In the Vernacular

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Vernacular is a great word, and not only because it’s fun to say. A vernacular is simply any variation of a language a given community has developed. Neighborhoods, towns and islands all have their own. And anytime a group of people separates from their community, their vernacular is affected by their new environment.

In any city in the United States, diverse varieties of the English language are spoken. Los Angeles, for example, has unique accents and lexicons, or vocabularies, associated with each of its neighborhoods. These have been determined by the origins of the people who live in each place and by the influence of surrounding languages. Even the languages spoken by immigrants change when they settle in the U.S.

The label vernacular lends legitimacy to the many, many ways that exist to speak any particular language. However, legitimacy does not always go hand in hand with respect. Whether or not variations of a language are accepted is often a matter of how long people have had to become accustomed to them.

Recently, one of my favorite sources of language news, Public Radio International’s collection The World in Words, ran a story about language variation from the perspective of an author who grew up speaking Jamaican Patois. Patois is a mix of English and African languages which has developed over time to have its own syntax. It is spoken by an isolated community and has struggled to be accepted as a proper language. Recently, writers have been producing Patois literature, enriching the culture of the language community and expanding awareness of the language itself.

So what does this have to do with French?

As a global languagecourtesy of colonizationFrench has variations around the world, just as English does. French has been spread across world for so long that it is now linked to the identities of many, disparate groups. An obvious example is Quebec, but French communities exist in Vietnam, the Caribbean and many other countries. In Maine, Louisiana and along the United States-Canadian border are communities that speak French vernaculars. In a class through my study abroad program, I read about how the French tend to suppress francophone literature produced outside of France. Francophone literature actually wins more awards than literature produced within France, and yet the French do not have much respect for it.

To me, the fact that such writing is generally ignored in France shows a lack of curiosity and a narrow horizon. The French have historically touched so many different cultures around the world and it is a shame that they have minimally affected French culture in return. The nature of language is that it never stays the same when used in everyday communication. Regional varieties will inevitably arise, and they have the potential to contribute to French culture. But if French resistance to regional vernaculars persists, the voices that represent this culture will never be heard.