Many of the characters in Splittin’ the Raft speak using vernacular that was carefully transcribed by Mark Twain in his original novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Vernacular is another word for slang, or common speech, and when Twain wrote the dialogue for his characters he made sure each character’s dialect was represented in order to show character differences not only in region but also in class and education. Below are some examples of the dialects used in the story.
First, let us take a look at a few examples of how the dialects are transcribed in the play. There might seem to be some spelling and grammar errors, but this is exactly how the words are written in the book and in the script. Try reading them aloud by sounding out the words exactly as they appear (this takes some practice). If you look closely, you will be able to detect subtle differences between Huck, Jim, Pap, and Judge Thatcher. When you go see the play, try to listen for differences in speech patterns between the other characters. What might these differences tell us about each character?
From the play
A snippet of conversation between Huck and Jim:
JIM: I didn’ know dey was so many un um. I hain’t hearn ‘bout non un um, skasely, but ole King Solermun.
HUCK: That ain’t nothin’. King Louis Sixteenth got his head cut off in France long time ago; he had a little boy, the dolphin, that would a been a king, but they took and shut him up in jail, and some say he died there.
JIM: Po’ little chap.
HUCK: But some says he got out and got away, and come to America.
JIM: Dat’s good! Bet he’ll be pooty lonesome – dey ain’ no kings here, is dey, Huck?
JIM: Den he can’t get no situation. What he goin’ to do?
HUCK: Well, I don’t know. Some of the learns people how to talk French (Kaiser 32).
A snippet of a speech by Pap Finn:
PAP: Don’t give me none o’ your lip. You’ve put on considerable many frills since I been away. I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated, too, they say; can read and write. You think you’re better’n your father, now, don’t you, because he can’t? I’ll take it out of you. Who told you you might meddle with such hifalutin’ foolishness, hey? – who told you you could? (Kaiser 10)
Now let us look at Judge Thatcher speaking. Consider that he is an educated character, and see if you can tell a difference between his “voice” and the ones we have just looked at. Has Huck’s speech changed at all because he is speaking with an authority figure?
Here is the Judge talking with Huck:
JUDGE: Why, my boy, you are all out of breath. Did you come for your interest?
HUCK: No, sir. Is there some for me?
JUDGE: Oh, yes, a half-yearly is in, last night. Over a hundred and fifty dollars. Quite a fortune for you. You better let me invest it along with your six-thousand, because if you take it, you’ll spend it.
HUCK: No, sir, I don’t want to spend it. I don’t want it at all – not the six thousand, nuther. I want you to take it; I want to give it to you.
JUDGE: Why, what can you mean, my boy?
HUCK: Don’t ask me no questions about it, please. You’ll take it – won’t you?
JUDGE: Well, I’m puzzled. Is something the matter?
HUCK: Please take it, and don’t ask me nothing – then I won’t have to tell no lies (Kaiser 9).
Now, let us listen to some examples of contemporary speakers from various locations that are featured in the play. Do they sound different than you expected after reading the examples above? Does this reflect a change in the sound of the dialect itself over time, or is it because of the transcription Twain used?
When you read the book, you cannot hear the characters; you must imagine what they sound like. Is it possible to “read” an accurate dialect without being able to hear the actual words?
*All dialect samples are taken from the International Dialects of English Archive
The following is only a sample of the recordings available on the website. Please feel free to explore the dozens of other examples from these states (as well as the many other dialect samples from all over the world).
How would you transcribe the above recordings? Do you think Twain successfully captured the “sound” of his characters? Why or why not?