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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Vernacular English

We hear of Maori children getting the strap for using Maori in the school playground. We don't hear people speaking out on behalf of those children who got the strap when I was at school because they didn't use standard English - when they said things like I ain't done nothing, or I come here last week.

Fifty-five-year-old teacher

The term "vernacular English" (like the term "standard English") refers only to syntax. It does not refer to pronunciation or vocabulary choice.

Vernacular English is associated with varieties of English that are normally spoken, not written. There are no prescribed conventions for vernacular English, and there are few dictionaries or grammars of vernacular English.

A popular but mistaken view is that vernacular English is the result of carelessness and linguistic degeneracy: that students who say I done it yesterday or What are yous doing? are hastening the decay of the English language and that teachers must stop this perceived decline. When people are asked why they object to I done it yesterday, the usual reply is that it sounds so awful or that it's just wrong. Linguists who have studied language varieties can demonstrate that there is no inherent rightness or wrongness about saying I done or I did. I done it yesterday is not wrong in the sense that 2 + 2 = 5 is wrong. Vernacular English has its own rules, which its speakers learn as they learn to talk. They say I done it yesterday, and not I it yesterday done. It is not chaotic or haphazard. The only thing that we can say about it is that it is different from standard English.

The term dialect has been used here for varieties that are not the standard form of the language. The dialects of Britain differ greatly, as do popular attitudes towards them. Among the traditional British dialects, those associated with rural areas such as Somerset, Yorkshire, or Lancashire are usually considered attractive, while those associated with large urban areas, such as Manchester, Liverpool, or Birmingham are frequently condemned and said to be ugly.

Traditional English dialects are radically different both from standard English and from each other, and they are rarely heard outside the British Isles.

Standard English can be called a mainstream dialect - it is used throughout the English speaking world. The vernacular English used in New Zealand is also a mainstream dialect, but it is a non-standard or vernacular one. It is also used in other English-speaking countries. There are English speakers in Australia, South Africa, and other countries who also say I seen it and I done it.

We're not coming. Standard English (mainstream)
We ain't comin. Non-standard English or vernacular (mainstream)
Us byant a-comin. Traditional dialect (central western England)

The following examples of vernacular English forms are based on a questionnaire by Heidi Quinn, a student at the University of Canterbury.

Yous won't win the game.
What is needed is a more gentler approach.
You should of done this a long time ago.
That's the most nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.
I been over to the States a couple of times.
I'm sure I seen her put her car in the garage.
He come all the way just to see a soccer match.
Tina and me are going to the Coast next week.
Us New Zealanders must stick together.
It's a hard life for we students.
I hate teachers what tell you off all the time.
Her car is newer than what mine is.
He stands on his desk and be's a punk rocker.

Standard English is the appropriate form for the teaching of writing. It is unusual to see the vernacular written down, and when it is, it is not always written consistently. This can be seen in different spellings given to some vernacular forms, such as yous,youse, you's.

If teachers are to respect the social backgrounds of all students, they need to see the vernacular not as something harmful to be banished but rather as a variety used by parents and families in many New Zealand homes. There are many situations when it is entirely appropriate, but there are also many other situations where standard English is the appropriate form.

One of the functions of the educational system is to teach standard English. This language book does not imply that anything at all is acceptable and that standards do not matter. The teaching of standard English is very important; the acknowledgment of the vernacular is also important. By exploring language in all its diversity, we hope to move away from simply dividing varieties of language into "good language" and "bad language".

There are obvious benefits in being able to use standard English, and those who grow up in homes where this is the only form of English used have a considerable advantage in our educational system. There are also advantages in being able to use the vernacular. People who have both varieties can move in and out of different social groups easily. Variation in the vernacular can also be exploited effectively. Different social situations or audiences can be marked by subtle changes in language that are not available to those whose dialect is only standard English.

Many observers are familiar with the way some children regularly use vernacular English in an adventure playground and standard English at school, already demonstrating their ability to make language choices depending on the social situation.

Because the vernacular has not been codified as standard English has, there is no body of literature that warns of possible errors when we use the vernacular. Speakers for whom this is their only variety are not troubled with the insecurities that some prescriptive standard English rules can induce.

It is useful to remember that the terms "standard English" and "vernacular English" refer to syntax only, not to pronunciation or vocabulary choice.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 24 Feb 2009