‘Huckleberry Finn’ – An Unusual Attitude to Linguistic Diversity

Since you are reading my blog, I assume you are aware of the fact that there is a wide variety of languages in existence around the world today. It may even be hard for you to imagine that many African slaves in the 19th century United States had no knowledge of the concept of ‘language’. They had no access to education and were very unlikely to encounter foreigners in their area. In addition, they had neither the right, nor the money nor the will to travel abroad. So with regards to an understanding of linguistic diversity, they were just like us in our childhood years! I remember hearing my grandparents talking in Greek and not being aware that they were conversing with each other the way I did in Hungarian. In other words, I saw foreign languages as gibberish. Have I got evidence for this? Of course I do! Once I shouted out a made up sentence in front of my parents and finished with the following remark: “This is my Greek.” I’m not sure if this experience would have foretold my future passion for constructed languages and glossopoeia, but it did leave my parents astonished, there’s no doubt about that.

So the following passage is an extract from Chapter 14 of the novel ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain. I have just finished reading this book and I’m currently in the process of realising that I have already forgotten almost everything – with the exception of this little conversation, of course. Here’s a brief summary of the passage: Jim, a black household slave from Missouri (hence the dialect!) refuses to believe that the French have their own unique language. He attempts to prove his point, that all humans should talk the same way, to Huck Finn (the thirteen-year-old protagonist of the novel), only to be defeated by the well-informed boy. In case you happen to be struggling with the language (it does take time to get used to), you may wish to read the modern version here – the passage begins near the middle of the page. Oh, and if it happens to evoke any thoughts in your mind, feel free to share them in a comment!

“Den he cain’t git no situation. What he gwyne to do?”

“Well, I don’t know. Some of them gets on the police, and some of them learns people how to talk French.”

“Why, Huck, doan’ de French people talk de same way we does?”

“NO, Jim; you couldn’t understand a word they said — not a single word.”

“Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?”

“I don’t know; but it’s so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. S’pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy — what would you think?”

“I wouldn’ think nuff’n; I’d take en bust him over de head — dat is, if he warn’t white. I wouldn’t ‘low no nigger to call me dat.”

“Shucks, it ain’t calling you anything. It’s only saying, do you know how to talk French?”

“Well, den, why couldn’t he SAY it?”

“Why, he IS a-saying it. That’s a Frenchman’s WAY of saying it.”

“Well, it’s a blame ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it.”

“Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?”

“No, a cat don’t.”

“Well, does a cow?”

“No, a cow don’t, nuther.”

“Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?”

“No, dey don’t.”

“It’s natural and right for ’em to talk different from each other, ain’t it?”

“Course.”

“And ain’t it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from US?”

“Why, mos’ sholy it is.”

“Well, then, why ain’t it natural and right for a FRENCHMAN to talk different from us? You answer me that.”

“Is a cat a man, Huck?”

“No.”

“Well, den, dey ain’t no sense in a cat talkin’ like a man. Is a cow a man? — er is a cow a cat?”

“No, she ain’t either of them.”

“Well, den, she ain’t got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of ’em. Is a Frenchman a man?”

“Yes.”

“WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he TALK like a man? You answer me DAT!”

I see it warn’t no use wasting words — you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.

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3 thoughts on “‘Huckleberry Finn’ – An Unusual Attitude to Linguistic Diversity

  1. In fact, that was due to the fact that slaves couldn’t leave their plantations and heard no other language. There are cases of US slaves speaking Dutch because their master did so. But the US have always been a land of immigration with people speaking many languages, and Missouri itself was first settled by French Canadians.

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