The Different Dialects Within Huckleberry Finn

Updated on November 15, 2016

Introduction

One of the biggest characteristics that stands out from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is its incorporation of seven (literary investigators have discovered eight) distinct Southern dialects. A dialect is a spoken model of speech characterized by the speaker's time period, background, personality, and geographic location; it is defined by its model of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and lexicon (Carkeet). Every group of white people in the novel has a distinct dialect. For example, Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas Phelps use the pronunciations: “Owdacious, Clo’es, Newrleans, and reely”, while other characters do not (Carkeet). Literary investigator David Carkeet had much to write on this subject. David Carkeet discovered that, while in his preface to the novel Mark Twain said he only included seven dialects, eight distinct “white” dialects could be found in Huckleberry Finn (Carkeet). These eight dialects were that of Huck, Pap, Judith Loftus, Sir Walter Scott, the raftsmen, the king, the bricksville loafers, and Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas (Carkeet). Carkeet also noticed that there is not much evidence supporting the commonly held belief that these eight “white” dialects represent actual spoken dialects in America during the early nineteenth century, and that Twain’s preface to the novel emphasized the importance of the dialects; he therefore came to the conclusion that Mark Twain wanted people to become intrigued with them while reading Huckleberry Finn (Carkeet). Carkeet decided that there was a deeper meaning behind the dialects in Huckleberry Finn, and he decided to investigate.

"The Pike"

The novel starts off with Huck living with a Widow in Pike County, Missouri. David Carkeet discovered that a fictional character known as “the Pike” was incorporated into numerous ballads during the early nineteenth century, and that the Pike was named after Pike County, Missouri. “The Pike spoke a dialect variously represented by different writers, part literary artifact and part reflective of actual linguistic features of the Pike County area in Missouri and Illinois” (Carkeet, 25). Mark Twain must have known about the Pike. “In the novel, Huck told the King that he was from Pike County, Missouri, and his family ‘all died but me and pa and my brother Ike’ (Twain, chapter 20); ‘Ike’ is the name of a forever undeveloped character in Pike County balladry” (Carkeet, 25). Carkeet also noticed that Huck’s dialect is similar to the one most commonly used in Pike County ballads.

Mark Twain took a long time to write Huckleberry Finn. Carkeet knew that during the time he worked on Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wrote many notes to himself concerning the formulation of the distinct dialects of the different characters. For example, a note written by Mark Twain was discovered which read, “Huck says nuther.” Carkeet supposed that Huck’s dialect could be thought of as the main dialect, while the other seven “white” dialects depart from it by varying degrees. During the summer of 1883, the time when Twain wrote three fifths of the novel, Huck’s dialect changed slightly because new pronunciations were introduced (Carkeet). Huck’s dialect became more like the dialects of Tom Sawyer and Pap, who also lived in Pike County (Carkeet). This shows that Twain did not perfectly recall how he had previously organized the different dialects (Carkeet).

According to Carkeet, it is likely that Mark Twain also gathered ideas from antebellum literature of Southwestern humorists like George Washington Harris, Johnson J. Hooper, and William Tappan Thompson. In fact, the dialects of the king and the raftsmen have been connected to literature written by Southwestern humorists. Thus, it is extremely likely that Mart Twain did not write the novel according to the actual linguistic tendencies of the literal setting and background of Huckleberry Finn.

No One Will Ever Really Know

As I began reading Huckleberry Finn, I immediately noticed the different dialects used. I became interested in the dialects, and I wondered how Mark Twain kept them all straight throughout the novel. I also noticed the ideas of realism incorporated into Huckleberry Finn; there was nothing in the novel that was not down-to-earth. The different dialects in Huckleberry Finn were by no means accidental, because they are mostly systematic and people-specific throughout the novel. I originally believed that he included the different dialects because he wanted to portray the story as realistically as possible in order to captivate the reader. But as it turned out, there was more of a story behind them than that. The dialects do a wonderful job of incorporating the reader into the novel as a silent observer. In my opinion, there are numerous novels similar Huckleberry Finn, but they never became well-known. The dialects incorporated into the novel make Huckleberry Finn stand out, and I believe they are the reason it is well-known. Without the dialects, Huckleberry Finn would be a long boring dialogue and I doubt many people would have read it. I believe that Mark Twain knew this, and that is why he briefly discussed the dialects in the novel’s preface.

Before reading David Carkeet’s article, I did not consider that there could be deeper meaning to the dialects. However, I now wholeheartedly agree with David Carkeet that there is a greater reason for the dialects than Mark Twain’s attempt to be as realistic as possible. And I believe that it is very probable that Mark Twain used Pike County ballads and the literature of Southwestern humorists to create and organize his dialects. The fact that before and after the summer of 1983 the dialects were slightly mixed up supports David Carkeet’s hypothesis that Mark Twain was researching Pike County ballads during the time he wrote Huckleberry Finn, and that the dialects were not directly based off of actual spoken dialects of the time. However, I do not agree with David Carkeet when he assumed that Huck’s dialect is the main dialect and that the other dialects depart from Huck’s by varying degrees. I believe that the “white” dialects are different in the novel because of the amount of “black” dialect mixed into them. Jim, Mrs. Watson’s slave, spoke in a dialect which stood out most because it was the furthest from perfect English. Other slaves in the novel also used that dialect as well. It was sometimes difficult to read their dialect. I believe that Mark Twain compiled several different dialects based on his readings of Pike County balladry and literature of the Southwestern humorists, both of which were written in a heavy Southwestern dialect, and matched them to the characters based on how he wanted them to come across. Tom, Pap, Huck, the Widow, Jim, and judge Thatcher all came from Pike County. However, they all had distinct dialects. While Pap said things like “hifalutin”, judge Thatcher spoke with good English. I believe that Mark Twain used the dialects to subjectively portray information about a specific character’s background and personality. I also believe a reason Twain put so much effort into developing and organizing the dialects was that he was intrigued by literature written by Southwestern humorists and he wanted to try it out for himself. I believe that most of all, Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn to make the point that it is not what you write, but how you write it that really matters. I also believe that Mark Twain was trying to create a story revolving around the fictional character, the Pike. Maybe Huck was supposed to represent the Pike, no one will ever really know.

Literature Cited

Carkeet, David. “The Dialects in Huckleberry Finn.” JSTOR 51.3 (1979): 315-32. Web. 7 June 2012.

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