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The Connection Between Use of Dialect and Portrayal of Superstitions

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“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” (245).

When Huck and Tom attempt to rescue Jim by Herculean, rather than mundane, efforts, they utilize the goodwill of another one of the slaves on the Phelps’ plantation. Though the reader is never graced with the slave’s name, Twain describes him as a wooly-haired chucklehead. Huck and Tom, in their infinite wisdom, use this slave to send various things into Jim’s shack – most prominently, a pie with a rope ladder baked inside. At one point, after the boys have dug a useless hole from inside a shed under the foundation to Jim’s cell, they forget to block the whole and Mr. Phelps’ entire pack of hounds slither under the wall into the room as well. When the “chuckleheaded” slave arrives on the scene with some of Jim’s food, notices the dogs and becomes utterly flabbergasted, Tom takes advantage of his amity and crafts an entire fiction about the dogs’ presence in the room. Previous to this scene, the boys noted that the slave had his hair tied up in little knots, supposedly to keep away the witches. The slave responds to Tom’s explanation of the dogs by invoking his own form of superstition about witches in his Southern dialect. In this passage, Mark Twain attempts to recreate the common language of slaves in the south and also illustrates a stereotype concerning people of color. For some whites at the time, it was conceived that slaves would have wandering, fanciful minds; thus, Tom feels that describing the dogs as fantasies of the slave is a justifiable way to explain their presence in Jim’s cell.

If roughly translated from dialect, the passage might read as so:

Those damn witches, sir, I really wish I was dead. They are always at (appearing to me) and they almost kill me every time they appear because they scare me so much. Please don’t tell anyone about this, sir, because Mr. Silas will scold me. He says that there aren’t any witches. I just wish he was here now – then what would he say? I bet he couldn’t find a way to get around it this time! But it’s always the same: people that believe one thing, stay that way. They will never look into something that they don’t find out for themselves. And when you find it out and tell them about it, they don’t believe you!

The act of “translating” the slave’s dialect into a modern, or “acceptable” version, of common English is tantamount to completely destroying Twain’s description of the story. With the dialect in place, the reader gets a much better sense of the slave as a hoping, feeling person. In this plain English format, the slave doesn’t seem to be saying much – all emotion is drained from the phrase. It’s interesting to see that Twain uses the dialect of the South to give the slaves, Tom and Huck personality; if every character spoke the king’s English in the manner of Nathaniel Hawthorne or the like, Huckleberry Finn would have no character and would lose all of its careful, integral detail. In addition, through Twain’s use of dialect, the reader gets a much better sense of life during the 19th century in the South. A Twain book without dialect would be a boring account of interactions between people without emotional capacity and descriptive character. Thus the dialect is a much more important aspect of a novel’s narrative flow than most readers realize.

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