May 23, 2005

Vern, Vernie, Vernac

'Vernac' is Bombay college lingo for a student schooled in an Indian regional language, a slang abbreviation of the word ‘vernacular’, which my dictionary defines as the native language or dialect of a country (the word’s roots lie in the Latin word for a home-born slave, verna). In the administrative jargon of the Raj, all modern Indian languages were classified as vernaculars to distinguish them from the language of the rulers. Schools that imparted education in Indian languages were termed ‘vernacular medium’; an awkward, antiquated phrase that still lives on in Indian officialese, despite the fact that it’s not quite politically correct.

As slang, vernac perpetuates this colonial prejudice, expressing the contempt of the English-educated for the deprived souls on the other side of the language divide. Like its North Indian equivalent, HMT (Hindi Medium Type), vernac can be used to dismiss someone as a country bumpkin, as provincial, unfashionable, or unsophisticated. Though to my ears, vernac is harsher than HMT, and there’s a sneer in the variant 'vernie' which makes it as offensive as a racial slur. The MTV India website used to run a column on campus slang that provided this cautionary note:
Verni's are looked down upon by the so called elite. It has derogatory and condescending connotations, so don't use it on that brown-eyed regional student who has joined from some Vidyapeeth. Caution: Vernee's understand the term. Beware of the revenge of the Raju ban gaya gentleman verni. He'll buy you off. (Slanguage,
Despite its derogatory connotations, vernac is considered hip Hinglish in some circles, and is now used widely outside Bombay campuses. Stardust was probably the first magazine to use the word: back in the 90s, they labelled the starlet Mamata Kulkarni a 'vern' and frequently mocked her Maharashtrian accent.
Pity Poor Mamta Kulkarni. She has only to appear on the sets
for her co-stars to snigger behind her back… The word heard most often at these times is 'vern.' An abbreviated form of 'vernacular,' it is used to sum up Ms. Kulkarni, who never went to convent (or public) school, doesn't know Tom Cruise from a Tom Collins, and speaks English with a ghati accent… Mamta is left in no doubt about the fact that she is the odd one out in a club of insiders. (L. Khubchandani, The changing profile of the film stars, The Telegraph Magazine, April 28, 1996)
Vernac and its variants made the transition from gossip magazines to the mainstream sometime in the latter half of the 90s, when the press in general adopted a looser, more informal editorial style. The prejudices of the campus now began to surface in jarring new contexts. Vernac pops up in articles tracking the growing importance of regional markets, Hindi advertising, and the entertainment industry, all previously dismissed as downmarket by the old elitism.
That this magazine, an avowed proponent of eschewing the Vern in English-language publications should choose to feature a headline with a Hindi word.. is testimony to the movement pioneered by Prasoon Joshi, an MBA who has set the country's imagination afire with advertising incorporating street-speak. (Business Today, June 20, 2004)
You can't get more condescending than that. In contrast, the Times of India adopts a rather forced, celebratory manner, declaring 'the more vernac, the more cool'. A recent article about the boom in regional call centres was headlined 'The Vernacs Win!' (Times of India, May 17, 2005)

I'll close this note with a few citations. The first couple are from authors reproducing the casual, slangy Bombay style.
God wasn't at all what I'd expected him to be. He spoke with a vernac accent and smoked smelly beedies. (Shobha De, Sultry Days, 1994)
They had argued and talked and laughed about what to call their parts, she hated lund and chut, how vernac and crude and vulgar she said.. (Vikram Chandra, Love and Longing in Bombay, 1997)
By the 1970s mythological movies were seen as downmarket and vernac, suitable only for films made in other ethnic Indian languages. (Vernac is short for vernacular. It is a common Indian English word for a person of an ethnic Indian background without much education, English or sophistication who speaks only a local ‘vernacular’ language. The equivalent of a country bumpkin or backwoods bozo.) (Ashok Banker, Bollywood, 2001)
Speaking in Indian languages in school was frowned upon by everyone and soon, unpleasant distinctions were made between the 'vernies' and the ones who were fluent in English. Snob values were inculcated early on and you generally were made to feel privileged to belong to that school. (Interview with Mahesh Dattani,, May 31, 2005)
Every time I visit Bombay, I find that my nieces and nephews speak only in English. One of them even told me that she doesn't like to speak Marathi, which is her mother tongue, because only 'vernies' (a cruel term for kids studying in the vernacular medium) speak desi languages. (Posted by vidaro on Jul 1, 2003 to Sulekha Expressions)
Headbangus Ganpathi Bappa Moryus: The species is predominantly male and rarely includes females.They mainly converse in colloqial dialects and have an extremely limited understanding of english. At times they have been known to target women with colloqial jibes and cause minor riots. Popularly Known as 'Vernacs' or 'Vernies'." (Cowboy From Hell blog, entry dated December 05, 2004)
More citations at the Double-Tongued Word Wrester.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad to know you are back!