Happy Friday, everyone!
I may have mentioned that I was born and currently live in the Southern US; I may also have mentioned that I had a twelve-year stint in the UK. While naturally I haven’t encountered all the dialects either of them have to offer, I’ve seen and heard a good share. Local vernacular is close to my heart right now, too, because of the novel I’m working on that’s set in New Orleans in 1916, which is why I wanted to take today to talk about the talk, a.k.a. local vernacular.
What do I mean, exactly, by local vernacular? It’s slang, essentially. An ingredient of local or regional dialects. What can readily link a person to a geographical area in addition to (but not the same as) an accent. Why should it matter to you? Because yes, there are some occasions where it’s good to be linked to a region, but there are other times that you’ll want to avoid it.
Local vernacular in writing is ultimately a tool, and the better you understand how and when to use it, the better. We see it all the time in marketing (whether we realize it or not) where it’s used to inspire loyalty from a certain customer base, make a product or service recognizable, or support/create an image of belonging. If you’re one of the crowd, you’re trusted as a businessperson. For example, pseudo-French signage and packaging is understandably rampant here in Louisiana because of the pride in French and Creole heritage – if your product or service utilizes it, not only are you understood, but you are seen as belonging and friendly. Meanwhile, we also see local vernacular in fiction to enrich characters and impart flavor and realism to the setting. There’s a little more flexibility in fiction since we can set and play with our own rules. If you get the details right, you’re trusted as an author.
So if local vernacular is pervasive and useful, why would we want to avoid it? There are three main reasons:
- Geographical limitations. You can only take a piece of slang so far before, frankly, it may not be understood. For instance, the South will have a ready grasp of lagniappe — ‘a little something extra’, for those of you not from around here — because it’s familiar. Head north, east, or west, however, and while they may have heard it before, they may struggle to define it. Head outside of the US and use it, and you may not be understood at all. If something’s not understood, it’s ineffective. If you’re trying to market yourself, a service, or a product outside of the locality that uses that language, you’re going to struggle — it’s incredibly rare for a business with a name or slogan that uses local vernacular to be successful in a larger national or international market.
- It’s ultimately slang, whether you like it or not. Slang falls into the informal language category and as you know, there are occasions where informal language is appropriate and where it is not. It’s unfortunate but true that outsiders to a dialect, upon hearing/reading it, will — because of point #1 — feel at a disadvantage, which usually translates to seeing that dialect as lesser. Not all the time, but often. A more common example is that we all know that we shouldn’t be casual in an interview, and speak formally and clearly.
- Consistency problems, which mostly applies to writing. While there may be a few words that have a widely-understood spelling, when you get into the less obvious representations of dialect (e.g. — using apostrophes everywhere to contract words or drop a final letter) the fact of the matter is that it can be difficult to keep track of how you write something and when. I know I do. Also, though punctuation is a beautiful thing, if you have apostrophes everywhere eventually your manuscript is going to look like a spider skittered through an ink pad and then over every page.
Readability is key: too much vernacular and your reader will be exhausted by the time they get through a couple of paragraphs. You want your text — whether it’s a resume, a novel, or a business card — to be easy for your reader to understand, and appropriate to the audience and your intentions.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with local vernacular, be it when writing or reading!