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Dialect in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Dialect in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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    Dialect in Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only represents linguistic history of the time, but  also elevates what is in places a very over-dramatized novel to a standard of reality which contributes to the novel’s reputation and longevity. The central argument is of course does the dialect result in a realistically portrayed period African American, or an unrealistic portrayal. Unrealistic here easily has negative connotations, but also positive. Are, for example, the African Americans in Uncle Tom’s Cabin celebrated in such a way through their dialect that they become glorified and thus unreal? The answer is not simple; it is difficult to take sides, and it is difficult and unfair to merely speculate, to read so much into the novel in order to paint Stowe as a veiled racist. Therefore, this essay stands to highlight the realistic and positive portrayal of African American dialect within Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the effect this portrayal has on the novel as a whole. 

As Tremaine McDowell explains in “The Use of Negro Dialect by Harriet Beecher Stowe”, negro dialect is formed in the following ways: “agreement of subjects and predicates is 

ignored”; “pronouns are corrupted”; “double negatives appear; initial syllables are dropped”; “final consonants are sometimes clipped”; “words are shortened internally”; “and a long series of barbarisms is introduced”

Dialect is almost always a risky proposition, if only from a writerly standpoint. Quite simply, it is difficult to execute successfully, and this alone shows Stowe’s ability as a writer, if only on the level of language. This is not to say that the dialect does not somtimes get in the way of letting the reader simply take in what the character is saying. For example, this excerpt of Topsy’s dialogue from chapter twenty: “Missis, I declar for ‘t, I didn’t; — never seed it till dis yer blessed minnit,” (Stowe 359). 

Stowe uses dialect well in that she is subtle. Take, for example, the dialogue of Jim in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as comparison. This dialogue is arguably too accurate, so accurate in that it impedes the flow of dialogue within the novel. To provide a brief, modern example, the western-cowboy dialect employed by Cormac McCarthy is as faithfully executed as that of Jim, yet most punctuation (and quotation marks) — most notably apostrophes — is omitted. This lends a naturalness to the dialogue not found in the dialogue of Jim, and as a result the reader enters into a flow and rhythm similar to the subtlety of Stowe’s dialect (though we cannot expect Twain, or Stowe for that matter, to have omitted punctuation in their dialogue, a 

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