[lg policy] Re: dialect vs vernacular

mpl ethguy1 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 7 20:00:15 UTC 2014

I'm joining this conversation a bit late so apologies to those who may have
already made any of the following points. T

The usage of these terms has been a longstanding source of confusion with
both terms defined variously.

Both terms have technical definitions but are subject to popular usage as
well which adds to the general confusion.  Popularly, both are somewhat
pejorative - a dialect (a non-standard variety) being understood as
inferior to a language (a standardized variety) and vernacular language
being seen as less refined, uneducated or even profane.

Generally, within technical usage, dialect is understood to be equivalent
to the generic term "variety".  Dialects/varieties can be socially,
geographically, and even chronologically determined (e.g. an upper middle
class dialect, a Southern dialect, the dialect of the 18th century).  And
Trudgill, I think, distinguished between dialect and accent with the latter
referring primarily to phonological differences and the former including
lexicon and grammatical differences. No matter how determined, a dialect is
generally a bundle of linguistic features which may be associated with a
particular identity and thereby can be named.

Vernacular, on the other hand is subject to a good bit more variation in
the way it has been used as a technical term.

For many a vernacular is a local language (including all of its component
dialects) - usually less-commonly-known and with relatively small numbers
of speakers. Vernacular languages have also been referred to as minority
languages or minoritized languages.  English wouldn't be considered a
vernacular by this definition but Hopi would.

In some cases a vernacular is also identified as one's first language or,
more often, the language of the home and hearth, often associated with the
Low variety in a diglossic situation. By this definition, a local variety
of English might be considered a vernacular in contrast to standard English
as learned in school.

Somewhat similarly, Labov used the term vernacular to refer to any variety
of any language which represents unmonitored speech - the way a person
talks when not consciously attempting to speak correctly or to meet any
particular standard.  He developed a number of research techniques designed
to collect samples of vernacular speech by distracting the speaker's
attention from their speech (e.g. his famous "fourth floor" technique to
collect examples of r-lessness in New York vernacular English).  Following
Labov there is a large body of literature which uses vernacular in that

I'm sure there are other nuances to the usage of these terms.  Generally,
however, a technical writer will define the terms when they are introduced.

All the best,

M. Paul Lewis
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