What are some advantages for an author to write in dialect, as Mark Twain does?What are some advantages for an author to write in dialect, as Mark Twain does?
While some students find it difficult to read different dialects, it can definitely enhance the reading experience. Twain, like others, had a very distinct voice in his writing, and in expressing his stories or characters in dialects he allowed his readers to become immersed in the setting, time, and lives of his characters. The reader is able to 'hear' the story unfold through the words and voice of the characters and narrator. Just as with a spoken dialect, writing in dialect helps establish many aspects of time, place, and character without added words; you are able to immediately envision Twain's world and the lively people who inhabit it, and are transported there to be enveloped in the story. Another example of a story written in dialect is Gary Paulsen's Nightjohn, a story told from the perspective of Sarny, an uneducated slave girl who wants to learn to read and write. Her words and dialect help place her in context, and allows the reader to see the contrast between the slave world and the more refined white world. It exemplifies the writer's credo of 'Show, don't Tell."
Well, Mark Twain is an excellent author to focus on to examine the stylistic use of dialect. In his works he makes a deliberate choice to try and use the vernacular (the langauges commonly spoken by people in a particular place or region), and this becomes a hallmark of Twain's style. The advantages of using the vernacular are that it creates a vivid writing style, as you capture the way that characters speak, and it also helps to evoke a particular time period or setting as the vernacular includes unique vocabulary, idioms and dialect. You need only to look at one of Twain's short stories such as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" to see the force and power of the use of the vernacular in creating unforgettable characters and situations.
However, obviously the use of vernacular can be difficult to understand if we are not familiar with it, which can be a challenge when reading passages containing large sections of vernacular.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn follows a young boy and a runaway slave as they encounter various people and situations while floating on a raft down the Mississippi River. This bildungsroman is a work of realism containing a number of factors that contribute to its verisimilitude, the most important being dialect. If there was no dialect contained in Huckleberry Finn, readers would not experience the powerful imagery of the time and place in which they encounter this adventure. In Chapter 14, Huck and Jim discover a house a floating down the river. As Jim peeks inside a window he says, “It’s a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked too. He’s ben shot in de back. I reck’n he’s ben dead two er three days. Come in, Huck, but doan’ look at his face – it’s to gashly” (111).
Although some argue that dialect is difficult to read and takes away from the reader’s understanding of a work, Huckleberry Finn wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining or realistic without it. The prior quote by Jim, for example, might have read, “It’s a dead man. Yes, naked too. He’s been shot in the back. I think he’s been dead for two or three days. Come in, Huck, but don’t look at his face – it’s too ghastly.” This modern, educated use of language would not serve its larger purpose, which is to transport the reader to the world that they are experiencing in Huckleberry Finn.
“The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is a frame narrative, also written by Mark Twain, in which an unnamed narrator hears the story of Jim Smiley and his adventures while pursuing his addiction to gambling. The diction used by the narrator is rather elevated for the South, while the storyteller, Mr. Wheeler, is much more colloquial. Mark Twain portrays this difference with his clever use of dialect, clearly defining Mr. Wheeler’s lack of education as compared to the narrator’s intelligence. This contrast contributes to a main point in the outer narrative: the narrator does not want to hear these stories from a rambling, "country" character. Near the end of the story, Mr. Wheeler attempts to continue his stories to the narrator, stating “Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yaller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner, and…” (125). This quote alone conveys the importance of dialect in “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” A lack of dialect would seriously take away from the comedic and realistic aspect of the story.
Although the use of dialect in these works by Mark Twain causes slower reading, it is obvious that they would not be same without it. It would be very difficult to distinguish between the characters, especially racial differences, the area and time in which these works take place would be of no importance to the story, and character attributes, such as lack of education, would not be clearly defined. In order for the reader to fully understand and experience the time, place, and circumstances in which these stories take place, dialect is of utmost importance.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012. Print.
Twain, Mark, and Stephen Railton. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2011. Print.