Discussion: Using Slang in Literature


Okay, time for a discussion. Now, I myself love to read anything and everything, but in some books the story is either well-supported or absolutely ruined by slang and/or vernacular. I think everyone has had some experience with this part of literature, the Southern twang or other-country phrasing that you doesn’t always make sense 100% of the time.

First, a little history about vernacular in literature. For a very, very long time, literature in all parts of the world was very formal, using no slang and was mainly religion based. Creativity was limited, and books were scarce, since every single one had to be copied by hand. But along came Geoffrey Chaucer, who started his career in novels by becoming a page in a wealthy household, which allowed him to learn how to read and write. But he later moved out of that menial profession and on to his true calling: writing. Geoffrey Chaucer’s greatest and most historically affecting piece is The Canterbury Tales. The storyline revolves around a slew of characters leaving their hometown on a journey to the shrine to St. Thomas Beckett, and on the way they share stories. Chaucer’s end goal was for each character to tell two stories on the way to the shrine, and two on the way back, but his life did not span long enough to complete the enormous project. But even unfinished, his book is a classic piece of literature, and this is due to Chaucer’s use of vernacular. As each character tells their stories, they speak as though they are in real life, telling tales to friends and companions on a long journey. This allows the audience to connect and resonate with the characters far more than they ever had in the past. From that book the use of vernacular has evolved to its many stages of today’s society.
I’m pretty well read, so I’ve dealt with a few books like this, some of which were great. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hudson includes plenty of Floridian vernacular, and due to this I was expecting to dislike the book. But to my surprise, the use of this slang helped me to really connect to the characters, and I ended up liking the book even more than I thought I would. The vernacular is limited to the dialogue of the characters and is kept consistent throughout the book. It makes me feel as though I’m living in the world of the story being told, rather than being talked at by someone I can’t understand. Another thing that helps the use of slang is that the rest of the book has beautiful, elegant writing, which helps you keep from going insane. One more quick example of a book that uses vernacular effectively is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It helps put you in the mindset of the people, which is hard for those of us who don’t live in the south or haven’t experienced that kind of racial discrimination.
But, I’m still split on this issue, because I’ve also read books where they would’ve been great, but how they’re written makes them unappealing. In the book Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, Kimberly, the main character, and her mother are both learning how to speak English, so oftentimes Kimberly’s English is broken and not understandable, or she listens to those fluent in English and misunderstands them, so I have to try and figure out what they’re saying. As well, Kimberly would sometimes say things that came from her homeland, and they would only be explained once so I wouldn’t remember what significance the word had to the story or what it meant. I understand that this is an important part of understanding the character and the struggles of being an immigrant in a new country whose language you don’t understand, but honestly it made the book so much harder to read, both mentally and emotionally. I would start to really feel for Kimberly’s character, but then I would have to translate something she heard and it ruined the flow of the book. This is just one of many examples where slang or vernacular can be annoying in a book. A second illustration of this is The Help, which is one of my favorite books but still could be aggravating to the mind when I had to read the southern jargon.
I’m pretty down the middle on the use of slang in literature. I think it needs to be both understandable and tasteful, it needs to keep me interested without having me strain to understand the literal words I’m reading. What do you guys think? Comment below about your position on slang in books!
Hi, my name is Caroline and I’m 15, a sophomore in high school. My interests (besides reading, haha) include singing, playing my ukulele, writing, soccer, YouTube, Netflix, and dancing recreationally. I have a mom, an older brother, an older sister, and a little brother, and the cutest dog you’ve ever seen; she’s a boxer named Nellie. I don’t really believe in being quiet, and everyone knows it because I talk so much; I’m really only quiet when I’m reading. My favorite color is blue, my favorite dessert is cheesecake, and my favorite band is the Dixie Chicks, but I appreciate most kinds of music.
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One thought on “Discussion: Using Slang in Literature

  1. I agree with you, I’m definitely torn on the issue and I appreciate the amount of research you put in to this!! generally I prefer more proper English in books as the improper spelling of slang terms often makes me slightly crazy, however occasionally, as you said, it does work in the story and it can definitely be forgiven as long as the story is still understandable and isn’t harmed by the slang!


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