Huck’s Vernacular throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By Tania Alves, NJCU Student (Main Campus)

huck-jim1

Mark Twain is one of several famous authors who published novels that are still studied today in many English courses. One of Twain’s greatest American novels is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which was first published in 1885. It has proven to be a controversial novel, as well as an important document for how dialect was first introduced to the American reading public. A number of dialects were used throughout the novel including: the Missouri “Negro” dialect, the backwoods Southwestern dialect, the Pike County dialect, and a few others. Huck, one of the characters in the novel has one of the most interesting vernaculars.  Huck spoke English with a Southwestern accent. A great example of this is seen in Chapter 19 where Huck tries to fool Pap and get away. He says, “I just expected there’d be somebody laying down in it, because people often done that to fool folks, and when a chap had pulled a skiff out most to it they’d raise up and laugh at him. But it warn’t so this time.”

Even though Huck spoke English pretty well, he often used slang when speaking throughout the novel. At one point in the novel Huck says, “…we was always naked day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us- the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow.” Twain used Huck, the main character, in order to show what speech and conversation would sound like and how it would be spoken by a 13 year old boy from Missouri who was from a lower class and was uneducated. In doing this, Twain allowed the reader to understand the language Huck spoke and his perspective on life and society.  Interestingly, throughout the novel both Huck and Jim show many examples of eye dialect. John Algeo and Thomas Pyles define eye dialect as “the representation of standard pronunciations by unconventional spellings, like duz for does.” Several examples of eye dialect seen in the novel are: ghost/ ghos, sivilized/civilized, wisht/wished, ole/old, doan/ don’t, ‘kase/ cause, dat/that, git/get, for’rard/forward, fool’n/ fooling and countless other examples.

benton-smallThe use of contractions is also quite obvious throughout the novel. Twain’s decision to use contractions shows that Huck’s vernacular is in fact one of a Southwestern dialect. Some contractions seen in this particular novel include : ain’t, they’d, she’s, wasn’t, there’s, didn’t, I’ve, don’t, couldn’t, he’d, you’ve, wouldn’t, they’ll, it’, I’ll, can’t and many more. Looking at these contractions showed that even in 1885, these words were used. It is no surprise that these words are still used today because they make up a large part of the English language and are used in dialect. A majority of these contractions are used in everyday conversation.

Many writers and scholars have studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of its profound and thorough presentation of different American dialects. Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote a book titled Was Huck Black? which comments on whether Huck’s dialect was inspired by or  possibly even taken from African American dialects. In her essay titled “Teaching Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” posted on PBS.org, Shelly Fisher Fishkin states:

“Something new happened in Huck Finn that had never happened in American literature before. It was a book, as many critics have observed, that served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition. Huckleberry Finn allowed a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked. Huck’s voice, combined with Twain’s satiric genius, changed the shape of fiction in America, and African-American voices had a great deal to do with making it what it was”[1]

Overall, Twain used Huck’s vernacular as a way of showing how people spoke and still speak. Looking closely at the different dialects he used in his novel, one can see how language and words used during this time period are important even in today’s use of language. Being able to understand the novel through the use of eye dialect is interesting since a majority of the time it must be re-read in order to understand what it being said. It is amazing to see how language was spoken and written during the 1880s and the way it is written and spoken nowadays.


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3 Comments on “Huck’s Vernacular throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

  1. Amanda Says:

    Good post I am huge fan Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain books!!

  2. jeein Says:

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is one of the many novels that use the vernacular. The role of a vernacular is to give more power and more information about the character. Mark Twain uses vernacular in his writing to show how the novel would have been different if it was not written in vernacular, what the reader learns about the character, and your experience as a reader.

  3. Jeena Says:

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is one of the many novels that use the vernacular. The role of a vernacular is to give more power and more information about the character. Mark Twain uses vernacular in his writing to show how the novel would have been different if it was not written in vernacular, what the reader learns about the character, and your experience as a reader.


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