Mark Twain's Use of Dialect in Huckleberry Finn
Q: Discuss Twain’s use of dialect in the novel. What effect does this usage have on the reader? Does it make the novel less of an artistic achievement?
In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses words and phrases
that people during the time that he wrote the book used in everyday life. Depending on the character, Twain used different forms of slang used in that period. His way of writing really shows how people spoke back then.
The main character of the story is Huckleberry Finn, also known as Huck. From the beginning of the novel, Twain makes it clear that Huck is a boy who comes from the lowest levels of white society. Although Widow Douglas attempts to “reform” Huck, he resists her attempts and maintains his independent ways. The Widow finally gives Huck some of the schooling and religious training that he had missed; he has not been indoctrinated with social values. Huck’s distance from mainstream society makes him skeptical of the world around him and the ideas it passes on to him. Huck speaks very well, but he still uses some slang during the novel. For example, “…there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right—and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time…” Though Huck does not speak the “proper English” we think to be proper today, he still tells the story in an easily understandable way.
Jim, Huck’s companion as he travels down the river, is a man of remarkable intelligence and compassion. He is the slave of Miss Watson. Since he is a slave, he is not very learned and speaks very bad English with a very strong accent. It is a bit difficult reading Jim’s lines in the novel because the words are spelled the way he would say it. For example, “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.” In order to understand the passage, the reader must read the lines slowly and try to figure out what words Jim is actually trying to say. Twain made Jim talk like this because this is how he probably heard the slaves talk during that time. Jim is a very unique character and no other character talks like him, which makes him stand out.
Most of the adults shown in the book seem to talk like regular people nowadays, with only mild slang words. For example, Pap speaks OK English, but he talks with a southern accent with a little slang. "Well, I'll learn her how to meddle. And looky here -- you drop that school, you hear? I'll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better'n what he is. You lemme catch you fooling around that school again, you hear?” Pap, like many other adults during that time, was not educated and spoke incorrectly. But since the majority spoke that way, it was considered the normal way to talk.
In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses words and phrases that people during the time that he wrote the book used in everyday life. Twain wrote this way because he wanted the reader to get an accurate feel of how people back then spoke and how society was much different than that of today. His way of telling a story makes the reader feel like he is right next to the characters, listening to every word that comes out of their mouth. His descriptive words paint a picture in the reader’s heads and it works very well.