I’ve always known the power of language. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t. The world is built on words; letters strung together and given meaning. Words are a beautiful, calligraphic foundation that informs our past, forms our current thoughts, and shapes our future. They open us up and can close us off to each other. Written words and language create the building blocks of pretty much everything. And just as powerful is the creation of vernacular.
As I continue to work towards my MFA at the New School, I’m constantly learning new aspects of writing and how best to improve myself. In the spring of 2010, I took a literature seminar, taught by author Robert Antoni, in the written vernacular. I learned more about the construction of a novel than in any other class. I only hope my brain will remember it when I’m ready to call upon it. I already use what I can when I construct my own prose and dialogue.
Vernacular is defined as a native or indigenous language written as it’s expressed. It can be constructed by the author, indicative of their own rules, or it can follow the oral traditions of the language (for example, being written phonetically, like how one would hear it spoken out loud), or it could be constructed out of an already established vernacular. It includes dialect, patois, slang and anything that makes the language seem authentic. It very much informs the voice, which is the one thing that really draws me into a novel. I’m trying to incorporate these ideas into my writing, because often times I find the voice of many teen novels to be too samey; there is nothing that sets them apart. And if I can tap into something realistic, I think it could really jump start things for me as a writer.
The book that really brought this to life for me was Push by Sapphire. While not published as a teen novel, Push is told from the perspective of an illiterate 16-year-old girl who is pregnant for the second time with her father’s child. She is the victim of incest, sexual abuse, and all she wants is to be white and pretty and free from her life. As the novel progresses and she learns to read and write (yes, at 16), the prose becomes more fluid, more like poetry. And the way Sapphire constructs the novel is really breathtaking. It begins zeroed in on Precious, and we’re really in the character’s mind, almost like a stream of consciousness. The prose is long, grammatically incorrect, almost incoherent in places. It used African American vernacular, ghetto slang, and dialects found traditionally in inner-city communities. As we see Precious grow, we slowly emerge from inside her head and become almost removed, especially when Precious’ own writing takes the place of her thoughts. At the end, the reader is completely out of Precious’ head, and into her writing. It’s almost as if the camera zooms out on Precious, having an opposite effect of most novels, which start out more broad and zoom in over the course of the book.
There aren’t as many titles published under the young adult label that truly do what adult fiction does with vernacular. One book that does the vernacular extremely well is Coe Booth’s Tyrell. What Sapphire’s Push lacks in consistency with the construction and the individual vernaculars of each character, Booth’s Tyrell makes up for. There is fluidity there from cover to cover, and each character has his or her own set of rules.
Now, as a male writer, my goal is to bring some more testosterone to this wonderful blog. So, in keeping with that, I want to talk about MT Anderson’s Feed, which is one of the more recent novels I’ve read where the construction of a vernacular is completely new. What Anderson did was create his own slang and idiolect among Titus, the protagonist, and his friends. In doing so, Anderson was able to lure the reader into this world he created, where, in the future, it is completely believable to think that humans would have a computer or television feeding into their brains. It’s clear from the start that Titus is living in a consumerist society driven by advertisements, where, if you can’t think of a word, it’s fed into your brain (and usually it’s not what the reader would be expecting to see). Using these ideas, combined with Titus’ inner monologues and the dialogue between him and other characters, Anderson has created a satire of our modern world, a book that examines our own more so than giving us a look at the fictional one in the text. Here, in Feed, teenagers are so connected to computers and technology that they hardly think for themselves, and their speech patterns are very indicative of Anderson’s views on teenage consumerist society.
Using a well-constructed vernacular, Anderson gives us his world through Titus, whose vocabulary parodies the worst speech patterns of the modern teenager. From the very start of the novel, Anderson thrusts the reader right into this world, and the vernacular is tightly wound around the feeds. The construction of the language shows a few different things. In the following quotation from the opening of the novel, Anderson shows us the vernacular he has created:
“We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like ‘I’m so null,’ and Marty was all, ‘I’m null too, unit,’ but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall.” (3).
The italicized words indicate slang that Anderson has created, which riffs on popular slang phrases in our modern society. “Shit-all” is a creation, an idiom, blending together very informal vocabulary usage that is reminiscent of the ephemeral quality of slang phrases language in our language. Anderson creates his slang in a very interesting way, using words in our modern dictionary, like “null” and “unit” and turning them into popular expressions. Here, “unit” is used as a term of endearment in place of “dude” or “guy” or “buddy.” Other words like “mal” for “malfunction” are other common slang terms used. The bolded words indicate an idiolect in Titus and his friends’ speech patterns. The text relies heavily on words like “like” and “all” and “thing.” These few words brilliantly construct the world of these teenagers better than any descriptor because it links the reader from our world to the one Anderson created seamlessly, and in a way that connects.
Anderson utilizes words that are in our modern vocabulary, perhaps to ease the reader into the world he created. Words like “brag,” “big,” and phrases with obscenities (most popularly, the word “shit” in common slang phrases like “shit-stupid”), help to connect the reader to the text. In a world where fad slangs come and go, it was easy to buy into Anderson’s constructions, even though at times they seemed purely comical, purely satirical, commenting on the vapid trendsetting slang of our own ever-evolving vernacular. Even words like “fugue,” which, by definition means “a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect them,” were used as slang when describing when the feeds were overloaded with advertisements. It’s no coincidence when Anderson uses words and phrases like “fugue,” which pertain to psychological states and physiology, and turning it into modern slang for these characters. It gives humanistic qualities and a depth to the feed, like the feed has replaced their own personalities and mind-states.
One of the most interesting touches to Feed was the inclusion of made-up words. “Youch,” “meg,” “braggest,” “slurpy,” “bonesprocket,” “junktube,” “droptube” and “upcar” and variations of the like, are some of the words that kept repeating in the text throughout. “Meg” sounds like “mad” in our modern slang.
Through the vernacular, Anderson is commenting on our society, and the vapidity of teenagers and their lack of education on what goes on around them. Even through the use of e-mail terminology, Anderson is commenting on our society and our problematic dependency on technology. Titus and his friends live in a world where, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to verbally communicate. Thoughts travel like e-mails, from mind to mind, through these feeds. Even through the trademarked schools, we see how the words and letters on the page come together to construct not only a novel, but a vivid world for the reader. Anderson perfectly encapsulates this satiric world and brings it to life – for me at least – through the constructed vernacular.
As a writer, I’m constantly trying to figure out how to incorporate a real sense of vernacular into my prose. Each one of my characters has a different ways of phrasing things. Each one of my characters has a unique inflection. Isn’t that the whole point of writing? The whole point of creating new characters in new environments is to give them a voice, a story that’s uniquely their own. Here’s hoping I can accomplish what I set out to with language.
What are you thoughts? I’d love to hear from all the TWB readers out there in the blogosphere: Do you enjoy reading vernacular? Does it detract from your reading? Does it add to it?