Use of Dialect: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Also Read

      Mark Twain, a 19th century realist writer is acclaimed for his use of everyday colloquial language as against the tardy syrupiness and flamboyance of the Romantics. Twain spent a considerable amount of his time in his Maternal Uncle, Uncle Quarles' farm, in Florida.

      He writes in his "Autobiography", "My uncle, John A. Quarles, was a farmer, and his place was in the country four miles from Florida. He had eight children and fifteen or twenty Negroes..

      Uncle Quarles had a fair number of slaves in his farm and Twain had the opportunity to spend his time with them. Having been exposed to their use of the local language, he picked up their dialect fairly well. This explains the ease with which he uses these various dialects in the work, presently being appraised, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

      The book has been castigated as one that makes use of incoherent and incorrect language, thereby having a corrupting influence on young and impressionable minds, guiding them towards flawed, jumbled and erroneous grammar.

      According to the "New York Times", on March 19 1885, the Cencord Library Committee thought that Huck Finn was unsuitable for their shelves and perceived it as "trashy and vicious". Mark Twain, reportedly, did not take an offense to the ban as it resulted in tremendous publicity. According to him, the ban brought about all the publicity that his earlier efforts had failed to bring about as people were more than eager to read the book.

      In March 1885, the newspaper, Boston Daily Advertiser, stated that in papers from one end of the country to the other the statement is published and commented upon that the public library committee of Concord has marked Huckleberry Finn' as unworthy of a place on its shelves."

      The book was deemed "absolutely immoral in its tone and members of the Library committee had numerous incisive comments to make all of which point towards the "unworthiness" of the book. Some said that it was "couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect" and that "all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions." Another member reviewed it as "flippant" and "trash of the veriest sort". They unanimously opined that "it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating, and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library "of a town which boasts the only "summer school of philosophy in the universe".

      Twain uses various local dialects:- the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the "Pike County" dialect. These various dialects add a definite sense of realism to Twain's narration. By their use, he steers clear of the pitfall of letting readers suppose that all the characters are trying to speak the same language. It is, no doubt, difficult for a modern reader to comprehend the speeches, especially that of the nigger, Jim. To an extent, Huck's use of words, and their meanings, are not easily understood by a fastidious reader. Huck cannot speak Queen's English and no amount of editing could have corrected the syntax and grammar used by Twain. No doubt the novel makes use of certain words and sentence structures that may be disgusting to a purist reader. Nevertheless, the vernacular that Twain employed in his writings definitely adds a touch of verisimilitude and regional, local color.

      It cannot be refuted that Mark Twain could not have taken the risk of making his characters use refined language and flamboyant vocabulary in their conversations. How would he, then, explain the innocence and inexperience of Huck, the illiteracy and crudeness of Jim and the unsophistication of Pap. There is a marked difference in the speech of these characters as against that of the "educated" and "sivilized" ones such as Tom, Widow Douglas and Miss Watson.

"Now, we'll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer's Gang. Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood.... Because it ain't in the books so - that's why. Now, Ben Rogers, do you want to do things regular, or don't you? - that's the idea. Don't you reckon that the people that made the books knows what's the correct thing to do? Do you reckon YOU can learn 'em anything? Not by, a good deal. No, sir, we'll just go on and ransom them in the regular way".

      Tom's speech and his choice of words is orderly, refined and has a suggestion of education. Whereas, that of Pap and Huck is full of grammatical errors and Malapropisms. But Huck and Pap are, after all, "ornery" people with "ornery" speech. Jim's speech is even more incomprehensible.

"Doan' hurt me - don't! I hain't ever done no harm to a ghos'. I alwuz liked dead people, en done all I could for 'em. You go en git in de river agin, whah you b'longs, en doan do nuffn to Ole Jim, 'at 'uz awluz yo fren'...... "What's de use er makin' up de camp fire to cook strawbries en sich truck? But you got a gun, hain't you? Den we kin git sumfn better den strawbries."

"O, it's de dad-blame' witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey's awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos' kill me, dey skyers me so. Please to don't tell nobody bout it, sah, er ole mars Silas he'll scole me; kase he say dey ain' no witches. I jus' wish to goodness he was heah now den what would he say! I jis' bet he couldn' fine no way to git aroun' it dis time. But it's awluz jis' so: people dat's sot, stays sot; dey won't look into noth'n en fine it out f'r deyselves, en when you fine it out en tell um "bout it, dey doan b'lieve you".

      It, undeniably, is a Herculean task trying to comprehend, in the first reading, what Jim says. But, isn't that what is anticipated from someone with his background and upbringing? Any attempts to translate it into 'good', "acceptable" and plain English would be equivalent to making it devoid of the emotions originally intended to be conveyed to the reader. Without the touch of the vernacular speech, the story would be reduced merely to an insipid account of sentences being exchanged, among the characters, over a period of time.

      Twain states in his explanatory note to the novel, "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".

      The words and sentences used by all the characters are not coincidental. They are not a figment of an artist's imagination. They are, indeed, painstaking efforts to add a hint of realism efforts that are based on Twain's familiarity with this kind of language, as a result off his stay on Uncle John Quarles' farm in Florida.

      While Twain's use of the various dialects and this repeated use of the "N" word has been derided for is obscenity and racism, there are other critics who have hailed his work as commendable.

      Earnest Hemingway goes to the extent of judging it as the source of all American Literature. "I"s the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since".

      Critic Lionel Trilling, in his Introduction to Huckleberry Finn (1950), writes:-

      In form and style Huckleberry Finn is an almost perfect work.The prose of Huckleberry Finn established for written prose the virtues of American colloquial speech.. Forget the mis-spellings and the faults of grammar, and the prose will be seen to move with the greatest simplicity, directness, lucidity and grace. These qualities are by no means accidental. Mark Twain, who read widely, was passionately interested in the problems of style; the mark of the strictest literary sensibility is everywhere to be found in the prose of Huckleberry Finn.

      A meticulous and sophisticated writer, such as T.S. Eliot, who paid cognizance to the minutest details in language, grammar and syntax, applauds Huckleberry Finn as a masterpiece.

      Repeated readings of the book only confirm and deepen one's admiration of the consistency and perfect adaptation of the writing. This is a style which at the period, whether in America or in England, was an innovation, a new discovery in the language. (T.S. Eliot's "Introduction" to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

      Mark Twain's use of everyday American colloquial speech is a break away from the conventionally accepted literary forms. The use of the American vernacular gives it the refinement and simplicity that is the hallmark of Twain's literary genius. It is this revolt that earnest Hemingway refers to when he says, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain, called Huckleberry Finn".

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions