Grammar Or Invention: Notable Vernacular

My daughter, when I ask her to read a few pages of an age-appropriate story I'm writing, has an interesting habit for a ten-year-old: she proofreads as she follows along. For a neurotypical child this is understandable; for my daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, it is something approaching a lifestyle. Rules and their consistency have been a vital part of her development from the time she was born. Without the safety and security of consistent rules, her early life would have been an incoherent chaos of indecipherable stress. Rules have provided her with the definitions she needs to understand the world around her, so it is hardly surprising that when she is confronted with a text she approaches it from the mindset of rules, and whether or not the text correctly follows the rules that she has learned at school.

For a writer like myself, who loves to use creative language like "un-trapezed" in a sentence just because it sounds right, this establishes an interesting dynamic. She right-clicks my unfindable word, I explain that the computer doesn't recognize the word because Mommy just made it up, and she starts suggesting ways of saying the same thing that won't conflict with the computer's word recognition software and spell check. I have learned a couple of things from this experience. First, writing for young readers on the autism spectrum is a challenging - and sometimes hilarious - experience. Second, there are times as an artist when you need to just listen to the story and not worry about what people might think, especially when the story is telling you to break the rules.

Accurate representations of reality and rule-breaking go hand-in-hand for any artist, but especially for writers. Writing is the act of portraying people and their motivations in as realistic a manner as possible. It does not matter whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, if the people described in it are not real and understandable the work will be vulnerable to cliches, stereotypes and gimmicks. Such illnesses in a creative work are cured with deep and rich characters, sense of place, and above all, vernacular. 

Vernacular is the ultimate rule-breaker. Teachers have wagged their fingers against it from time immemorial. We have been told as children that "ain't ain't a word," and as adults we have been subjected to "debates" over the teaching of the Black vernacular in schools. We are constantly being presented the image of proper grammar as synonymous with the clean, white shirt and freshly polished shoes you wear to a job interview, whereas vernacular is the unwashed cousin in hand-me-downs. Vernacular is both blunt and hidden, risky and standard. If you want to write compelling narratives it is a must.

Most writers who write about injustice and marginalized people employ vernacular as a way of allowing their characters to fully inhabit who they are. Die Weber (The Weavers) is a 19th century play by German playwright and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann, and it tells the story of the exploitation of the weavers in Silesia, which at that time was a German province. Hauptmann used the Silesian dialect in the play, and because of this the characters are authentic. When the story of their exploitation unfolds, it, too, is authentic and believable.

American literature has a long tradition of the use of vernacular regardless - or perhaps in spite of - the admonitions we received in grade school. It also has the ability to make us confront our collective past in ways that shock us and make us uncomfortable. Mark Twain, the author who is generally credited with popularizing the use of vernacular in American stories and novels, captures the rawness of the experience of being an enslaved person in A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard ItIn this story, "Aunt Rachel," Twain's domestic servant, recounts to him the horror of watching her children being sold due to her mistress's lack of funds: "An' when de las' one was gone but my little Henry, I grab him clost up to my breast so, an I ris up and says, 'You shan't take him away,' I says...But dey got him-dey got him, de men did; but I took and tear de clo'es mos' off of 'em, an beat 'em over de head wid my chain; an' day give it to me, too, but I did n't mine dat." Extant historical documents reveal that the use of vernacular was prevalent among both enslaved people and the people who owned them. Harriet Beecher Stowe in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin cites court documents, testimony and classified ads to bolster her argument against the brutality of the Southern slave system. Stowe had been criticized for her portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Southern critics called it unrealistically violent, and the book itself was so controversial that it spurred the creation of several "counter-novels" written by Southern authors sympathetic to the slave holding system. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin is Stowe's nonfiction defense of her work. The following example from A Key is plain in its brutality: "RANAWAY from the subscriber, a negro man named SAMPSON. Fifty dollars reward will be given for the delivery of him to me, or his confinement in any jail, so that I get him; and should he resist in being taken, so that violence is necessary to arrest him, I will not hold any person liable for damages should the slave be KILLED." An additional advertisement for the sale of "A LIKELY GIRL...a good Nurse and House Servant, can wash and iron," illustrates the use of written non-standard English among slaveholders. Such examples are not only notable for giving us hints about the everyday spoken language of the Southern slave holding class, but they show the absurd lengths that those who upheld the slave system would go to in putting a genteel linguistic veneer over abuse, rape, torture and forced labor. Indeed, after reading these first hand accounts it is perfectly clear that no re-enactment of slavery is necessary to understand the centuries of systemic evil enslaved people endured. No movie is needed to translate the tragedy of these human rights abuses to today's youth. The words, themselves, stand on their own.    

African American writers-and other writers who are dedicated to realistic portrayals of African American characters-have unique challenges addressing vernacular given this history. Many examples of great use of vernacular abound, from Maya Angelou's "Whoppa, Whoppa" in Workers Song to Victor LaValle's "Negro, sit down!...Sit down and hear some truth" in Big Machine. James Baldwin, in his review of Carmen Jones, called out the superficial veneer of using vernacular to try to add authenticity to black characters who weren't authentically black: "..these are exceptional Negroes, as American, that is, as you and me, interpreting lower-class Negroes of whom they, also, are very fond, an affection which is proven perhaps by the fact that everyone appears to undergo a tiny, strangling death before resolutely substituting "de" for "the." Such criticism is necessary when addressing the use of vernacular in character. Vernacular is not a substitute for underlying truth - if underlying truth is not present, vernacular is so precise in its own critique that it will call out superficiality with its own bluntness. 

Renowned author Zora Neale Hurston is one of my favorite authors who successfully uses vernacular, and her Story in Harlem Slang is a particularly fun example of her mastery of this linguistic style. She begins by asking the reader to "Wait till I light up my coal-pot and I'll tell you about this Zigaboo called Jelly." Hurston tells us, "His mama named him Marvel, but after a month on Lenox Avenue, he changed all that to Jelly," explaining "It must be Jelly, cause jam don't shake." Jelly exists off of the support of various women, and right now he is hungry (we are led to believe that Jelly is generally hungry). This motivates him to get out of bed: "You got to get out on the beat and collar yourself a hot." Outside a cafe Jelly sees "one of his colleagues" and figures "if he bull-skated just right, he might confidence Sweet Back out of a thousand on a plate." Jelly and Sweet Back exchange digs about the relative quality of the women they attract until they see a girl. Because this is Wednesday afternoon and because they both know that domestics get Wednesday afternoons off with pay they assume that she has money. Indeed, as Jelly says, "I'd walk clear to Diddy-Wah-Diddy to get a chance to speak to a pretty lil' ground-angel like that." The woman, predictably, turns them both down. In spite of his cocky behavior we end up rooting for Jelly, in no small part due to the largeness of his voice.

Vernacular, then, when properly employed creates this magical transformation. It uplifts the downtrodden, it shines a bright light on injustice. It turns the inexplicable into something weirdly believable, and it takes the ne'er-do-well and makes him do better just because the reader wills him so to do. A writer can tell a good, believable story without vernacular - Edith Wharton's characters existed in a quiet rebellion against the rules while following them. Writers who do this run the risk of being their own Newland Archers, sitting on a park bench while staring up at a balcony, unable to formulate the words "coulda shoula woulda" but feeling them all the same. Vernacular lifts you up. It shakes off the straight jacket of constrained emotions and unuttered words, and it enables your writing to flow freely until you touch what's most important: love.