Diglossia is a situation in which one form of a language (the H variety) is used for formal purposes (writing, speeches, &c.) and another (L) is used for conversation (and is rarely if ever written down); a typical example is Arabic in those countries where a dialect of it is the vernacular. The classic article is by Charles Ferguson (1959), but much work has been done since, and Nancy Gandhi has turned up a useful summary by Harold F. Schiffman. A couple of points:

Difference between Diglossia and Standard-with-dialects. In diglossia, no-one speaks the H-variety as a mother tongue, only the L-variety. In the Standard-with-dialects situation, some speakers speak H as a mother tongue, while others speak L-varieties as a mother tongue and acquire H as a second system.

What engenders diglossia and under what conditions.

(a) Existence of an ancient or prestigious literature, composed in the H-variety, which the linguistic culture wishes to preserve as such.
(b) Literacy is usually a condition, but is usually restricted to a small elite. When conditions require universal literacy in H, pedagogical problems ensue.
(c) Diglossias do not spring up overnight; they take time to develop
These three factors, perhaps linked with religion, make diglossia extremely stable in Arabic and other linguistic cultures such as South Asia.

I might add that Nancy owns a book on the subject that I will have to scour the library for; it sounds very interesting. And that means I’ll wind up delving into Tamil, for which at least I have a Tamil-Russian dictionary.


  1. Sounds like Swiss German.

  2. Yeah, I think pretty much all the German dialects are examples of this (does anyone actually speak Hochdeutsch at home?).

  3. From what I observed in the Cologne area, couples who speak different dialects tend to use the local Umgangsprache rather than the dialect (i.e., Hochdeutsch spoken more or less with a regional accent). Speakers of dialect are not very tolerant of “outsiders” speaking their language. The at-home language moves more towards H with the level of education. I’ll never forget being berated by one irate Rhinelander for “encouraging” less-well-educated speakers of dialect.

  4. very widespread, wherever there are class
    distinctions they are marked linguistically
    i might always say–but thinking about the
    history of English, would it be correct to
    posit a model in which, with the rise of the
    middle classes & dictionaries (c. 1750-1850)
    there is a three-tier system, in which “proper”
    English is felt as “middle-class” while the
    uppers are privileged to be able to dispense
    with the niceties? (i am thinking of the evi-
    dence in Regency novelists like Bulwer Lytton & Disraeli, but i can’t quote you a source…)

  5. I digress :”Dialects of GBS” The “Dreadful” American Movies and “aweful” Hollywood television shows have spoilt it all. Everybody is getting the same dose of mediocratic earfilling sounds, the local patois does not stand a chance.Except when the outsiders must not know what is being said behind one’s back: The BEBeCee started the levelling out and removing the plums and some of the affected tones of superiority and inferiority: ’tis nicer more people communicate: As more people get a broader and less ‘snobish’ education the comprehension will improve although I do disapprove of the dropping of Latin and Greek languages from the general education.
    I myself failed to apprecate the richness of other lingo’s. not having an ear for the doe,ray,me’s( the richness of diverse sounds ) .
    My feeling is that when words are not understood, then misunderstanding takes place, out come the the dueling pistols of gang fights. Some backpedling is taking place where the brainwashing is ineffective.
    Dreadful/aweful: Meaning -modern or 15th century take your pick.

  6. Yes, a lot of people speak Hochdeutsch at home. Many people here, btw (Nuremberg area), and elsewhere too, came from other parts of Germany. Don’t know what the figures are, but dialect speakers are a minority here.

  7. When I was in Bayern, people I spoke with referred to Hochdeutsch as “Preußisch” — I thought at the time that meant it was the dialect of Prussia but now I tend to think they were saying it’s the the language mandated by Prussia — subtle difference.

  8. One other thing, Bairische are (in my experience) happy to have outsiders try to speak their dialect — I came to Bayern speaking a bit of Hochdeutsch and came away speaking a mix of the two. People I spoke with were always happy to tell me how to say it in Bairisch.

  9. My family speaks “Hochdeutsch” as first language since my parents’ generation, because my grandparents (I know this for sure of my maternal side) decided not to pass on the dialect (in this case Plattdeutsch) to their children, even going so far as to forbid their grandparents to speak Plattdeutsch with them (which was a problem because they didn’t know proper standard German very well). And back then (in the 1950s) schools actively discouraged using Plattdeutsch as well. Because many families did this, the majority of people here, i.e. in Hamburg, speaks now Hochdeutsch at home afaik. I mean, there are a couple of words stilll being used here that were Plattdeutsch, and I’ve been told that other people can tell you’re from Hamburg by your accent, but it’s not like a dialect, for example nobody switches to standard and back, and a few words aside, there are really no differences between Hochdeutsch and what’s spoken here that I’m aware of. The locals who still know Plattdeutsch are a tiny minority and nobody uses it in everyday conversation. The efforts trying to keep it alive (at least here, maybe in some other areas Plattdeutsch is still better off) are now more like preserving regional identity and keep it from dying completely, but at least in this area the legal protections, like giving it the status of an European minority language, came too late.

  10. Um, like who would, you know, write down the dialect of English that is spoken by, like, young people(?) these days? I’m like chuh. Don’t be all whatever.

  11. Diglossia also refers to the use of two languages in different contexts (often H and L) within the same community.

Speak Your Mind