Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

 Note: This is the first in an ongoing series (I hope?) of posts that take what I’m teaching in my 11th-grade American Lit classes and then shows how that could translate into creative writing, using examples of what I’m doing. I welcome feedback, because I’m no expert on American literature–just somebody who’s been teaching it for a couple of years. I would also love to hear how other writers are using these tools! 

This week in American Lit, we’ve been talking about dialect (writing that imitates the way people actually speak, including accents, slang, and idiom) and how writers use that to provide indirect characterization.

The story we read is Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short, humorous exploration of the type of characters populating a rural mining camp in the 1860s. It’s also a frame story,  with an unnamed narrator introducing and closing out the tale in deliberately prolix style, the better to heighten the contrast with the main tale, told by “good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler” (Twain 1). The version at the link has a different ending than the version in our textbook, but the same general ideas are at play in both.

Obviously, Twain’s intent is to satirize both the stuffy narrator, who can’t see the humor in Smiley’s adventures, and Wheeler himself, who’s a bore and a boor and won’t let the narrator escape. We spend time while we’re reading picking out the words that really help characterize the two of them in order to analyze Twain’s use of diction as character. Some of the students’ favorites:

  • The Narrator: compliance, garrulous, hereunto append, personage, infernal, tedious
  • Simon Wheeler: feller, flume, curiousest, so’s, solit’ry, dangdest, thish-yer–and I was very unsuccessful in convincing them that “Well, blame my cats!” should make a comeback in teen vernacular.

There’s clearly a vast gulf here in terms of diction (syntactically, they both tend to run on, but only one of them does it grammatically). It would be very, very easy to label any sentence from this story as spoken by the Narrator or by Simon Wheeler, based on diction alone, because their dialects are so distinct.

So, how do I use this in my own writing? 

One of the best feelings I have as a writer is when my characters are “speaking” to me. Sometimes, when re-reading/editing a draft, I’ll actually even start reading a character’s dialog aloud. This is a very good sign.*

When this happens, it’s often because I can hear that character’s voice–accent, slang, tone, timbre, and all. It’s a very good sign because that means the voice isn’t mine**.

In my RSWIP***, I have a a character from the Midwest, a native Bostonian, an Irish immigrant, and somebody from the South. Having lived in the Midwest my whole life, I’m pretty sure I should be able to nail that one. (She’s the one I’m least tempted to read aloud, too, even when I feel like I’m nailing her voice.)

I’ve visited Boston and the American South, and those accents have a lot of media representation, so even though what I hear in my head for those may be a bit caricatured, I can filter it through each character’s backstory to get a more rounded effect. While I’ve never been to Ireland (can I write off a trip there as research now??), I’ve heard the accent (again, good media representation) and I have access to things via Google that can help me pretend I know how that should sound.

I got some great phrases like “Cop on!” and  “thick as two short planks” to have her use when she’s frustrated that somebody’s not catching on, and I found her using longer sentences, with a more lyrical rhythm, than Ms. Midwest (her long sentences are staccato run-ons that come out when she’s nervous) or Mr. Boston (his sentences usually range from clipped to monosyllabic, but some of that is personality in addition to geography).

When I’m in the editing/revision stage, I can double-check my diction to make sure that if I’m in close-POV, my Midwesterner thinks of the woman bringing her food at the restaurant as “their waitress,” not “the server,” and is really friendly to her the whole time. (The Bostonian thinks this behavior is weird–excuse me, wicked strange. The server’s just doing her job. She’s not trying to be your best friend.)

The most important thing is that it be clear which character is speaking, even without tags. Ideally, any line of dialog would obviously belong to one of these four and not the other three. (Except, of course, for when Boston’s making fun of Ireland, and yells “Faith and begorrah!” at her. Apparently he understands dialect too?)

One of the ways to check my own writing for this is to compare and contrast. If I copy and paste some dialog into another document, sans tags, can I tell the characters apart?

Could a beta reader?

If I’m in 1st-person POV or deep 3rd, does the narration also incorporate characteristic diction and syntax that match that character’s dialect? Does the narration sound just like that character’s dialog, and do other characters sound different?

Obviously I’m not looking for catch phrases (not until I get my Netflix miniseries deal, right?) but real people do, in fact, repeat the same things, have consistent patterns in their patter, and use the same words or types of words in their dialog. Since I’m not writing local color, I don’t need to try to take it quite as far as Twain does in “Jumping Frog”–but I do need to make sure I haven’t just got a room full of ‘bots talking to each other, or, worse, a room full of clones of myself.


And now, because I’m desperate to beat citation into the noggins of my students, check out my MLA style!

Works Cited:

Twain, Mark. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Ed. Angel Price. University of Virginia, Nov. 1996. Web. 11 Jan. 2017.


*(For the writing, not my own psychological well-being. Yes, I do hear voices. I’m a writer. Don’t worry about it.)

**(I hear me talk all day–I’m very familiar with it and don’t need to read it out loud to myself in my spare time.)

***Romantic Suspense Work in Progress, for the uninitiated. Yes, I am terrible at titles, why do you ask??

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