The Problematic Vernacular


  • Simon Bronner University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee


Although many disciplines dropped the use of “vernacular” in the 21st century because of the term’s connotations of primitivism, classism, and marginalization arising from 19th-century colonialism, the term has risen in usage among folklorists and ethnologists in the early 21st century. Three distinct streams of usage areidentified and analyzed for their nuanced meaning: linguistics, religion, and architecture. Folkloristic and ethnological usage is traced to concern whether ‘vernacular’, despite its problematic historic context, is preferable to ‘folk’ as a modifier of areas of inquiry, many of which are into fluid, non-objectified categories such as belief, faith, and play. A rhetorical shift coinciding with social change from analog to digital communication is apparent to binaries of official/unofficial and formal/informal in cultural analysis. A further and possibly fringe development has been an ideological strategy represented by the compound term ‘stigmatized vernacular’that embraces rather than repudiates cultural hierarchy. The evaluation of the problematic adoption by 21st-century folklorists and ethnologists of ‘vernacular’ is that it reifies the very problems that the users intended to resolve.


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