Huck Finn: Dialect

May 15, 2015
by: norrisbh

Mark Twain's Huck Finn is a controversial American masterpiece. This often tough to read book addresses the still delicate issue of race in America, although done from a 19th century standpoint rather than a 21st century one. A large part of what makes Huck Finn difficult to read is not the frequent racism and use of the n-word, but trying to figure out what most of the characters are actually saying.

There are up to 6 different distinct dialects of English in Huck Finn: They are Missouri Negro, Pike County, Pike County modified,Southwestern, and backwoods Southern. Of all of these however, Jim's is probably the most difficult for the modern reader to translate.

Here's a sample passage from Huck Finn: ""Yo' ole father doan' know yit what he's a-gwyne to do. Sometimes he spec he'll go 'way, en den agin he spec he'll stay. De bes' way is to res' easy en let de ole man take his own way. Dey's two angels hoverin' roun' 'bout him. One uv 'em is white en shiny, en t'other one is black. De white one gits him to go right a little while, den de black one sail in en bust it all up. A body can't tell yit which one gwyne to fetch him at de las'. But you is all right. You gwyne to have considable trouble in yo' life, en considable joy. Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you's gwyne to git well agin." (22)

Huck's dialect: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." (1) Although Huck's and Jim's dialect is often very difficult to understand, it is an important part of the story and the dialect gives them a whole new local flavor. Twain's writing was influenced by the literary movement of regionalism common at the end of the 19th century ,and this helps explain why he put this often difficult to understand accents in the story,as it helps to add an element of realism to his characters.

Twain also uses dialect as a tool to help the reader's determine the intelligence of the person speaking. A person like HUck's Dad and Jim, both of whom have had little or no schooling, are extremely difficult to understand, while an educated person's dialogue like Judge Thatcher is much easier to understand then Jim and Huck's Father. His deliberate misspelling of words like "civilize" (3) and "there" (7) really helps to push this message.

Some of these stereotypes about accents carry over to this day. For example many of would consider people with a " hill-billy accent"( like Forrest Gump) or a backwoods Appalachian accent to be not as smart as say someone with an English accent. The Duke and Dauphin in Huck Finn are well aware of this, and try to imitate a posh, royal English accent to cover up their uneducated southern origins.

Work Cited

Widger, David. "The Project Gutenberg EBook of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Part 1 by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)." Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Part 1 Chapters I. to V.. Ed. David Widger. Project Gutenberg, 27 June 2004. Web. 15 May 2015.
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Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Upper Saddle River New Jersey: Prentice Hall Library, 1884. N. pag. Print.


Ben, You made some very good

KendraPOHS's picture
Submitted by KendraPOHS on Sat, 2015-05-16 20:10.

You made some very good points about Twain’s use of language. I think that this was a real task for him because there are so many different dialects that only have a few slight changes that could be extra words or phrasing (Pike County - Huck vs. Modified Pike County - the Duke and Dauphin). However, for Twain, it was well worth the trouble because it was all built toward regionalism, local color, and REALISM. He wanted to make “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as realistic as possible and to accent this, there was frequent satire against Romanticism (the Grangerfords, for example). I also like how you mentioned the spelling differences of words that sound so similar but there is just that little difference between the way an “s” versus the way a soft “c” sounds (“sivilize” vs. “civilize”). It really lets you understand the characters more fully. Lastly, in your first paragraph you mentioned how incredibly difficult it was to read some of the dialogue. I think that Twain might have anticipated this as well as the ways in which people would try to understand it. For myself, I had to read it out loud (not in public, of course) but suddenly it became so obvious what the characters (Jim, mainly) were saying and I was talking in a pretty darn good southern accent, unintentionally. This allowed me to get an even better idea of what people sounded like in different regions, with their different upbringings, social standards, and education.