Vernacular is different from standard, formal language or that which is more widely spread and lacks regional words. When writing, most authors use a combination of vernacular language and formal language. This balances their prose, ensuring that it doesn’t sound too formal but also doesn’t come across as completely casual.
Definition of Vernacular
Vernacular refers to a type of language. It differs from region to region and can include more or fewer words. In some places, such as the American south, words like “ya’ll” and “ain’t” are a common part of the vernacular. It’s common to hear these words in everyday conversations. It’s far less common to hear them used in formal encounters, such as in business meetings or within academic writing. For some, these vernacular words are common, but for others, they’re going to stand out and tell the readers something about the person who is speaking.
Examples of Vernacular in Literature
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
In Burgess’s well-loved novel, A Clockwork Orange, he created his own slang language, Nadsat. It is a combination of slang words from other languages and is used by the main character of the novel. When readers first start this book, it takes several pages to understand a lot of what Alex, the main character, is saying. But, slowly, the language starts to make sense, and Alex’s world comes alive. This is a great example of how using vernacular can help convey a character clearly.
If Burgess had written about Alex and his experiences from a withdrawn, scientific perspective, it would’ve been far less effective. Consider these lines from the novel:
Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder.
Here, Burgess uses coined vernacular words like “silverflamed,” “timps,” and “gorgeosity.” Some others readers can find in A Clockwork Orange include “koshka,” meaning “cat,” “baddiwad,” meaning “bad,” and “pee and em,” meaning “dad and mom.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
In this novel, readers can find many examples of Twain’s use of vernacular. It is another novel that uses dialect in order to help with characterization and verisimilitude. Consider these lines from the novel:
We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels. Dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it.
Here, Jim uses dialect-specific words like “we’s” and “yo’.” This is clearly informal, vernacular language. Vernacular, in a less dialect-specific form, can be seen through the narration of the novel as well. For example:
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking–thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking.
Here, although there is no dialect, the passage is clearly written in vernacular language. There is nothing formal about this passage. It flows well, is easy to read, and clearly conveys its meaning.
Read Mark Twain’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Vernacular?
Writers use vernacular words when they want to sound more conversational. Usually, vernacular passages are easy to read and flow smoothly from line to line. When words turn more formal, they’re sometimes less interesting and harder to comprehend. They might not be able to create the atmosphere the writer is looking for. But, the same can be said for vernacular language as well. It’s not always the right choice. Sometimes, too much vernacular language can be overwhelming. Plus, in certain situations, it will prove to be a mistake that can cost someone their grade, business plan, or even their job.
Vernacular and Dialect
These two literary terms have a lot in common, but they are different. Dialect refers to a regional type of speech. It is confined to groups, such as a local class or cultural group. Dialects have many types of pronunciations for different words and different grammatical features that separate them from one another. Vernacular, on the other hand, is far broader. It refers to the use of plain language. It is informal, just like dialect, but is less confined by region. For example, referring to an animal as a “cat” rather than a “feline.” One is far more formal than the other.
Vernacular refers to the use of common language among everyday people.
It is an area where people share the same vernacular language, usually due to a shared history.
An example of vernacular is “There ain’t nothing left to do today” or “She ran after the car screaming like a broken record.”
Colloquial refers to informal language related to common parlance, while vernacular refers to informal language related to everyday, informal speech.
Related Literary Terms
- Dialect: a form of a language spoken by a group of people.
- Colloquial Diction: is conversational in nature and can be seen through the use of informal words that represent a specific place or time.
- Simile: a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as.”
- Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Context: the setting in which a story, poem, novel, play, or other literary work is situated.