Compare and contrast the dialects spoken by the characters in the novel The Adventures of Huck Finn.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In what William Dean Howells defined as "nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material," Mark Twain includes regional dialects in his seminal novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in order to create the illusion of everyday life within the given setting.  This regional writing is but another expression of the Realistic movement in the desire to preserve and portray distinctive ways of life and its humor and charm, as well as to address the harsh realities that exist.

Now, much of Twain's appeal is due to his magical and humorous power with language.  His love of language is what has propelled him to preserve the dialects of his characters, for they are a part of their personalities.  In the front of his novel, Twain has placed this explanatory:

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 hap- hazard 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.


Twain's explanation notwithstanding, the author takes some license with the dialects as he makes them a little less authentic lest the reader not be able to understand them.  Still he gives them enough "patois," one critic observes, to keep the novel from becoming rather tedious.  Thus, even with dialects, Twain mixes seriousness with humor, a trope throughout his novel.

Of course, Twain employs dialects for identification of his characters.  Jim, as an uneducated slave who has learned whatever English he knows from hearing other slaves or from listening to an equally uneducated overseer, has the thickest dialect that at times is difficult to understand.  He cuts off many of the cosonants from his words and utilizes an odd, but limited vocabulary at times. The Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, in contrast, are much more articulate in their speech, finishing words with their consomants, although they yet retain certain regionalisms such as "hain't" for "is/are not" and "Ill learn yer" for "I'll teach you"; and "lemme" for "let me."

Of course, a humorous episode involving dialect occurs with the Duke and the King, who pretend to be an English duke and a French dauphin, and must disguise their natural way of talking.  When the real relatives arrive and make claim to the Wilks's inheritance, they recognize the fraudulent dialects,

"Keep you hands off of me!" says the doctor.  "You talk like an Englishman--don't you?  It's the worse imitation I ever heard.  You Peter Wilks's brother.  You're a faud, that's what you are!"

In addition to the effect of realism and humor in the use of dialect in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the regionalisms point to the geographic areas which comprise this novel.  In this way, the reader is provided insight into the nature and way of thinking of different levels of people from other areas than one's own.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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