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A vernacular is the dialect or variety of language that is spoken by the common people of a particular place. Vernaculars are distinguished from official bureaucratic or religious languages, trade languages and any lingua franca or language of the elites that is also spoken in the same region. For example, Latin was the official language of the Church and state in medieval Europe, but most people did not understand Latin and those who did learned it as a second language. It was not until the sixteenth century that many writers began to use their own languages, their vernaculars, instead of Latin.[1]

In imperial China, bureaucrats and other educated elites wrote official and scholarly texts in Classical or Literary Chinese (wenyan or "cultured speech"), which was relatively concise and slow to change, while the rest of the population spoke bai hua ("unadorned speech" or "vernacular"), which is more usefully redundant and which changed more quickly over time. Beginning in the Tang period (618-907 CE), and especially from the 1700s onward, fiction, how-to manuals, and other types of unofficial, popular literature were published in a written version of the vernacular. After the Revolution of 1911 overthrew the monarchy, the government and many intellectuals adopted the vernacular as the standard written form of the language.[2]

Another interesting case is the fate of Quechua in the Andes. Before the ascent of the Inca empire and its domination of a large portion of the Andean region, Quechua was only one among many languages. In fact, it wasn't even the language of the Incas. The Inca state instituted Quechua as a lingua franca of trade and governance and spread the language throughout its territory. Later, during the colonial period, Spanish replaced Quechua as the lingua franca of the region and Quechua fractured into a family of local vernaculars. Today, some dialects of Quechua are mutually unintelligible, or nearly so.


  1. Benedict Anderson. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso. p. 18.
  2. Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard U. Asia Center, 2000), 19-20.