Vernacular (vur-NAHK-yoo-luhr) is the informal spoken language of a particular region, culture, or group. It comes from the Latin term vernula, meaning “native.”
When used in literature, it indicates that the author wrote the piece using their daily spoken language rather than formal language. In the late 13th century, writing in the vernacular meant the writer didn’t write it in Latin, but currently, it more commonly refers to using a regional or cultural dialect.
The Purpose of Vernacular
Establishing written vernacular is a matter of introducing informal language often heard in verbal communication. This can be done through narration, dialogue, or both. It’s easy to detect because it’s the opposite of formal communication.
When a character speaks in their everyday, informal language, it lets the reader infer a lot about them, such as their age, background, education level, and personality, without the author having to explicitly state it. It also helps the characters seem more authentic.
Tibby, a protagonist in Ann Brashares’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, has a demeaning job at a local drug store. When she makes her way to work, she tries to avoid being seen in her uniform. Despite her efforts, she’s spotted by a hot guy from her school, Tucker, and he calls out to her:
“Yo, Tibby,” she heard a familiar voice call as she turned into the parking lot. Her heart sank. She longed for the wood shavings. “Whassup?” [bold for emphasis]
Though Tucker isn’t a main character, Brashares uses vernacular in his dialogue—Yo and Whassup—to let the reader insinuate that he’s the typical high school cool kid.
To successfully place characters in a location or time period, it helps to use that location or time’s vernacular. That will give the reader a better sense of what’s happening around the character.
Consider JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Young wizards Harry and Ron are visiting Hagrid, the Hogwarts school groundskeeper, and Harry brings up his problem with Professor Snape:
“But he seemed to really hate me.”
“Rubbish!” said Hagrid. “Why should he?” [bold for emphasis]
Though Hogwarts is located in Ireland, most of the characters are from England, so Rowling doesn’t shy away from using British terms like rubbish to indicate the setting.
If writing is too formal, the reader can feel distanced from the work. Writing in the vernacular makes characters relatable, and the reader feels more comfortable while engaging with the work. It also helps the reader relate to the material on a more personal level.
In Divergent, Veronica Roth’s young adult dystopian novel, protagonist Tris is still getting used to the differences between her new life as a Dauntless and her Abnegation faction upbringing. She tells her friends she was uncomfortable seeing a couple kiss in public, and they make fun of her for it:
“Your Abnegation is showing,” says Christina. “The rest of us are all right with a little affection in public.”
“Oh.” I shrug. “Well…I guess I’ll have to get over it, then.” [bold for emphasis]
Despite the many dangerous situations the characters face in the novel, they’re only 16 years old. So, Roth uses teenage vernacular to remind the reader of the characters’ youth and help the reader connect to the material.
When Vernacular Is Appropriate
In casual situations, such as texting friends, writing on a blog, and even small-business advertising, it’s widely accepted to use common language to establish personal relationships. For example, skin care company Curology used this tagline in a Facebook ad: “Skin woes are so 2019.” This catches the attention of the Facebook user and makes them feel they can relate to the product because of the informal language.
Vernacular is also used in music lyrics, television shows, movies, theater, and most forms of verbal communication other than formal speeches. Modern culture favors informal communication in most aspects of life to promote authenticity.
Vernacular would not be appropriate in professional communications like an email, official documentation, or academic assignments. When it comes to vernacular in literature, it can confuse the reader if the language is unrecognizable. For example, some readers find Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights difficult to follow because of servant Joseph’s way of speaking. So, authors must use vernacular speech the right way—sometimes sparingly—to ensure the reader can understand what’s being said.
Vernacular’s Relationship to Other Language Terms
If vernacular is the umbrella term for informal language, then colloquialism, slang, and dialect act as subcategories and hit specific qualities of the term.
Vernacular and Colloquialism
Colloquialisms are words or phrases that most speakers of a native language will understand, such as idioms, nonstandard grammar, or regional terms. Saying someone got dumped is a colloquial way of indicating their romantic partner ended the relationship. Colloquialisms are always part of vernacular, but vernacular doesn’t always include colloquialisms.
Vernacular and Slang
Slang is the vernacular of a specific group of people. It’s a narrower version of colloquialism in that it’s language understood by an even smaller group—most likely generational or regional. Lit is 21st-century slang that means “amazing.”
Vernacular and Dialect
Dialect is specific to the grammar and pronunciation of words that varies between regions. In literature, it highlights accents and the way words are spoken. For example, people from Texas will drop the -ing off of verbs and replace it with –in’. They would say creepin’ instead of creeping.
Notable Authors who Use Vernacular
These authors are known as the catalysts for making vernacular popular and accepted in literature.
- Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
- Jacob van Maerlant, Spiegel Historiael
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Examples of Vernacular in Literature
1. John Green, Paper Towns
Quentin, the first-person narrator, and Margo are about to walk into the SunTrust Building late at night, and Quentin is worried they’ll be caught for breaking and entering:
“Surely the SunTrust Building has, like, a security guard or whatever,” I said. [bold for emphasis]
The addition of like and whatever aren’t necessary for understanding the dialogue. However, Green included them to help the reader relate to Quentin’s young age and make the character more realistic.
2. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Jo is speaking to her mother about her sister Meg’s potential suitor, John Brooke. Jo is trying to convince her mother that John should not be permitted to be with Meg. She believes he’s trying to manipulate her parents so they’ll let him marry Meg:
“Mean thing! To go petting pa and truckling to you, just to wheedle you into liking him;” and Jo pulled her hair again with a wrathful tweak. [bold for emphasis]
Jo is known for her boyish qualities and inability to act like a proper lady, especially when she’s angry. Using these common phrases further showcases her social class and her tendency to use improper language.
3. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Janie is remembering a conversation she had with her husband:
He has ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it. Six months back he told her, “If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside. […] You done been spoilt rotten.” [bold for emphasis]
In this instance, the narrator uses formal language, while the dialogue uses the character’s dialect. This juxtaposition helps the character stand out and further establishes his background, location, and social status.
Further Resources on Vernacular
The Vernacular Matters of American Literature by Sieglinde Lemke highlights how popular authors used vernacular to speak out against oppression.
The New York Times has an article on “The Art of Vernacular Voice” that delves into ways writers tend to misuse vernacular.
ThoughtCo. has a list of quotes from educators that provide examples, opinions, and insights on the use of vernacular.