, Missouri and also Twain’s attempt at capturing how the majority of the white Southerners spoke at the time. In addition to Huck, Aunt Polly and Pap speak in this dialect as well. The dialect is characterized by incorrect contractions, exaggerated language, and, in Huck’s case, some obvious misspellings, such as “sivilized” instead of “civilized.”

In putting an uneducated 13-year-old who speaks in a lower-class Southern dialect at the center of the novel, Twain shows that education and social class are not the markers of intelligence or morality that many think that they are. Huck’s grammar and references are often wrong, and his descriptions are often over-the-top, yet he is far more mature than more privileged people like Tom Sawyer. This is yet another example of the societal hypocrisies Twain highlights in the novel.

Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Jim:

In the “Explanatory” at the beginning of the book, Twain establishes that he intentionally studied and tried to replicate the “Missouri Negro dialect,” as seen in the way that the character Jim speaks. (Note that "Negro" is now considered an outdated and offensive way to refer to Black people.) The nature of Jim's dialect is exemplified in an emotional conversation with Huck:

“My heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’t k’yer no mo’ what become er me en de raf’. En when I wake up en fine you back agin’, all safe en soun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful.”

Twain’s rendering of “was” as “wuz,” “because” as “bekase,” “care” as “k’yer,” and “yo’” as “your” all add to readers being able to hear the sounds of Jim’s speech clearly, even as the reading experience might be somewhat challenging.

Attempting to capture this dialect so closely is part of Twain’s commitment to writing a realist novel that closely renders the sounds, sights, and racial dynamics of pre-Civil War American society. In honoring the “Missouri Negro dialect,” Twain honors Black Americans who spoke in similar ways, a move that highlights the intentions of his book as a whole: to critique slavery and the racist notions about Black people being less human that allowed such an institution to continue for so long. 

Of note is that, in recent years, some scholars have questioned Twain’s exaggerated rendering of the Black American dialect, suggesting that it could have added to stereotypes about Black people’s speech patterns—even as Twain intended to challenge these stereotypes.

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