Monday, May 11, 2020

Diglossia: What It Is and How It Happens to Communities

by Michael Bailey

Michael Bailey is a junior in Political Science at The University of Illinois. Michael’s future plans include graduating, in the Fall of 2020. Michael wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in spring 2019.

The concept of diglossia has existed since the beginning of language itself. There have been multiple instances of diglossia throughout the world. It can happen anywhere. The term was first coined in 1959 by sociolinguist Charles Ferguson. Even though his paper was written in 1959, a majority of his findings concerning diglossia still ring true. This blog will focus on further defining diglossia, and how it develops in various language communities.

In order to first define diglossia, we must first define bilingualism, as the two terms refer to different concepts entirely. Bilingualism is an individual experience and is concerned with fluently speaking two languages. Diglossia is a community experience, and it forms when two language varieties (dialects) coexist in society together. These language varieties have two different forms: high (represented by H) and low (represented by L). These distinctions must be made since: “there is a very divergent, highly codified, superposed variety … is learned by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but not … ordinary conversations” (Ferguson 336). Essentially speakers must know how and when the use of each dialect is appropriate.

High dialects are typically used in formal education, news broadcast, political speech, sermons and more. Low dialects are typically used, in conversations between family and friends, political cartoons, and folk literature (Ferguson 329). This idea of high and low is pervasive in society, meaning that someone might read or watch content in high but talk about it in low. This is especially evident on the island of Cyprus. In the formal education system, Cyprians might watch a video in Standard Greek but discuss the contents of the video in Greek Cypriot. What is equally interesting about diglossia is that some dialects are not mutually intelligible. A great example of this concerns Arabic. In his paper, Ferguson states that Christian Arabs will speak a different type of dialect amongst themselves. 

However, when part of a mixed group, the Christian Arabs will switch their dialect to Muslim Arabic in order to be understood (Ferguson 325). This example helps illustrate a lack of mutual intelligibility that results from diglossia. Furthermore, diglossia is not just confined to dialects. Since diglossia concerns community interaction, other languages might take the role of high and low in a society. Consider the Maltese as an example. According to a 2018 article published by Nationalia, 79% of the Malta population speak Maltese at home and 18% of the population speaks Standard English at home. Maltese also dominates the workspace in terms of language usage. Half speak Maltese while English tops off at 38%. Interestingly enough, a majority of the population uses English for reading newspapers, books and posting on social media (Nationalia).

Now that we have defined diglossia, it is important to illustrate how it develops in the first place. According to Ferguson, diglossia develops in nine categories: function, prestige, literary heritage, acquisition, standardization, stability, grammar, lexicon, and phonology. Diglossia is set apart by how it functions concerning usage. In certain situations, only the high version might be acceptable. There is such an emphasis placed on function, that if someone uses high or low inappropriately, they are “subject to ridicule” (Ferguson 329). This nature helps enforce the norms created by diglossia. Prestige concerns the idea that the high dialect (usually) contains more societal value than the low dialect. Ferguson makes a claim that this idea of prestige can be seen in Haiti in regard to French and Creole. However, in “Diglossia Revisited” Dejean argues that French cannot be considered the prestige language. This is because a majority of the country’s Creole-speaking population is monolingual. The French speakers (the affluent) tend to keep to themselves even though most are bilingual (Dejean 193). Moving onto literary heritage, most literary works are written in high. Interestingly, this is seen in Malta with the Maltese preferring to read in English over their spoken language. Since English has become a global language, it is safe to infer that English is becoming the high language in Malta, while Maltese is transitioning into being a lower language. Next is Acquisition, which concerns formal education. Ferguson states that adults will speak in the low dialect to their children because it is informal. Children might hear what high sounds like, but they will most likely learn high dialect upon entering school (Ferguson 331). It could be argued that similar instances of this occur in America. English might not be a child’s first language especially if the parents are immigrants. However, through schooling, a child begins to learn English, thereby becoming bilingual.

Standardization concerns standardizing the high through the use of corpus planning (orthography, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary). Another characteristic of diglossia is certain rules concerning grammar. High dialects and low dialects have differences in sentence structure and certain elements are exclusive to high dialect. These differences are radical and exist amongst every diglossic community. Essentially the grammar of low dialects is simple compared to high dialects. Lexicon is also an important distinction between low and high dialects. According to Ferguson, a majority of the language between the two dialects is shared; however, low dialects lack some vocabulary present in high dialects (Ferguson 332-3). Overall the difference in grammar and in lexicon plays a major role in mutual intelligibility between the two dialects. This is seen in Swiss German. In Swiss German (specifically around the Bavaria area) a popular way to say hello is grüß gott. This differs from the traditional guten tag which is a staple throughout German. If a new German speaker went to Bavaria, they might have trouble understanding Swiss German, since the difference in grammar and lexicon will severely impact the mutual intelligibility of the two languages. Stabilization of language norms is evident in nations with diglossia. Language stabilization lasts for an extremely long time. In order to quell rebellions, high dialects might borrow vocab from low dialects to appease those who speak them. This idea of stabilization was intended to be implemented in Cyprus. The government created a language called Cypriot which was intended for Turkish speakers and Greek speakers to understand each other. This language lasted for a while before it simply split into Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot. Finally, phonology between high and low dialects vary drastically as well. The low dialect often has a more basic system while the high dialect has a more complex subsystem of sounds (Ferguson 335).

It is important to note that like language, diglossia is a community experience. Diglossia is defined by numerous factors most notably concerning high and low dialects. Diglossia develops in communities through the changing use of function, prestige, literary heritage, acquisition, standardization, stability, grammar, lexicon, and phonology.

Work Cited

Dejean, Yves. “Diglossia Revisited: French and Creole in Haiti.” Word, vol. 34, no. 3, 1983, pp. 189–213., doi:10.1080/00437956.1983.11435744.

Ferguson, Charles. “Diglossia.” Word, 1959, doi:10.1080/00437956.1959.11659702.

Vincentz, Frank. “New Survey Reveals Diglossia in Maltese Society.” Nationalia, 15 May 2018,



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