What are some examples of Southern dialect and colloquialisms that Jem Finch would use in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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andrea101 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Let's review what a dialect is and what colloquialisms are. That will help you understand the answer and you can apply it throughout the book.

A dialect, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary is "a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties." It's the way people speak in an area, including the way they say it and what they say. People in New York speak English differently than people in London or people in Atlanta. It's not just pronunciation; that would be called an accent. It's also the vocabulary and the grammar.

A colloquialism, again from Merriam Webster, is "a local or regional dialect expression." It's a word or phrase commonly used in an area. It's also usually used in everyday speech, not necessarily in formal situations. Sounds similar to a dialect doesn't it? Remember, a dialect includes pronunciation and grammar as well as vocabulary. The colloquialism is mostly about vocabulary.

Let's now look at one quote of Jem's and see what we can find. This is from Part 1, Chapter 1 and is on page 5 of my version. Jem is describing Boo Radley to Dill:

"Jem said, “He goes out, all right, when it’s pitch dark. Miss Stephanie Crawford said she woke up in the middle of the night one time and saw him looking straight through the window at her… said his head was like a skull lookin‘ at her. Ain’t you ever waked up at night and heard him, Dill? He walks like this-” Jem slid his feet through the gravel. “Why do you think Miss Rachel locks up so tight at night? I’ve seen his tracks in our back yard many a mornin’, and one night I heard him scratching on the back screen, but he was gone time Atticus got there.”

Harper Lee writes the dialogue in Southern American English. I'm a Southerner myself, so I am am well acquainted with the dialect and colloquialisms.

Let's look at pronunciation first. Jem uses the words "lookin'" and "mornin'" in the quotation. That is common to Southern American English; we drop the pronunciation of the final "g" in words. But notice that the "g" is not dropped on scratching; many times Southerners will pronounce the "g" for emphasis; sounds a bit like "scratch-ING."

Now let's look at vocabulary. Jem says "Ain't" (instead of "Haven't"), and "all right" (not meaning "all is fine," but "indeed"). He adds several adjectives and adverbs for emphasis. He says "pitch dark" instead of simply "dark" and ""straight through" instead of simply "through." These additions add color to his language and are common Southern phrases.

Finally, let's look at grammar. There are three excellent examples in this passage of dialectical grammar. Jem says "many a mornin'" adding the article "a" to the phrase. In standard English, it would be grammatically correct to say "many mornings." He also says "he was gone time Atticus got there," shortening the phrase "by the time" to simply "time." Finally, Jem also says "waked up" instead of the grammatically correct "woken up" or "awoken."

Anytime you see Jem speak, he will be using Southern American English as his dialect. You can take any of Jem's quotations and analyze them in this same way. You might also find it helpful to read those quotes out loud. If you stumble on a word or phrase, that's probably where the dialect or colloquialism is unfamiliar to you.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous post gave some excellent definitions and examples of Southern dialect and regional colloquialisms. Other examples include:

  • Jem's use of the words "yonder," "reckon," "breeches (britches)," "moseyin'," "naw: ("no"),
  • Jem answers Miss Maudie with the very Southern "Yessum" and "Nome" (for "Yes, Ma'am" and "No, Ma'am").
  • In comparing Atticus to the Cunninghams, Jem says that

"I've seen Atticus pat his foot when there's fiddlin' on the radio, and he loves pot liquor better'n any man I ever saw--"

  • Jem expresses his disgust with the jury's verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

 " 't's all right to talk like that--can't any Christian lawyers an' judges make up for heathen juries... Soon's I get grown..." 

  • When Scout asks Dill why Dolphus Raymond is sitting with the "colored folks," Jem answers,

"He likes 'em better'n he likes us, I reckon... He's got a colored woman and all sorts of mixed chillun. Show you some of 'em when we see 'em."




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To Kill a Mockingbird

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