Date: Thu, 20 Nov 1997 23:44:41 -0500
From: "Jeutonne P. Brewer" jpbrewer[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]HAMLET.UNCG.EDU
Subject: Re: vernacular
I'm glad to hear that you are working on the subject of the meaning
and value associated with the word "vernacular." As I mentioned
earlier, I don't like to use the word. I think the reason is explained,
in part, by the etymology of the word. The Random Huse Webster's
Unabridged Dictionary (c 1987-1996) lists this etymology:
L vernacul(us) household, domestic, native (appar. adj. use
of vernaculus, dim. of verna slave born in the master's household, though
My Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition states
L vernaculus, belonging to homeborn slaves, domestic, native, indigenous
verna, a homeborn slave.
The definitions in the two dictionaries are similar although not
necessarily in the same order:
Random House Webster's:
(of language) native or indigenous (opposed to literary or learned).
expressed or written in the native language of a place, as
literary works: a vernacular poem.
using plain, everyday, ordinary language
the language or vocabulary peculiar to a class or profession
any medium or mode of expression that reflects popular taste or indigenous
My 1958 Webster's:
language of a country or place, as distinguished from literary language
native to a county (example is vernacular arts, which I have never
the common everyday language of ordinary people in a particular locality
The definitions and etymology indicate both a regional and class
I never hear the word use with other than a negative meaning in my
English classes. I also remember reading about the vernacular in
books published in earlier centuries, always with (an element of)
negative meaning/attitude, if I remember correctly. I don't have
any citattions/quotes at hand.
I think it would be very interesting to know what our students
think the word means in sociolinguistic terms, what value they
attach to the word. I think that my students would associate a
negative meaning with "vernacular," but I haven't tested this in
any specific way.
As to the point about the level of variation, I remember that
William Labov claimed in the 70s that the "ordinary" language (or
dialect) was more regular, less variable, than the language of
the professional (or the middle class, or whatever). He stressed
this point in a lecture presented on our campus in 1976.