Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Vernacular in Young Adult Fiction

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On January - 13 - 2011

 Vernacular in Young Adult FictionI’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.

 Vernacular in Young Adult Fiction

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.

 Vernacular in Young Adult FictionUsing 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.

 Vernacular in Young Adult FictionAnderson 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?

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12 Responses to “Vernacular in Young Adult Fiction”

  1. I love how you have a lot of PUSH imprint books here. They really are a good publication group. I did a post on them in my blog like a day or two ago.

    Please check it out if you have time at

    • Steven Salvatore Sha says:

      Our professor, David Levithan, started the PUSH imprint. He's a stellar guy (and a pretty awesome writer, I'm kind of obsessed).

      And nice blog! I bookmarked and I'll comment when I get a chance! :)

      - S

  2. Jess Verdi says:

    Awesome post, Steven! Another great (though non-YA) example of an author using specific vernacular to make a character come to life is Nick Hornby's "A Long Way Down." There are four narrators in this book, and they are all incredibly different (a middle-aged celebrity who had an affair with an underaged girl, a fifty-one year-old church-going single mother of a disabled son, an eighteen year-old party girl with family problems, and an American ex-pat former-musican current-pizza delivery boy)– therefore the way they speak, to both each other and to the reader, is incredibly different. Hornby brilliantly uses slang, off-beat grammar, incorrect usage of punctuation and quotation marks, and completely made-up words to mold his characters.

    • Steven Salvatore Sha says:

      I really like the idea of four narrators in a book. I would love to try my hand at multiple perspectives one day. I'm definitely going to check out that book Jess!

      I'm a BIG fan of Anthologies, and one of my favorites (besides the Norton Anthology of Childrens Lit, of course) is Rotten English, which is a collection of poems, short stories and novel excerpts of vernacular writing. It's AWESOME!

      I wish more YA used vernacular.

  3. Melissa says:

    I'm really looking forward to seeing what type of vernacular your characters use in your book after reading what a diverse group of novels you've been inspired by.

    I think vernacular, although not the only way, can be a great way to distinguish characters from one another, as well as give your text some authenticity. Particularly if you are trying to channel a very real class, area, or ethnicity. In that way, you really are transcending the line between journalism and fiction.

    Great stuff brotha. By the way, love adding the word "shit" to everything I saw. Definitely saw some of my foul vernacular in your post :)

    • Steven Salvatore Sha says:

      I never really thought about this, "In that way, you really are transcending the line between journalism and fiction," but I guess it's sort of true. My goal is to bring a sense of realism to my young adult writing, and with all of the conversations we've had about journalism and fiction and character development, I think you really helped me to push myself to bring that realism to my writing.

      I only hope that I accomplished that!

  4. Steve says:

    That was great!
    Usually when I read books who have slang made up by the author, it's hard for me to figure them out right away. At times it could be confusing. But I believe if it is used right, it makes a story more interesting.

  5. gabi says:

    Fantastic post! I especially liked your analysis of the different types of vernacular at work in Feed (where the vernacular can be so subtle at times that readers could almost gloss over it if they're not careful).

    Also, I took that vernacular class the year before you and I remember thinking that Tyrell and Feed were both great examples of vernacular. I'm so glad to see I'm not the only person who felt that way about those books.


    • Steven Salvatore Sha says:

      Thanks Gabi! Feed was definitely one of the most unique cases of vernacular I've ever seen. I think if I was ever going to completely write a novel in vernacular, I would study 'Feed' more than anything else because it's just so different and not something you see often.

      And I LOVED that class. In my opinion, it's the best literature class I've EVER taken, here or elsewhere, no question. Bob was just awesome. And I often think about the questions he posed about authenticity, and who has the "right" to write about certain topics from certain POVs. I mean, all of his books are written from the POV of black women from Trinidad, and he's a white male. I think his class translates more to my YA than any other class (besides Sarah Weeks class, of course! Love her!)

  6. After reading this post, I now have more books in my TBR stack!

    Love your point about the vernacular in satire. Feed really is a funhouse mirror–we can see a warped version of our most insipid selves.

    • Steven Salvatore Sha says:

      Thanks for checking out my post! And I'm really glad that I gave you some more books to read! Job well done haha

      As for Feed, that's exactly what I liked about it. In that respect, I thought it was a great read. I'm not a huge fan of the book, though. But I like it for the role vernacular plays in that whole funhouse mirror aspect. It's a great book to study from a social commentary standpoint, too.

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