The many meanings and faces of "vernacular"

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During the first twenty years of my academic career, if anybody asked me what my specialty was, I would have told them something like "medieval popular Buddhist vernacular Chinese literature".  In that usage of "vernacular", which I thought was the standard meaning of the term, I simply considered it a register of language and writing that is distinct from and contrasted with "classical" or "literary", and — to my mind — it was parallel to "popular" or "folk" in a cultural spectrum that ran to "elite" at the other end (I was going to say "at the top", but — being a partisan of "popular" and "folk" — I caught myself).

In college, as an English major, being a specialist on the vernacular meant that I was enamored of Chaucer, and in graduate school and as a young Sinologist, it signified that I concentrated on the first sizable body of non-classical / literary texts archeologically recovered from the far western Chinese site of Dunhuang, concerning which we have often touched here on Language Log, especially in recent weeks.

Consequently, after my career as a specialist on medieval popular Buddhist vernacular Chinese literature was well launched, I was stunned when I heard librarians referring to books "in the vernacular", by which they seemed to mean "not in English", especially in scripts other than the Roman / Latin alphabet.  As the years passed, I became exposed to more and more different applications of "vernacular" — which seemed to be coming into a sort of vogue (like "curate" and "artisanal") — I became inured to such non-linguistic usages, but they always made me feel a bit uncomfortable / squeamish.

This morning, the feeling hit me again, particularly since "vernacular" was being used with regard to yet another medieval phenomenon, namely law:

"Reinventing customary law in medieval France"

Kristen de Groot, Penn Today (7/26/23)

[The same issue of Penn Today also has an article on a topic that has transfixed Language Log for the past few months, namely AI (see below in the Addendum).]

This article introduces a new book, titled Vernacular Law:  Writing and the Reinvention of Customary Law in Medieval France (Cambridge University Press).

Given the proliferation of applications for "vernacular" since I first encountered it in the early 60s, I thought that I had better go back to the beginning and look into its origins, then see what it has become now.

A vernacular or vernacular language is in contrast with a "standard language". It refers to the language or dialect that is spoken by people who are inhabiting a particular country or region. The vernacular is typically the native language, normally spoken informally rather than written, and seen as of lower status than more codified forms. It may vary from more prestigious speech varieties in different ways, in that the vernacular can be a distinct stylistic register, a regional dialect, a sociolect, or an independent language. Vernacular is a term for a type of speech variety, generally used to refer to a local language or dialect, as distinct from what is seen as a standard language. The vernacular is contrasted with higher-prestige forms of language, such as national, literary, liturgical or scientific idiom, or a lingua franca, used to facilitate communication across a large area.

According to another definition, a vernacular is a language that has not developed a standard variety, undergone codification, or established a literary tradition. In the context of language standardization, the terms "vernacular" and "vernacular dialect" are also used as alternative designations for "non-standard dialect".


First usage of the word "vernacular" is not recent. In 1688, James Howell wrote:

Concerning Italy, doubtless there were divers before the Latin did spread all over that Country; the Calabrian, and Apulian spoke Greek, whereof some Relicks are to be found to this day; but it was an adventitious, no Mother-Language to them: 'tis confess'd that Latium it self, and all the Territories about Rome, had the Latin for its maternal and common first vernacular Tongue; but Tuscany and Liguria had others quite discrepant, viz. the Hetruscane and Mesapian, whereof though there be some Records yet extant; yet there are none alive that can understand them: The Oscan, the Sabin and Tusculan, are thought to be but Dialects to these.

Here, vernacular, mother language and dialect are already in use in a modern sense. According to Merriam-Webster, "vernacular" was brought into the English language as early as 1601 from the Latin vernaculus ("native") which had been in figurative use in Classical Latin as "national" and "domestic", having originally been derived from verna, a slave born in the house rather than abroad. The figurative meaning was broadened from the diminutive extended words vernaculus, vernacula. Varro, the classical Latin grammarian, used the term vocabula vernacula, "termes de la langue nationale" or "vocabulary of the national language" as opposed to foreign words.


As an example of vernacular in the sense of a low variant in diglossia, let us take the example of the situation in Hindu culture, where

…traditionally religious or scholarly works were written in Sanskrit (long after its use as a spoken language) or in Tamil in Tamil country. Sanskrit was a lingua franca among the non-Indo-European languages of the Indian subcontinent and became more of one as the spoken languages, or prakrits, began to diverge from it in different regions. With the rise of the bhakti movement from the 12th century onwards, religious works were created in other languages: Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and many others. For example, the Ramayana, one of Hinduism's sacred epics in Sanskrit, had vernacular versions such as Ranganadha Ramayanam composed in Telugu by Gona Buddha Reddy in the 15th century; and Ramacharitamanasa, a Awadhi version of the Ramayana by the 16th-century poet Tulsidas.


Potentially, something similar could have happened in China, with a division between the vernacular and the classical, but it never did until the Dunhuang popular Buddhist narratives during the Tang period (618-907), and then only in a very limited way.  Although the question of why China never developed written regional vernaculars the way India did already in BC times is complex, two of the main reasons are the non-phoneticity of the script and the extreme cultural and political centralism of the empire.  During the 2nd millennium AD, a vernacular tradition of fiction and drama did emerge, but it was based on the national koine and did not foster local or regional forms as in India and Europe.

In recent and contemporary times,

The term "vernacular" may also be applied metaphorically to any cultural product of the lower, common orders of society that is relatively uninfluenced by the ideas and ideals of the educated élite. Hence, vernacular has had connotations of a coarseness and crudeness. "Vernacular architecture", for example, is a term applied to buildings designed in any style based on practical considerations and local traditions, in contrast to the "polite architecture" produced by professionally trained architects to nationally or internationally agreed aesthetic standards. The historian Guy Beiner has developed the study of "vernacular historiography" as a more sophisticated conceptualization of folk history.


Still and all, "vernacular" remains primarily a linguistic phenomenon.

c. 1600, "native to a country," from Latin vernaculus "domestic, native, indigenous; pertaining to home-born slaves," from verna "home-born slave, native," a word of Etruscan origin. Used in English in the sense of Latin vernacula vocabula, in reference to language. As a noun, "native speech or language of a place," from 1706.

For human speech is after all a democratic product, the creation, not of scholars and grammarians, but of unschooled and unlettered people. Scholars and men of education may cultivate and enrich it, and make it flower into the beauty of a literary language; but its rarest blooms are grafted on a wild stock, and its roots are deep-buried in the common soil. [Logan Pearsall Smith, "Words and Idioms," 1925]


To appreciate just how local a vernacular language can be, my father was from a tiny Tyrolean village called Pfaffenhofen, which had its own written idiom, known only by a handful of people from that place, and they used it to write stories, poems, letters, usw. (und so weiter).


Selected readings



AI and porn

"What is deepfake porn and why is it thriving in the age of AI?"

Penn Today (7/26/23)

In a Q&A, doctoral candidate Sophie Maddocks in the Annenberg School for Communication addresses the growing problem of image-based sexual abuse. “In online spaces, it is difficult to disentangle consensually from non-consensually distributed images,” says Maddocks.


  1. Fernando said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 10:56 am

    I have often seen “vernacular” used to describe works in everyday language rather than, say, in Latin. Descartes wrote his Geometrie in the vernacular, so it had to be translated into Latin before most European scholars could read it.

    Maybe that is what is meant by “vernacular law”?

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 11:23 am

    I am not enamoured of the new online version of the OED, but nonetheless felt obliged to consult it, where I was delighted to read that last two words of the following deinition :

    Of a language or dialect: That is naturally spoken by the people of a particular country or district; native, indigenous.
    Usually applied to the native speech of a populace, in contrast to another or others acquired for commercial, social, or educative purposes; now frequently employed with reference to that of the working classes or the peasantry.

    Incidentally, a good friend is the author of Intimate Chinese, which is not, as one might think, the language used in bed by those doing something other than sleeping, but is rather the language as used between friends and family as opposed to the language as used in (e.g.,) business, education, economics or politics. On that basis, I would think that Mike is indeed describing vernacular Chinese.

  3. M said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 11:44 am

    A small but important improvement:

    For "First usage of the word […] is not recent" read "The currently earliest-known use of the word […] is not recent."

  4. Cervantes said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 11:52 am

    A common usage is in European history to distinguish all local languages from the Latin of the church. By translating the Bible into his vernacular — English — William Tyndale committed what the church regarded as a sacrilege. Use of vernacular Bibles and prayers was a marker of Protestantism vs. Catholicism. In this case, in fact nobody actually spoke Latin any more, it was reserved for religious use and highfalutin' literary endeavors.

  5. Francisco said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 12:26 pm

    In reply to M:

    If the currently earliest-known use of a word is not recent, we can rest assured that the first usage of that word is also not recent.

  6. Taylor, Philip said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 12:26 pm

    Tyndale's Bible was published in 1526; Newton wrote his Principia … (in Latin) in 1687. So I would respectfully suggest that "Latin was [not] reserved for religious use and highfalutin' literary endeavo[u]rs" , as it was still in use for scientific and other texts aimed at a wider audience than merely the English.

  7. Cervantes said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 12:33 pm

    I included science in highfalutin' literary endeavor. But I certainly didn't mean it was aimed only at English speakers, the exact opposite. The church was universal in Europe.

  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 1:17 pm

    "highfalutin' literary endeavo[u]rs" — ah, I was thinking more in terms of works akin to James Joyces' Ulysses …

  9. Bloix said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 1:38 pm

    The book does use "vernacular" in the traditional sense used by European medievalist and early modern historians – a regional language, not Latin:

    "[C]ustom went from being a largely oral and performed practice to one that was also conceptualized in writing… [the book] traces the repercussions of this transformation… from elite Latin to common vernacular… The authors of customary law combined their own learning, court experience, and critical thought to transform disparate legal practices into a new legal literary genre that presented these in the vernacular…"

  10. Bloix said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 2:13 pm

    PS to Philip Taylor and Cervantes – to get a sense of the persistence of Latin – von Humboldt published his first scientific work in 1793, in Latin. Beginning in 1797, he published in German or in French.

  11. julie lee said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 8:47 pm

    @ Taylor, Philip :
    "that of the working classes and the peasantry."

    I always have trouble with the phrase "working classes". Aren't we all who have jobs and salaries "working classes" ?

  12. julie lee said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 8:53 pm

    including lawyers, doctors, professors
    etc., all working classes.

  13. Brett said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 10:40 pm

    @julie lee: I detest the term "working class," since it implies that people with upper-middle-class, white-collar jobs do not actually work. (In America, there is also the problem that "working class" often has an unstated assumption of "white" attached.)

  14. julie lee said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 11:58 pm

    Oh, thanks, I didn't know of that unstated assumption.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 7:19 am

    For me, the primary meaning of ‘vernacular’ is that of a native language as opposed to Latin (or later on, in opposition to any non-native language of power, so Chaucer would be a vernacular writer since he didn’t use French in England); not necessarily a low register language, since it would cover even literary languages native to a country, e.g. Old English.
    Using it to refer to a non-standard form of a standard language seems to me more of a colloquial than academic usage.

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 1:06 pm

    @julie lee
    In the UK it’s usually explicit, as “white working class” (with British implicit), particularly when talking about disadvantaged/underachieving groups, whereas other groups are labelled ethnically.

  17. Fred Smith said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 12:31 am

    Thanks Victor, for this typically interesting post. In Indian studies, many scholars (including this one) are becoming increasingly careful in employing the term "vernacular." Because of India's long history of social stratification and the modern sensitivity to a history of valorizing Sanskrit as the "ideal" (hence normative) medium of poetic and literary communication, most other Middle-Indic and modern Indo-Aryan languages have ben considered "vernaculars," hence in some way lower on a language hierarchy that has, unfortunately, mimicked the social hierarchy. If you like, you can take this back to the grammarian Patañjali more than two thousand years ago. Regardless, many of us now prefer terms such as "regional languages," "regional dialects," etc., to avoid these pitfalls. But this might only be relevant within Indian studies.

  18. Alyssa said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 9:38 am

    For another example of a non-linguistic usage of the word "vernacular", in recent years some dancers have started using the term "vernacular jazz" to refer to the original dances of the jazz era, to contrast with the more commonly-known "jazz dance" that developed later and was heavily influenced by ballet (which is I guess the Latin of this metaphor). See:

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