Dialect in The Grapes of Wrath: Examples & Quotes

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson, we'll learn about dialect and accent, how Steinbeck uses dialect in 'The Grapes of Wrath', and what his use of dialect teaches us about his characters and authenticity.

Dialect in The Grapes of Wrath

'''I says to myself, 'What's gnawin' you? Is it the screwin'?' An' I says, 'No, it's the sin.''' This quote gives us a good example of the Oklahoma dialect in the The Grapes of Wrath. But what exactly do we mean when we say dialect? Well, dialect is sometimes confused with accent, but in reality, these two words have very different meanings. For instance, if someone pronounces words with a southern drawl, that's an accent. However, dialect refers to the patterns or ways people use language in different regions of a country. For example, the word you-uns is a word spoken in Northeast Tennessee, not the words 'you ones' pronounced with a southern drawl. In the United States, there are numerous dialects of American English, so many in fact, that some linguists say it's hard to determine the exact number of them. Typically, when we think of dialect in America, we think of New England, Southern, and Western dialects, but again, these are merely the go-to standard dialects in the United States. In actuality, there are much more than three. And of course, every country and language, not just English and the United States, have various regional dialects.

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Writers often use dialect to reflect a character or character's location, region, or background. Steinbeck uses dialect extensively in The Grapes of Wrath to provide his novel and his characters with authenticity. Of course, we can see on the page that Steinbeck has emulated the Oklahoma dialect by the way his character's words are shortened or jammed together. Try reading a few pages of dialogue in The Grapes of Wrath right now. Notice how the words feel when you speak them aloud. Is it difficult? Do they sound different from your own? How is the experience of speaking the 1930's Oklahoma dialect? Now think of aspects of your own language specific to your region, and consider how it might be for speakers from other regions of the country to mimic your language style.

Quotes from The Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma Dialect

Let's consider and unpack, so to speak, some specific quotes from The Grapes of Wrath that emphasize the Oklahoma dialect of the working class. In Chapter 28, Rose of Sharon has a chill and Ma takes control of the situation: '''Al,' she commanded, 'you an' John an' Pa go into the willows an' c'lect all the dead stuff you can. We got to keep warm.''' One thing we notice in this quote right away is that the d-sound is missing from 'and' as the 'n' becomes the final emphasized sound of the word. However, when the characters use words that don't end on a consonant, such as in the word and, the d-sound is emphasized: ''Be nice an' dry, but we got to have wood.'' Notice how the d-sound is pronounced in 'wood.' Also, notice how the d-sound is emphasized in the word 'dry.' What we can begin to determine that when the d-sound is at the beginning of a word or when it comes after a vowel sound, it is emphasized, thus creating a language pattern.

Oklahoma migrants whose dialect Steinbeck captures in The Grapes of Wrath
Oklahoma migrants

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