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

derivation unclear)

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.