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Dialect as Witness

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Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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From Twain’s sketch “A True Story,” Rachel says, "An' when I heah dat dey gwyne to sell us all off at oction in Richmon', oh de good gracious! I know what dat mean! . . . Dey put chains on us an' put us on a stan' . . . an' all de people stood aroun', crowds an' crowds.”

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.

My grandmother on my stepdad’s side was a farm wife who, with her husband, arrived from Germany in the early 1900’s. They established a farm south of Stanton, Nebraska.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.

My grandmother on my stepdad’s side was a farm wife who, with her husband, arrived from Germany in the early 1900’s. They established a farm south of Stanton, Nebraska.

Farmers have a “practical” attitude about their animals, but that didn’t stop her from feeling for her animals. I can still hear her German-accented English saying, “Dems gots feelins too.”

I could write, “they have feelings as well” though it would miss the personal sense I get remembering her accent. Spelling out the sounds as pronounced is a means of showing, not telling. “Dems gots feelins too” is simpler, more intimate, more in touch with the warm person I remember.

In “Huckleberry,” Twain moves between dialog, narration, and exposition, between dialect and mere accent. Each time forcing us, if we are reading his text, to engage deeply in the characters as we read dialect.

Frederick Douglass was a friend of Twain. In some ways they cover similar areas, very differently and I think their friendship influences Twain’s material. Douglass, born enslaved, taught to read at a very young age, mostly in secret, then self-educated, writing exquisite expositive prose, is direct without dialect. Purely non-fiction.

Twain is writing fiction and painting a sound picture with printed words. He does this also in his sketch “A True Story,” which uses the same technique to quote from memory, long after the event, using dialect about the auction where , Rachel, enslaved, her man and her children are sold.

From a very short excerpt, Twain could have paraphrased with:

When Rachel heard that she, her man, and her children were to be sold she realized what it meant. They would be on display, in chains, poked, prodded, judged fit or worthless.

Or, Twain might have quoted her in standard spelling as,

When I heard that they were going to sell us all off at auction in Richmond, I knew what that meant. They will put chains on us. Put us on a stand with crowds all around, looking at us, squeezing our arm, making us walk then choosing ‘too old’ or ‘lame’ or ‘doesn’t amount to much.”

Anyone in theater who has taken a part in performance will tell you that as you repeat your lines first in rehearsal and then in performance, what started out as mere lines, become an inner feel for both the playwright’s thinking and for the character you are playing. Dialect does something similar for readers. Here is Rachel in dialect again, Twain’s dialect:

An' when I heah dat dey gwyne to sell us all off at oction in Richmon', oh de good gracious! I know what dat mean! . . . Dey put chains on us an' put us on a stan' . . . an' all de people stood aroun', crowds an' crowds. An' dey 'd come up dah an' look at us all roun', an' squeeze our arm, an' make us git up an' walk, an' den say, 'Dis one too ole,' or 'Dis one lame,' or 'Dis one don't 'mount to much.'

Rachel is in a terrible situation. There is only so much she can do. But Twain takes care to show us her strength. After the auction sells her youngest child, despite her protests, Twain gives us a picture of angry dignity.

But dey got him -- dey got him, de men did; but I took and tear de clo'es mos' off of 'em, an' beat 'em over de head wid my chain; an' dey give it to me, too, but I didn't mine dat.

In written journalism, you sometimes interview someone whose grammar, quoted verbatim, might hold them to ridicule. You might correct grammar in a small matter, skip around it or paraphrase, which is the usual way to handle grammar errors respectfully.

Twain clearly wants us to know Rachel as an enslaved person who never gives up her dignity. Twain expends exacting effort to write as she spoke, making us witnesses by bringing us closer to Rachel.

He uses the same technique in “Huckleberry” to give us text portraits with “sound” from before the civil war. You could almost call it “multimedia.”

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.

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