On the Vernacular

There’s something dirty about the word “vernacular.” The dictionary says it’s “the native language of a locality.” OK. But it also says it’s “the common daily speech of the people, as opposed to the literary language.” Now wait a minute. Does that mean that if I write using the language that the people I’m writing about use themselves–“the vernacular”–my work cannot be considered literary? Because apparently, my writing is deep in vernacular territory. And if I don’t wrestle it back to Literary-Land, it may be lost to mainstream readers and publishers forever.

I discovered my dilemma while talking to one of my professors the other day. After reading a draft of a chapter that will likely be in my larger work, she pointed out that the language may not be understood by all readers, which could limit how accessible my potential book may be to a wider audience. I’m not buying that, or at least I refuse to accept the notion that people can’t stretch themselves to understand language that may be outside of their norm.

I read a couple of books recently written with language that could be considered types of vernacular. One is heavily scientific and the other deals a lot with the terminology of the Catholic Church. Both were difficult for me, someone with background in neither science nor the Catholic Church, to understand. But I didn’t give up on either book, claiming they were too far removed from the range of writing considered acceptable by the mainstream. And I’m sure no one told those authors that their language detracted from the possible literariness of their work.

It’s because my writing uses the black vernacular that a flag was raised noting that something could be wrong with it. For some reason, people think that the black vernacular comes naturally to black writers and they’re just lazily scribbling words on the page, hoping that someone will come along and think it’s good. Not so. The black vernacular as a writing voice is just as hard for black writers to realize as would be a scientific voice or one steeped in the Catholic Church. It takes actual work to get it right. And more so than other voices, getting it wrong is a huge faux pas that stands out worse than wearing black to a white party.

Furthermore, the black vernacular can be extremely literary. Take Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle,” for example. He uses some black vernacular but really creates his own language and rhythm in writing that comes across beautifully when read. Not every word may be understood, but the sentiment in the words is what’s important. And he’s a writer and editor for The Atlantic. Can’t get much more literary than that. So, I urge those with preconceived notions to reconsider their views on “the vernacular.”


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