Among the major hallmarks of The Catcher in the Rye is J. D. Salinger’s use of mid-twentieth-century slang and colloquial speech. Indeed, the language of the novel is one of the reasons critics considered the novel groundbreaking and controversial upon its initial publication. Salinger’s use of informal language also contributed to the novel’s popularity among a wide readership, who could recognize their own voices and speech patterns in Holden’s narrative. Not only does Holden’s language make it easier for readers to identify with him; his speech is also centrally important to the meaning of the novel as a whole. Holden’s colloquial speech signals the kind of youthful authenticity he strives to project (and protect) throughout the novel. It’s also worth noting that the motif of the catcher in the rye comes from a tradition of vernacular language. Salinger takes this motif from the Robert Burns song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” which is written in the Scottish dialect. The use of Burns as a reference signals that Salinger very deliberately situates his novel—and indeed his protagonist—within a longer tradition of vernacular literature.
The term vernacular refers to the language or dialect that the people of a particular country or region use for everyday communication. The notion of a vernacular literature may seem strange to many of us in the modern world, where the language of literary texts more or less resembles the language we speak. But until the Middle Ages in Europe, books like the Bible were typically written in Latin, the language of the Church. Only highly educated and wealthy people, along with priests, could understand them. Perhaps the most significant event in the history of vernacular literature occurred in 1522, when Martin Luther published his German translation of the New Testament. The publication of the Bible in a vernacular language meant that everyday Germans, despite not being trained in Latin, could read the holy book without the help of a priest or other theological expert. Luther’s translation deeply influenced both the religious and the secular world. Not only did it spark the Protestant Revolution, but it also helped normalize vernacular writing more generally.
Two books that were central to the development of vernacular literature in the United States, and were likely an influence on Salinger while writing The Catcher in the Rye, include Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). In Stowe’s novel, for instance, the various characters speak different dialects. Stowe uses these dialects both to differentiate between characters and to draw links between others, sometimes across lines of race and class. Salinger’s use of class-based dialects in The Catcher in the Rye serves a similar purpose; for Holden, the speech of more educated characters strikes him as phony, whereas he finds the dialects of lower-class characters more down to earth and sincere. Perhaps even more relevant to Salinger’s novel is Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which is also narrated from the first-person perspective of a young man. Like The Catcher in the Rye, Twain’s novel includes a lot of slang, many colloquialisms, and other informalities. Twain uses such informalities to create a realistic portrayal of the speech of his time, which is precisely what Salinger does in his novel.