Problematizing the vernacular.

Author:Brummett, Barry
Position:Essay

Pamela Conners has written an excellent paper that will engender much fruitful dialogue. In beginning that conversation with this response, I mean in no way to denigrate a thoughtful, well-crafted study. I want to engage Conners's work by problematizing the idea of the vernacular. First, I will urge expansion of the vernacular beyond the spoken word. Second, I will question the extent to which there can be a true vernacular, in the usual sense, in an era of mass mediation and global capitalism.

Conners regards the vernacular as "speech by everyday people" (39). This is not wrong, but I think it is narrow. I suggest that we see the vernacular as a wide range of systematic signs consisting of speech but also gesture, posture, grooming, clothing, home decoration; in other words, the style that is a system of communication (Brummett 2008). A number of scholars such as Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (1979), Marcel Danesi (2003), and Virginia Postrel (2003) have argued that when objects, good, clothing, grooming, and gestures become signs within a style, they become like a language in their systematicity. It seems reasonable, then, to think that a vernacular could be seen as a system of these elements of style. Let me also note that a vernacular is often a system of signs typical of, or bespeaking, particular social groups. Elements of style not only work like a language but are also often identified with social groups. If there is a working class vernacular, as Conners correctly argues, then there is also a systematic working class vernacular of clothing, grooming, and the other elements of style.

If we accept a sense of the vernacular as style, incorporating elements beyond only the verbal, the importance of my second main point becomes clear. It is hard and hardly worthwhile to commodify a verbal style of expression alone. One can scarcely make a dollar off of accent and idiom. Ally accent and idiom with commodities and one attracts the interest of global capitalism, creating value in the act of mediating and mass-distributing signs of that vernacular. Amish pronunciation may be interesting; Amish furniture is big business.

When global capitalism develops a commercial interest in the marketing of a vernacular in this wider sense, it puts its considerable power to work defining a vernacular and informing the global audience of that definition. Corporate interests will tell the global audience, or perhaps I mean market, what a vernacular is...

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