Vernacular (Language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Mark Twain, 1900
Mark Twain (1835-1910) was "as apt to parody the vernacular as he was to parody the language of 'culture'" (Richard S. Lowry , Littery Man, 1996).

Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Vernacular is the language of a particular group, profession, region, or country, especially as spoken rather than formally written.

Since the rise of sociolinguistics in the 1960s, interest in vernacular forms of English speech has developed rapidly. As R.L. Trask has pointed out, vernacular forms "are now seen as every bit as worthy of study as standard varieties" (Language and Linguistics: Key Concepts, 2007).

Examples and Observations

  • "Around the middle of the fourteenth century English began to be accepted as an appropriate language for government, law, and literature. In response to this wider use of the vernacular, a debate over its suitability as a means of communicating scripture and theology began in the 1300s."
    (Judy Ann Ford, John Mirk's Festial. DS Brewer, 2006)
  • "The Elizabethans had discovered once and for all the artistic power of the vernacular and had freed native writers from a crippling sense of inferiority, for which the classical languages and the classicists were largely responsible."
    (Richard Foster Jones, The Triumph of the English Language. Stanford University Press, 1953)
  • "The BCP [Book of Common Prayer] allowed for celebrations in Latin ..., but required that worship should normally be conducted 'in a language understanded of the people.' Vernacular liturgy was a reform for which Roman Catholics had to wait another 400 years."
    (Alan Wilson, "The Book of Common Prayer, Part 1: An English Ragbag." The Guardian, Aug. 23, 2010

Writers on Writing: Using The Vernacular

  •  "Mark Twain ... transformed elements of regional vernacular speech into a medium of uniquely American literary expression and thus taught us how to capture that which is essentially American in our folkways and manners. For indeed the vernacular process is a way of establishing and discovering our national identity." (Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory. Random House, 1986)
  • "American writers were ... the first to intuit that the catchall web of the vernacular reflected the mind at its conscious level. The new melodious tongue shaped the writer to a greater extent than he shaped the language." (Wright Morris, About Fiction. Harper, 1975)
  •  "[W]hen I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive." (Raymond Chandler, letter to Edward Weeks, January 18, 1948)
  • "I've always wanted to bring the books down closer and closer to the characters—to get myself, the narrator, out of it as much as I can. And one of the ways to do this is to use the language that the characters actually speak, to use the vernacular, and not ignoring the grammar, the formality of it, to bend it, to twist it, so you get a sense that you are hearing it, not reading it."(Roddy Doyle, quoted by Caramine White in Reading Roddy Doyle. Syracuse University Press, 2001

Two Worlds of Writing

  • "There's a newish world of writing where lots of people are busy all hours of the day and night emailing, tweeting, and blogging on the internet. Students startle their professors by sending chatty emails using the slang they write to buddies on Facebook. Much writing in this new world is a kind of 'speaking onto the screen'; indeed, plenty of people, especially 'literate people,' don't consider this writing to be writing. 'Email? That's not writing!' Actually, people have been writing in everyday vernacular spoken language for centuries in diaries, informal personal letters, grocery lists, and exploratory musings to figure out their feelings or thoughts. ...
  • "So in one world of writing, people feel free to speak onto the screen or page; in the other, people feel pressured to avoid speech on the page. I won't join the chorus of literate commentators who lament all the bad writing in the world of email and web. I see problems with writing in both worlds. I'd say that most writing is not very good, whether it's literate writing or 'e-writing,' and whether it comes from students, amateurs, well-educated people, or learned scholars."
    (Peter Elbow, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford Univ. Press, 2012)

The New Vernacular

  • ​​"Like its antecedents, the new vernacular represents a democratic impulse, an antidote to vanity and literary airs. It's friendly, it's familiar. But familiar in both senses. The new vernacular imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel, like the chain restaurant that tells its patrons, 'You're family.'
    "In part this is just a matter of cliché. Some writers try to casualize their prose with friendly phrases such as 'you know' or 'you know what?' Or even 'um,' as in 'um, hel-lo?' ...
    "The new vernacular writer is studiedly sincere. Sincere even when ironic, ironically sincere. Whatever its other goals, the first purpose of such prose is ingratiation. Of course, every writer wants to be liked, but this is prose that seeks an instant intimate relationship. It makes aggressive use of the word 'you'—'bet you thought'—and even when the 'you' is absent, it is implied. The writer works hard to be lovable."
    (Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013)

Vernacular Rhetoric

  • "[N]arratives of vernacular rhetoric can afford a certain accuracy in gauging public opinion that otherwise is unavailable. Were leaders to hear these opinions and take them seriously, the quality of public discourse might take a positive turn. Understanding people's concerns and why they hold them holds promise for helping leaders to communicate with society's active members rather than manipulating them."(Gerard A. Hauser, Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres. Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1999)

The Lighter Side of the Vernacular

  • "[Edward Kean] once said that he was probably best known for coining the word 'cowabunga' (originally spelled with a 'k') as a greeting for Chief Thunderthud, a character on [The Howdy Doody Show]. The word has become part of American vernacular, used by the cartoon character Bart Simpson and by the crime-fighting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." (Dennis Hevesi, "Edward Kean, Chief Writer of ‘Howdy Doody,’ Dies at 85." The New York Times, Aug. 24, 2010)

Pronunciation: ver-NAK-ye-ler

From the Latin, "native"

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Vernacular (Language)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Vernacular (Language). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Vernacular (Language)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).