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Vernacular English

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Vernacular English

Language can differ in many ways, and even though there are over 1 billion English speakers in the world, it's likely everyone will use the language slightly differently.

This article is all about English vernaculars, an informal variety of English. It will:

  • Introduce vernacular languages
  • Give an example of vernacular English
  • Discuss the features of African American Vernacular English
  • Talk about the prejudices vernacular Englishes face
  • Discuss the differences between language, dialect, and vernacular.

Vernacular Language Definition

As we start off this article, let's look at a quick definition for 'vernacular language':

A vernacular language is a speech variety spoken locally between a group of people, usually within a particular region.

The term 'vernacular' came from ‘vernaculus’, which means ‘national’ or ‘domestic’ in Latin.

Vernaculars are typically considered the everyday language used by people within a community and in informal situations. Vernacular languages have their speech patterns, grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation that have developed over time and differ from the standard form. Typically speaking, people speak vernaculars far more than writing them down.

Standard Form of a Language

Standard languages have undergone significant regularisation and are often deemed the ‘correct’ way of speaking and writing. They are usually used in formal and official settings such as education, government, media, law etc.

Examples of standard languages are standard British English and Standard American English.

Vernacular English, badge showing the UK and USA flags, StudySmarterBritish English and American English are seen as the standards, Pixabay

Vernacular English

We usually talk about vernacular English in terms of register, meaning formal or informal language. Vernaculars are the informal use of a language and don’t have to abide by the prescriptivist ‘rules’ of grammar, syntax, spelling, etc.

Prescriptivism

An approach to language which aims to set out rules and standardise a language.

People who take a prescriptivist approach to language believe there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ to use a language. The opposite of prescriptivism is descriptivism, which emphasises how people use language in day-to-day life.

Vernacular Englishes are simply the usual day-to-day language people within a community use in their daily lives. This includes the slang they use, the changes in pronunciation that may occur, contractions (e.g. shortening ‘you all’ to y’all’), and different word choices.

Vernacular Englishes typically develop over time as people change and develop the language to fit their needs. As previously mentioned, vernacular languages are usually spoken, rather than written. Few dictionaries dedicated to specific vernacular exist, making it difficult to standardise, regulate, or even accurately describe their features.

It's important to note here that more than one vernacular English exists, and, like with most aspects of language, it's best to think of vernaculars in a plural form!

Think about the English you learnt and used at school in your essays etc. How does it differ from the English you use in your daily life when interacting when your friends and family?

Now think about a language you learnt at school, such as French or Spanish; which version of the language do you think you learnt?

African American Vernacular English (AAVE)

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is one of the most well-known English vernaculars. AAVE is predominantly spoken by Black Americans. It is believed to have originated in the southern states of America in the 17th and 18th centuries. At this time, the British had colonised the USA, and the transatlantic slave trade was taking place, meaning thousands of Africans were brought to the southern states of the USA and forced into slavery. Here, the enslaved African people would have been exposed to many different British dialects, especially when working alongside indentured servants (poor British and European people who worked for a minimal amount of money). Over time, the language changed and developed due to the influence of British dialects, creating the English vernacular we now call AAVE.

Today, AAVE has its own grammatical rules, lexicon, and pronunciation and is a fully-fledged vernacular.

Some linguists state AAVE began life as a pidgin or creole language (a basic mix of African languages) created out of necessity when people from across Africa were forced to communicate with speakers of other languages during slavery. However, it is generally more accepted that AAVE originated from the British dialects found in the southern USA.

African American Vernacular English Features

Here is a list of some common African American Vernacular English features.

  • Use of double negatives, e.g. ‘Ain’t nobody got time.’

  • Frequent removal of copula verbs (linking verbs), especially the verb ‘to be’, e.g. ‘He goin’ shop.’ (Some people view this as ‘lazy’, although we see this in Russian, Arabic, and Mandarin too!)

  • Frequent contractions, e.g. ‘Y'all gotta go.’

  • Use of the word ‘done’ to show the perfective aspect (an action that’s completed). For example, standard English would read ‘He has walked’ compared to AAVE ‘He done walked

  • ‘Th’ sounds (/θ and ð) are pronounced as a /d/ sound at the beginning of a word. E.g. 'them' is pronounced as 'dem'.

All of these language features are commonly used in African American Vernacular English, but are not necessarily exclusive to AAVE.

Internet ‘slang

You’ve likely seen and heard AAVE before, perhaps without even realising it! A lot of internet ‘slang’ that has become popular in the past few years comes from AAVE. Have you heard the terms ‘on fleek’ or ‘I’m finna’? Or how about the use of ‘be’ rather than ‘am’, i.e. ‘I be trending’? Although some believe these are examples of internet slang, they are actually examples of AAVE!

Vernacular English, closeup drawing of two green eyes, StudySmarter'Eyebrows on fleek' was a popular internet-slang term in the mid-2010s, and it came from AAVE, Pixabay

African American Vernacular English examples

Although we've got some brief examples of each of the key features of African American Vernacular English in the section above, we'll now look at some specific examples of AAVE in literature.

First up, we have an excerpt from Angie Thomas' novel The Hate U Give2 (which was also adapted into a film in 2018):

'Lord have mercy. My heart 'bout broke when I heard...Poor Rosalie. All she going through and now this. Barbara said Rosalie not sure how she gon' pay to bury him.'

In this example, we see Mrs. Rooks' character use AAVE which is made evident in the text through the contractions such ('bout', and 'gon') as well as the removal of copula verbs in the phrases ('All she going through...' and 'Rosalie not sure...').

This next example is from Toni Morrison's novel Beloved3:

'She don't love me like I love her. I don't love nobody but her.'

In this example, we see several features of African American Vernacular English such as the contraction 'don't' instead of 'does not' in the line 'She don't love me...', as well as the double negative in the second sentence ('don't love nobody').

Vernacular English and Prejudice

Vernacular Englishes are deemed non-standard varieties of English as they differ from standard Englishes. As a result, Vernacular Englishes are often deemed ‘incorrect’ or ‘low-prestige’ and are associated with being under-educated. However, not everyone agrees with this view, and many linguists argue that vernaculars are complex adaptations of a language unique to communities and essential markers of individuals’ identities.

Peter Trudgill (2016), a linguist who studies vernacular languages and dialects, stated that we shouldn’t discriminate against individuals and communities because of their accent, dialect or native language, as this is linguistic prejudice.¹

Linguistic prejudice is when people face bias because of their speech.

Many people who use vernacular Englishes, such as AAVE, state that they feel discriminated against in certain environments and often need to use standard English in more formal situations, such as applying for jobs.

Language, Vernacular, or Dialect

As you’re reading this, you might be wondering what the difference between a language, a vernacular and a dialect is. Well, the answer isn’t that simple.

You’re probably aware by now that languages are pretty fluid things. Even though attempts have been made to regulate and standardise them, i.e. standard British English, they are constantly changing. Hence, deciding how to define all these different varieties – especially when talking about a global language such as English – is pretty tricky.

Let’s take AAVE as an example. It can be considered a dialect, a sociolect (a social dialect), an ethnolect (an ethnic dialect), a vernacular and, by some, a language named ebonics. Confusing aye!

Here is a brief outline of the general understanding of the differences between the three terms.

Language

You're probably thinking 'I know what a language is, thanks!' but just to cover all bases:

A language is a structured system used by humans to communicate with each other.

Languages differ worldwide, but they all have a structured component (grammar) and a free component (vocabulary). The English language has many varieties, such as American English, Indian English, Nigerian English, etc. There is no ‘correct’ or ‘wrong’ variety of language. Within each language variety, there are different dialects.

Dialect

This is another term you've probably come across before in your English Language studies.

A dialect is a language variety that differs from the standard form and is spoken by a specific group of people.

The group of people are usually connected by a social factor, such as geographical location, age, gender, occupation, or ethnicity.

Dialects that emerge amongst people living in the same area are called regional dialects.

An example is Geordie, the dialect spoken in Newcastle and the surrounding areas.

Dialects that form due to other social factors, such as age, are called sociolects. Dialects influenced by ethnic groups are called ethnolects.

Vernacular

Just like dialects, they are informal and the everyday language spoken by community members. However, they are usually more established than most dialects and have their own grammatical rules and generally agreed-upon vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation.

How and when a dialect can be defined as a vernacular and when a vernacular can be defined as a language isn’t so clear and is usually politically motivated.

For example, well-known languages, such as Italian, French, and Spanish started life as vernaculars but are now considered languages.

Do you think it’s a matter of time before AAVE is considered a language, or do you think other factors will prevent this from happening?

Vernacular English, painting of  black girl, StudySmarterAAVE is widely spoken in African American communities and could be on its way to becoming its own language, Pixabay

Vernacular English - Key Takeaways

  • A vernacular language is a speech variety spoken locally between a group of people, usually within a particular region.
  • Vernacular languages are informal and unstandardised. They are the everyday language spoken in a community.
  • A well-known English vernacular is African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
  • African American Vernacular English has its own grammatical rules, vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation.
  • Vernacular Englishes are often deemed 'incorrect' as they differ from the standard form. However, many linguists argue they aren't incorrect but a reflection of life.

References

  1. P. Trudgill. Dialect matters: Respecting vernacular language, 2016.
  2. A. Thomas. The Hate U Give, 2017
  3. T. Morrison. Beloved, 1987

Frequently Asked Questions about Vernacular English

A vernacular language is a type of speech variety spoken locally between a group of people within a particular region.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a good example of vernacular English. AAVE is typically spoken by black Americans and has its own set of grammatical rules, vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation. 

AAVE is part of the Vernacular English group Black Americans use for informal and casual conversations. This variety of English has its grammatical structures, vocabulary, and accent features that distinguish it from Standard English.

Some linguists state that vernacular Englishes are 'incorrect' because they differ from the standard form of the language. However, other linguists, who take a more descriptivist view on language, state they aren't wrong, only different, and essential to people's daily lives.

An English vernacular is an informal and unstandardised version of the English language. English vernaculars are the everyday languages spoken in a community.

Final Vernacular English Quiz

Question

Vernacular Englishes are considered to be...

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Answer

informal.

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Question

True or false, there's only one vernacular English?

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Answer

False. There are many different vernacular Englishes.

Show question

Question

How can vernacular Englishes differ from the standard form?

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Answer

They can differ in terms of:

  • pronunciation
  • vocabulary 
  • grammar
  • syntax


Show question

Question

What type of English is used in textbooks?

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Answer

The standard form.

Show question

Question

Do vernacular Englishes follow a prescriptivist or descriptivist attitude towards language?

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Answer

Descriptivist. 

Show question

Question

Which one is a common feature of African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?

Show answer

Answer

Frequent contractions e.g. you all - ya'll


Show question

Question

Which one is a common feature of African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?


Show answer

Answer

Double negatives.

Show question

Question

What is a dialect influenced by a certain ethnic group called?

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Answer

An ethnolect. 

Show question

Question

Typically speaking, which language variety is more established?

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Answer

Vernacular.

Show question

Question

What is a sociolect?

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Answer

A dialect influenced by groups of people who are connected by a certain social factor, such as age, gender, or occupation. 

Show question

Question

What is a vernacular language?

Show answer

Answer

A vernacular language is a speech variety spoken locally between a group of people, usually within a particular region.

Show question

Question

Give two examples of Standard language forms. 

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Answer

Standard British English and Standard American English

Show question

Question

What is 'prescriptivism'?

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Answer

An approach to language which aims to set out rules and standardise a language.

Show question

Question

What does the descriptivist approach focus on?

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Answer

How people use language in day-to-day life. 

Show question

Question

Which of these is an example of a double negative?

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Answer

'Ain't nobody got that kinda time.'

Show question

Question

True or false, vernacular languages change over time to suit the needs of the speakers.

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Answer

True

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Question

What's one reason why it's difficult to standardise, regulate, or even accurately describe the features of a vernacular language?

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Answer

Very few dictionaries exist that are dedicated to specific vernaculars. 

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Question

It is generally more widely accepted that AAVE derived from colonial times. True or false?

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Answer

False, it is more widely accepted that AAVE derived from British dialects found in the Southern USA. 

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Question

AAVE uses which of these language features frequently?

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Answer

Contractions

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Question

True or false, a lot of terms we might view as 'internet slang' are actually examples of AAVE.

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Answer

True

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Question

Are vernacular languages generally widely considered low prestige or high prestige?

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Answer

Low prestige

Show question

Question

What is 'linguistic prejudice'?

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Answer

Linguistic prejudice is when people face bias because of their speech.  

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Question

What is a dialect?

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Answer

A dialect is a language variety that differs from the standard form and is spoken by a specific group of people. 

Show question

Question

Can vernaculars evolve into full languages?

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Answer

Yes, you could argue that common languages such as Spanish, French, and Italian started off as vernaculars of Latin but they are now their own languages. 

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Question

Which is more linguistically established: a dialect or a vernacular?

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Answer

A vernacular

Show question

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