Dialects in Huck Finn

By Barry Honold

In the preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain gives a brief statement about regional dialects:

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods 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.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding”

What precisely he meant by this is curious; it’s been both dismissed as a joke and closely scrutinized. The earliest attacks on the novel were directed at the language. Twain was one of the first American novelists to write in the vernacular of the region about which he was writing. Many people found such vernacular usage vulgar. One month after the book was released, a Massachusetts library banned it, deeming it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” According to the PBS “Culture Shock” page on the novel, “[its] free-spirited and not always truthful hero as well as its lack of respect for religion or adult authority draw immediate fire from newspaper critics. The ungrammatical vernacular voice in which Huck narrates the book is also attacked as coarse and inappropriate. Some readers find the colorful stories Huck tells immoral, sacrilegious, and inappropriate for children.” Twain wrote in the vernacular for literary flavor; one article attributes this to Twain’s desire to “allow the reader to have a closer connection to the setting of the story and [permit] the story to be more believable and understandable.”

The institution of slavery in the US proscribed education amongst slaves. Society discouraged it, and some states legislated against it.  Some slaves were quietly educated by their owners, but the majority were not. The common fear among whites at the time was another Nat Turner slave rebellion.  As one article put it, Jim speaks in an uneducated fashion because he is, point in fact, uneducated, not because  Twain “made him” that way.

Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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