Vernacular refers to the native language of a country or a locality. In general linguistics, it is used to describe local languages as opposed to linguae francae, official standards or global languages. It is sometimes applied to nonstandard dialects of a global language. For instance, in Western Europe up until the 17th century, most scholarly work had been written in Latin, so works written in a native language were said to be in the vernacular. The vernacular is also often contrasted with a liturgical language (in linguistics, the relationship between these "High" and "Low" languages or varieties of a language is referred to as diglossia). For example, until the 1960s, Latin Rite Roman Catholics held Masses in Latin rather than in local vernacular language, to this day the Coptic Church holds liturgies in Coptic; though parts of Mass are read in Amharic, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church holds liturgies in Ge'ez, etc. The Reformation was spread by the publication of Bibles and other religious writings in the vernacular, and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council permitted the use of vernacular liturgies in Roman Catholicism.
Similarly, in Hindu culture, traditionally religious or scholarly works were written in Sanskrit long after its use as a spoken language. With the rise of the bhakti movement from the 1100s onwards, religious works started being created in Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and many other Indian languages throughout the different regions of India. For example, the Ramayana, one of Hinduism's sacred epics in Sanskrit had vernacular versions such as Ramacharitamanasa, a Hindi version of the Ramayana by the 16th century poet Tulsidas, and Kambaramayanam in Tamil by the poet Kamban.
Within the subcategory of sociolinguistics, the term vernacular has been applied to several concepts, leading to confusion among scholars regarding what is actually being referred to. This term had not been heard in the western world until the late 1800s. One use of the term, as exemplified by Poplack (1993) and Labov (1972), defines vernacular varieties as casual varieties used spontaneously rather than self-consciously. It could also be described as informal talk used in intimate situations. Linguists consider the vernacular to be the first form of speech acquired by a person.
Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (1998) on the other hand define vernacular varieties as nonstandard, local dialects, particularly because of the nonstandard grammatical features that they contain. They also state that there is a continuum between the vernacular and the standard.
Similar approaches have been made to define vernacular culture: Cheshire (1982) sees vernacular culture as a non-standard or counter culture that is expressed through participation in particular activities or clothing styles, whereas Edwards (1992) defines it as a local culture determined by the connectedness to a certain neighbourhood.
Leon Battista Alberti’s Grammatichetta vaticana was written between 1437 and 1441, but not printed until 1908, which is why its influence is debated. Alberti was concerned with showing that dialects also had structures by mapping them onto Latin, whereas his fellow grammarians Giovanni Francesco Fortunio (Regole grammaticali della vulgar lingua, 1516) and Pietro Bembo (Prose della vulgar lingua, 1525) strived to establish a norm dialect that would qualify for becoming the Italian national language.
The first (contrastive) Spanish grammar by Antonio de Nebrija (Gramática Castellana, 1492) was divided into parts for native and nonnative speakers, pursuing a different purpose in each: Books 1-4 describe the Spanish language grammatically in order to facilitate the study of Latin for its Spanish speaking readers. Book 5 contains a phonetical and morphological overview of Spanish for nonnative speakers.
The first (methodical) grammar of French was not written in France but in England and aimed at foreign speakers intending to learn the language. An interest in learning French had already been expressed before John Palsgrave wrote Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse in 1530 by his contemporaries Alexander Barclay (Here begynneth the introductory to wryte and to pronounce frenche, 1521), Pierre Valence (Introductions in frensshe, 1528) and Giles du Wes (An introducterie for to lerne to rede to prononce and to speke Frenche trewly, 1532-1533). Palgrave’s instructive work was based on literary examples, following the model of Theodorus Gaza’s grammar of Greek (1495).
In Germany, the first grammar evolved from pedagogical works that also tried to create a uniform standard from the many regional dialects. Like Nebrija, Valentin Ickelsamer (Ein Teütsche Grammatica, 1534) stresses the importance of understanding the structure of the national language in order to learn other languages, above all Latin.
William Bullokar (Pamphlet for Grammar, 1586) was the first to write a proper English grammar, preceded only by Richard Mulcaster’s general plea for mother tongue education in England, The first part of the elementary, 1582. Bullokar followed leading Latin grammarians in England to prove that English was, like Latin, governed by rules.
Up to the mid-fifteenth century, glosses and dictionaries were mostly bilingual and served the teaching of Latin. For reading and translation of Latin texts, dictionaries would usually display the sequence Latin lemma (unknown) followed by explanatory vernacular expression (known). Dictionaries with reversed order would serve the more active tasks of speaking and writing. Both types were solely concerned with the study of Latin, but at the same time they unintentionally documented the development of vernaculars at a time that these were not considered worth writing about.
With the emergence of monolingual dictionaries vernaculars arrived at their breakthrough. The gradual formation of nation states and the growing importance of national languages (that are briefly explained in the section Early Vernacular Studies) led to the publication of multilingual vernacular dictionaries in various combinations. Some early bilingual vernacular dictionaries include:
- Nathanael Duez : Dittionario italiano e francese/Dictionnaire italien et François, Leiden, 1559-1560
- Gabriel Pannonius: Petit vocabulaire en langue françoise et italienne, Lyon, 1578
- Jean Antoine Fenice : Dictionnaire fraçois et italien, Paris, 1584
- Cristobal de las Casas: Vocabulario de las dos lenguas toscana y castellana, Sevilla, 1570
Some early monolingual vernacular dictionaries:
Language can blur into vernacular architecture, where the local vernacular is sometimes reflected in the form of the styles of naive/vernacular typography & hand lettering seen on signs and shopfronts. Similarly the word may be used to describe local craft - e.g. "vernacular ceramic wares".
In literature, it may apply to works that have been written to emulate the everyday speech of the middle class or the working class. Sometimes, this means that slang and colloquial speech is included.