The (Mal)Functionality of Vernacular


  • Simon J. Bronner University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee


vernacular, tradition, religion, dialect, cultural practice, architecture, belief, rhetoric


Continuing a dialogue with Ülo Valk on the value of the etic term vernacular in folkloristic scholarship, this essay responds to his claim that despite the stigma of the word’s past usage and its rejection by other fields it holds promise for folkloristics because of its conceptual flexibility, which he finds is especially conducive to the study of belief and religious practices. Pointing out that flexibility – or “fuzziness” to quote other critics – suggests imprecision, residualism, hierarchy, and lack of analytical instrumentality, this essay contends that use of vernacular reveals more about its users than the groups and practices it purports to describe. Recounting the intellectual history of the term and its adoption in folkloristic circles as well as the author’s own scholarship, this essay maintains that the term has limited, if any, use in folkloristics and ethnology because of its negative assumptions and “fuzzy” logic. It can be reflexively analyzed, however, to understand scholars’ perceptions of cultural phenomena and their conflicts with cognitive categories of practice and belief enacted by cultural participants.


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