genius of the vernacular

There’s has been a lot of chatter recently about Obama’s use of the vernacular, reaching another high point with today’s NPR story.

Over and Jack and Jill Politics, some have referenced Dr. King’s use of vernacular, called “genius” by Michael Eric Dyson, in discussing Obama’s way with words.

The tradition of using the vernacular to convey the essential goes way back, and was  (in)famously employed by Mark Twain to write what some call the first great American novel.

There is an interesting academic side to this communication thread, most notably the work of James C. Scott at Yale, who argues that if you listen closely in places like the parking lot at church, at your cousin’s backyard BBQ, or in the drop-off line at the community day care, you will hear a whole different conversation going on, one much different than what you hear in the mainstream media.  Scott dubbs it the “hidden transcript.”  And most of those conversations are held in the vernacular.

What’s particularly notable for communication geeks about the hidden transcript is that hidden conversation reveals that most folks are well aware of the nature of the problems and contradictions facing common peoples.  What they don’t see are the solutions.

In that context, talking about the problem almost amounts to talking down to people, and misses the point.  Folks get that there’s a problem.  What they don’t get is what the solutions might be.

The silver lining is that if you can speak to those solutions can rally the support of folks otherwise alienated by the “public” debate.  Obama, of course, is that blazing nova of the moment, exemplifying that approach.  And when he employs the vernacular, part of what he is doing is letting folks know that he, too, gets its. He’s been part of the hidden transcript, and he doesn’t need to talk about the problems, he’s ready to talk about solutions.


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