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In the European tradition, this effectively means literature not written in Latin. In this context, vernacular literature appeared during the Middle Ages at different periods in the various countries; the earliest European vernacular literatures are Irish literature, Welsh literature, Anglo-Saxon literature and Gothic literature.
The Italian poet Dante Alighieri, in his De vulgari eloquentia, was possibly the first European writer to argue cogently for the promotion of literature in the vernacular. Important early vernacular works include Dante's Divine Comedy, Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (both in Italian), John Barbour's The Brus (in Scots), Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (in Middle English) and Jacob van Maerlant's Spieghel Historiael (in Middle Dutch). Indeed, Dante's work actually contributed towards the creation of the Italian language. Leonardo Da Vinci used vernacular in his work.
The term is also applied to works not written in the standard and/or prestige language of their time and place. For example, many authors in Scotland, such as James Kelman and Edwin Morgan have used Scots, even though English is now the prestige language of publishing in Scotland. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o writes in his native Gikuyu language though he previously wrote in English. Some authors have written in invented vernacular; examples of such novels include the futuristic literary novels A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and Boxy an Star by Daren King.
By extension, the term is also used to describe, for example, Chinese literature not written in classical Chinese and Indian literature after Sanskrit. In the Indian culture, traditionally religious or scholarly works were written in Prakrit, Tamil and Sanskrit. With the rise of the Bhakti movement from the 8th century on-wards, religious works began to be created in Kannada, and Telugu, and from the 12th Century onward in many other Indian languages throughout the different regions of India. For example, the Ramayana, one of Hinduism's sacred epics in Sanskrit, had vernacular versions such as Ramacharitamanasa, a Hindi version of the Ramayana by the 16th century poet Tulsidas. In China, the New Culture Movement of the 1910s–20s promoted vernacular literature.
In the Philippines, the term means any written literature in a language other than Filipino (or Tagalog) or English. At present, it forms the second largest corpus of literature, following the literature in Tagalog. During the Spanish colonial era, when Filipino was not yet existing as a national lingua franca, literature in this type flourished. Aside from religious literature, such as the Passiong Mahal (the Passion of Our Lord), zarzuelas were also produced using the Philippine vernacular languages.
In terms of Arabic, vernacular literature refers to literature written in any of the dialects of Arabic as opposed to Classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic. Examples of literary figures who have written in the Egyptian dialect are Ahmed Fouad Negm, Muhammad Husayn Haykal and Salah Jahin, as well as a wave of modern writers.