Mark Twain: Definition of a dialectologist

Mark Twain (aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens) believed that language was at the heart of all societies, and he set out in the late 1800s to prove that each region had a unique dialect that represented the people who spoke it. Curzan and Adams write, “A dialect is a variety of a language spoken by a group of people that is systematically different from other varieties of the language in terms of structural…or lexical features” (347). During the mid-1800s, calls for equality in America led to education reform, but the study of regional dialects was slow in coming as American English struggled to define itself as anything other than a formal language. While abolitionists were reforming social issues, American grammarians were promoting strict adherence to grammar rules by stigmatizing regional dialects as spoken word used by the uneducated lower classes. Jones writes, “An overview of linguistic theories between the Revolution and the Civil War reveals what the North American Review in 1860 termed a strong ‘tendency to force uniformity upon the language” (16). While academic institutions refused to study dialect differences in American English until the twentieth-century, Mark Twain used them in the 1870s and 1880s to differentiate his characters by strategically connecting linguistic patterns to their geographic locations which later aided linguists in the study of dialectology. As a realist writer, he believed that humor and satire were writing techniques best applied using a narrative point-of-view as he traveled the world to document the linguistic and cultural differences between regions. More importantly, he recognized that regional dialects were as much a part of American English as the formal grammar rules taught. Analyzing Roughing It, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court will show that Mark Twain broke from strict grammar structure to create a unique satirical writing style that increased awareness in lexical variables of regional dialects including phonology, morphology, and syntax.

Image 1: Dialect Map of American English that breaks down geographic areas where lexical variables exist because of the regional factors.


(Image: Access2Interpreters)

Twain wrote Roughing It in 1872. He used the region and social class to define the lexical variables of the western dialect. He first defined the speakers as, “The station-keepers, hostlers, etc., were low, rough characters, as already described; and from western Nebraska to Nevada a considerable sprinkling of them might be fairly set down as outlaws—fugitives from justice, criminals whose best security was a section of country which was without law and without even the pretence of it” (Twain Ch VI). But, it was more than just a rough crowd as the West was a land of promise as natives, immigrants, and Spanish speakers merged their languages into a dialect all their own. Phonology, specifically, was influenced by the rough climate and social conditions rather than classroom rules, and sound and speech patterns reflected the mixing pot of languages and cultures. Curzan and Adams write, “…in the West, the /ɑI/ in ride and fire still sounds vaguely like Southern /ɑ/….and Western speech was, once upon a time, relatively /r/-less, as when horse sounded like hoss and partner sounded like pahdnah” (394). What could be funnier to readers than a rigid grammar-loving Easterner meeting authentic Westerners on a stagecoach? Twain introduces such characters as The Sphynx, otherwise known as the lady from Cottonwood, who represents the Western dialect perfectly. Twain writes, “Danged if I didn’t begin to think you fellers was deef and dumb. I did, b’gosh. Here I’ve sot, and sot, and sot, a-bust’n muskeeters and wonderin’ what was ailin’ ye” (Roughing It). The pronunciation of def sounding as a long /e/ sound, the morphing of by and gosh as b’gosh and a-bust’n, and the short /o/ sound in sot instead of a short /a/ infers an immigrating speech pattern influence. Twain goes on by writing, “Fust I thot you was deef and dumb, then I thot you was sick or crazy, or suthin’, and then by and by I begin to reckon you was a passel of sickly fools that couldn’t think of nothing to say” (Twain). The words wonderin, ailin, fust, and suthin’ shows the influence of not using the /r/ and /g/ sounds in their speech patterns. He also noted incorrect grammar structure with lines like, “Which is him?’ (Roughing It). Grammarians might have accused Westerners of throwing syntax and grammar out the window with lines such as this. But remember, the Easterner was on a mission for adventure, and an introduction to Western dialect is what he got in his conversations with these lively characters who made informal grammar rules all their own! Twain’s attention to detail allowed him the ability to use his characters to exhibit that lexical variables existed in grammar structure, speech patterns, and vocabulary that lent credibility to the existence of a regional dialect spoken primarily in the Western states.  Twain’s satirical writing style allowed readers the opportunity to laugh about the differences while also acknowledging that they existed.

Twain did not stop with the Wild West as he had more to prove where regional dialects were concerned. He wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 as an acknowledgment of dialects found along the Mighty Mississippi including southern and African American lexical variables that existed within racial identities. Twain’s focus on the White Southern dialect took on grammar with phrases like, “ain’t sleepy” (Twain Ch 2). The Southern drawl also was on notice to readers as Twain’s characters drew direct influence from their social beliefs which defined sound structure variations between regions. Curzan and Adams write of differences between Northern and Southern dialects that, “Some general phonological features, in addition to the [z] in greasy, include clear /l/ between front vowels (e.g., in silly), the monophthongization of /ɑI/ to [ɑ] in words like night, and the merger of /ε/ and /I/ before /n/ in words such as pin and pen” (393). Also, the velar shift of -ing is also present in some of the characters like Jim and Pap. Southern vowel sound variations are also present in Huck’s Pap when he says to him, “GIT up!  What you ‘bout?” (Twain Ch 7).  Curzan and Adams also note, “Morphologically, dialects throughout the South witness the deletion of “be” forms and auxiliaries in the third person (e.g., he gonna do it, he done it)‘ (393). Twain’s character, Jim, represents the ideal representation of an African American dialect in the old south. Jim says, “Who dah” (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Ch 2). Phonological variables are also found in sentences like, “Yo’ ole father doan’ know yit what he’s a-gwyne to do.  Sometimes he spec he’ll go ‘way, en den agin he spec he’ll stay.  De bes’ way is to res’ easy en let de ole man take his own way (Ch 4). Twain also does a phenomenal job of comparing Southern White and African American speech patterns between characters like Jim and Huck, “How much do a king git?” “Get?”  I says; “why, they get a thousand dollars a month if they want it” “Ain‘ dat gay?  En what dey got to do, Huck?” “They don’t do nothing!” (Ch 14). This example shows that even within a dialect, sub-dialects exist based on race, education, and class that seems to influence lexical variables in all societies.

Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court in 1889 to differentiate the variables between American and British English dialect and grammar structure. Diatel writes, “British and American variants of English language are used in the following major areas: 1). Semantics (meaning of words ); 2) Pronunciation;3) Writing; 4) Grammar; 5) Spelling” (1). More importantly, it seems he wanted to show the world that America was a new world who had broken from formalities to form a modern language all its own. Who better to make such a case than Hank the Easterner to represent American English’s honor! Twain’s interest in dialects had run its full course in America, but in Europe, he was a novelty that offered financial opportunities. While American grammarians challenged his work, Europeans had fully begun to study dialects. It also offered him the chance to understand how language affected people outside of the United States by comparing British to American English standards. Western Washington University writes of the lexical variables, “Because of the long history of dialect creation in the English speaking areas of Great Britain, there are more dialects of English in Britain than in America, Canada, and Australia combined” (The Dialects of American English). But it seems that Twain’s cheeky satire went beyond dialect differences because he used social issues that he felt made all the difference between the two peoples (in a first-person satirical narrative by the Easterner of course!). Twain writes, “The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only:  to grovel before king and Church and noble” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court). The old world met the new, and Twain used stereotypes as a basis for using satire so brilliantly. Rohdenburg & Schlüter defined the beliefs as, “the typically British’ predilection for formal and conservative structures and the typically American’ pull towards simplicity, directness, and formality” (4).  Rarely in English literature do subjects know they are being subjected to it, but it makes it more brilliant in the telling of such stories. With those thoughts in mind, Twain’s humorous writing style was the perfect answer to the many people who questioned whose language was superior. Hank says of the British people, “As a rule, the speech and behavior of these people were gracious and courtly; and I noticed that they were good and serious listeners when anybody was telling anything—I mean in a dog-fightless interval” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Ch 2). It is apparent in this story that the Yankee sees himself as the superior speaker in this story because of the way Twain uses American English as a way to represent his modern approach to the characters, and his misunderstanding of the speakers in Camelot is quite telling in that he found British English outdated. The British English speaker says to Hank, “Fair sir, will ye just?” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Ch 1). Twain also uses vocabulary like ‘reckon’ and ‘prithee’ to further show that both lexical and syntax differences existed between the languages. The grammar structure of both languages showed two sets of rules, two formal dialects, and two very distinct groups of speakers. More importantly, this story represents the stereotypical beliefs that British English was more formal of a language spoken which Twain represented by old culture and old beliefs. By comparing the people as representations of the language structure, he showed the world that American English was not a dialect of British English because the people and their political, social, and personal beliefs defined how the languages were used in 1889. American English was a new language system designed by a new world doing things all their own.  He brought home his beliefs with lines like, “For when the purchase was about to fail, as usual, the master suddenly spoke up and said what would be worded thus—in modern English” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Ch VIII). In more modern English terms, Hank found British English to be too formal to make any point and American English to be direct (in a satirical sort of way, of course!). Twain sums it up quite nicely by describing the queen as, “…her intellect was good, she had brains enough, but her training made her an ass, that is, from a many centuries-later point of view” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Ch 18). It should not be lost on anyone that Hank is the representation of the American who speaks his mind plainly, and it is his character that is being used by Twain to teach the other characters how to embrace his mannerism if they wish to be modern speakers, too! But, it seems Twain also comes to a satirical reality of his own with, Ye were conquerors; ye are conquered! These others are perishing—you also. Ye shall all die in this place—every one—except him” (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Ch 19). He had spent his life trying to conquer academic approaches to language. He seems to acknowledge in a satirical sort of way that he felt conquered, yet he believed his work would survive the telling.

Twain used his stories to teach those who were listening that English was so much more than vocabulary and dialect. The stories he wrote showed an evolution of a language. For all the talks for a need of uniformity, his stories drew a conclusion in that it constantly needed updating because the speakers were developing into a more modern group of people defined more by immigration and social beliefs than grammar. He also showed that British and American English had sub-cultures in each country that affected how the languages were spoken. As his entire works show, he was a master at linguistics and sociology because he understood that both were interconnected by the people who recognized language as the heart of what bound their societies. His biography may well offer the greatest hint to who inspired him: his mother. He writes, “The greatest difference I find between her and the rest of the people whom I have known is this…those others felt a strong interest in a few things, whereas to the very day of her death she felt a strong interest in the whole world and everyone and everything in it” (Twain and Meltzer 22). The influence is clearly found in his writing as he paid meticulous attention to everyone and everything around him. He found inspiration in sight and sound, and his ability to distinguish one from the other was what made his literature remarkable as a realist writer. It also teaches that the best thing for a writer is to write with an honest pen reflecting real people. In so doing, the work created will resound honestly to one’s readers.



Works Cited
Access 2 Interpreters. Dialects: Knowing Your Audience. Map. 2016. access2interpreters.com/dialects-knowing-your-audience/. Accessed 23 July 2017.
Curzan, Anne, and Michael Adams.  How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. Boston: Longman 2012. Print
Diatel, A. “Differences between British and American English.” (2017).
Jones, Gavin. Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America. Univ of California Press, 1999.
Rohdenburg, Günter, and Julia Schlüter, eds. One language, two grammars?: differences between    British and American English. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Twain, Mark. A Connecticut yankee in King Arthur’s court. No. 9. Univ of California Press, 1979.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Gutenberg Project. 2006. gutenberg.org/files/76/76-h/76-h.htm. Accessed 23 July 2017.
Twain, Mark, Roughing It. Gutenberg Project. 2006. gutenberg.org/files/3177/3177-h/3177-h.htm.  Accessed 23 July 2017.
Western Washington University. The Dialects of American English. Linguistics 201. (n.d.). pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ling201/test3materials/AmericanDialects.htm. Accessed 4 Aug 2017.

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