Mark Twain’s Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety , by David Sewell
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987)

Reviewed by Brooke Larson

David Sewell’s Mark Twain’s Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety explores the various uses of language in Mark Twain’s works. For Mark Twain, the language used by characters not only reveals their nature but also reflects the unity or disunity existing in the society at large. As Sewell argues, Mark Twain uses language to reflect a character’s social, moral and intellectual status. Scattered throughout Twain’s works, characters use language to empower themselves and move up or down the social ladder through force or trickery. Characters, such as Pap Finn, dominate by forcing their language onto others, silencing and dominating them. Others use a more clever method to gain power by using their language to persuade or trick others. The archetypical example of language bamboozlement would be Tom Sawyer, who tricks his peers into whitewashing a fence in his stead. Not only does language empower, but it reveals moral character. Twain seems to respect those who have an “authentic” voice, one which is unadulterated and without “pretentious ignorance.” Pure and simple, this language has a quality of childlike innocence that enables these often young or uneducated speakers to go unpunished for crimes against proper Standard English. Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction between those who knowingly choose poor English and those who are not responsible for their inability to speak properly. As a boy, Huck is free of the rules of adult grammar and is unaccountable for his ignorance. Ornery characters such as Pap Finn, however, seem to knowingly choose to wallow in their linguistic debauchery. Despite this, Twain seems to reserve the deepest circle of hell for those who attempt to inflate their language without the necessary skills to pull it off. Unlike those who successfully empower themselves through wit, characters such as the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, become fools when their muddled lofty language reveals their true nature. Clearly, throughout his works, Twain uses language to unveil characters.

Sewell also identifies three periods in which Mark Twain alters his views on the role of language in unifying society. In the “Western Period,” characterized by works such as Roughing It, Twain strictly uses incongruity between language varieties to incite lighthearted humor. Ironically, Twain demonstrates how language, a tool for communication, can also generate miscommunication. The miscommunication over a funeral between the minister and Scotty Briggs in Roughing It, for example, has harmless comedic value. The intermediate stage which Sewell terms the “Heteroglossic Stage,” typified by works such as Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Gilded Age, uses language incompatibilities to reflect the differences between characters’ experiences and their views. In the Heteroglossic stage, there are higher stakes involved with the breakdown of communication. This is exemplified by the ostracism of Pudd’nhead Wilson when the villagers misinterpret his speech. Instead of mere humor, disunity in language creates schisms in societies. Finally, in the period which Sewell describes as “Linguistic Absurdity,” varied dialects, in books such as Tom Sawyer Abroad, become insurmountable obstacles to genuine understanding. As demonstrated by these three stages, Mark Twain shifted his perspective of language from how it may be used to create harmless disunity that is bridged through the universal language of laughter, to language as a divisive barrier that provokes violence and rejection between classes.

Sewell effectively argues that, “Twain delights in showing that people use specialized vocabularies more to impress others than to convey information” (129). Unfortunately for the reader, Sewell practices what Twain preaches against. Rather than being a straightforward, pure voice such as Huck, Sewell clearly enjoys “dupin’ that blubber” throughout his text. Perhaps Sewell was reminiscing about the subscription days of yore when authors added filler to lengthen their books. Sadly, instead of “a laugh on every page,” Sewell offers bloviated discourse, obscure words and overly-extended metaphors that obfuscate his points. Although Sewell raises a number of thought-provoking arguments about Mark Twain’s use of language, I honestly would have enjoyed his book far more had only Huck Finn been the narrator.

Despite the lack of an authentic voice, Sewell presents compelling arguments about language that can be applied to essentially all of Twain’s works. Therefore, I think that Sewell’s arguments about how language is used to reveal character and tensions within society will be useful to consider in class throughout the semester. Although the book is at times rather dense, I highly recommend it to those who are interested in learning more about language theory and examining Mark Twain’s language choices. Previously, I naively viewed Twain’s use of varied dialects as mere story-telling devices. After reading Sewell’s book, however, I find myself searching for the buried treasure of the deeper significance of Twain’s language choices. Therefore, although it may be as painful to read this book as it was for Huck to be civilized by the Widow Douglas, in order to be a respectable treasure hunter, I recommend using Sewell’s book as a map.