What Is Vernacular Literature?

Alan Rankin

Vernacular literature is literature written in the everyday language of a particular culture. It is usually distinguished from works written in formal language, which in some cases can be very different from a culture’s popular language. “Vernacular” refers to the speech or writing of the general public or a particular segment of it. Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are early examples of vernacular literature. Some authors, such as Mark Twain, wrote in the vernacular for dramatic impact or to simulate characters’ speech patterns.

Dante's "Divine Comedy" is a famous example of vernacular literature.
Dante's "Divine Comedy" is a famous example of vernacular literature.

Widespread literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. For thousands of years, only the wealthy and privileged learned how to read and write, such as religious leaders and other authority figures. This elite system was reinforced by laws or traditions that required works to be written in an official language of some kind. In medieval Europe, for example, Latin was the language of state, religious, and historical documents, even though it had not been spoken by ordinary people for hundreds of years. In India, Sanskrit had a similar function, requiring scholars to learn the ancient language to study religious and historical texts.

William Faulkner used vernacular in his novels.
William Faulkner used vernacular in his novels.

Writers of vernacular literature deviated from this trend by writing works in the language of the ordinary populace. Italian poet Dante Alighieri was a pioneer in this regard, writing his epic Divine Comedy in Italian rather than Latin in the 1300s. The British writer Geoffrey Chaucer, later that century, composed his works in Middle English, the dominant language of his time. At first, the practice of creating vernacular literature was somewhat controversial. In 1536, for example, the theologian William Tyndale was executed for translating the Bible into English.

In medieval Europe, the use of Latin as a scholarly language was widespread. This tradition survives today in the use of Latin phrases for scientific, medical, and legal terminology. The writers of vernacular literature, however, knew that excluding large numbers of potential readers was a literary dead end. They were proved right, as the works of Dante, Chaucer, and other vernacular writers have survived to be read and studied to this day. Their contemporaries who wrote in Latin, such as Froissart and Gower, are all but forgotten.

In modern times, vernacular literature sometimes refers to works written in the speech patterns of common people, as opposed to forms such as Standard English. Mark Twain, perhaps the most famous example, composed his classic Huckleberry Finn in the language of its narrator, a poor, semi-educated boy from the rural American South. Later writers such as William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow used vernacular to make characters more realistic or to capture the poetry of natural speech rhythms. Anthony Burgess’ influential novel A Clockwork Orange is written in the vernacular spoken by the book’s futuristic narrator, a variation on modern English invented by Burgess himself.

Geoffrey Chaucer's work "The Canterbury Tales" is an example of vernacular literature.
Geoffrey Chaucer's work "The Canterbury Tales" is an example of vernacular literature.

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If you're interested in this topic, check out "Rotten English: A Literary Anthology," by Dohra Ahmad.

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