Dialects: Diglossia Also Extends to Separate Languages

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

What does the vast disparity between the number of languages in the world and the number of countries tell us? Is diglossia limited to just dialects of languages or is there more to it? And, are there bilingual countries with no known cases of diglossia, or is it inevitable? Let’s explore these questions and more.

A street sign in Singapore in English, Chinese Tamil, and Malay.
Singapore, with Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English, is one of the four countries in the world that recognizes three or more languages as official languages. (Image: Lester Balajadia/Shutterstock)

There are about 6,000 languages in the world, and only 200 or so countries. That shows that multilingualism in nations must be a norm, unless a whole bunch of the languages are kind of hanging off somewhere else. But that doesn’t make sense.

The appearance otherwise is due to the fact that if you go through an almanac, or on the Internet, and you look at the world’s official languages, then actually only a quarter of the world’s countries recognize two languages officially, and only four recognize three or more.

India has Hindi, English, and 14 other languages, many of which most of us have never heard of. Singapore has Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English. Spain has Spanish, Catalan, and Basque. And Luxembourg, which is basically the size of a regular bedroom, recognizes French, German, and then a German variety called Letzebuergesch.

Learn more about dialects – two tongues in one mouth.

Languages Within Countries Exist In Diglossic or Triglossic Relationships

Diglossia is Greek for two tongues. One can say that most people are bi-dialectal. So the nonstandard and the standard variety of a dialect exist in the same mouth. So diglossia—two tongues. And Triglossia, as you might have guessed, is when you’ve three levels of language, instead of two.

One may feel that there are fewer languages than being discussed. But in fact, underneath that radar screen are a great many others. It is typical that those languages are not just sitting, spread on the ground like a patchwork quilt. Rather, they tend to exist in diglossic or triglossic relationships, generally within the country, one, or maybe two, are on top, then the other ones are in a diglossic or sometimes triglossic relationship with the king one or two, or queen one or two.

For example, in Paraguay, the official language is Spanish. So if you went to the airport, in Asunción, you would hear Spanish. But then there is the language spoken by a great many of the indigenous population. That language is called Guarani. Guarani is in an L relationship with Spanish. (Dialects can be categorized into high or H and low or L varieties. The H variety is considered more formal and the other is informal, often used in conversations.)

People who speak Guarani do not expect to hear it much on the news. Spanish is mostly what you get in school, especially the higher you go. So in Paraguay, Spanish is the H and Guarani is the L.

Learn more about dialects-spoken style, written style.

Diglossia Is Inevitable in Extensively Bilingual Countries

Generally, when you have extensive bilingualism in a country, then having this diglossic relationship is almost inevitable.

A square-shaped white-colored road sign, with the silhouette of a truck in black on top with a weighing meter beside it,   and in the bottom portion of the sign it's written 'Report to Scale When Directed' on the left and it's French equivalent   on the right.
Before 1974, the H language in Quebec was English, but later a law was enacted to make French the official language of Quebec. (Image: CL-Medien/Shutterstock)

For example, in Quebec, Canada, before 1974, the H language was English and the L language was French. This was based on historical circumstances. In the ’70s, a law was enacted that made French the official language of Quebec, and French was required in the government and to be used on signs. The idea was to make French equal to English.

That was a very interesting experiment, but it has been a very delicate and charged situation. It was imposed, rather than emerging by itself. So the situation where English was on top was one that would have gone on indefinitely.

When you read about Montreal back in the day, you often get the sense that a person who only spoke English did not sense that there was any problem. Today, when you go to Montreal, you cannot help but notice that there’s another language here that it would be nice to know.

However, the fact remains that if you only know French in Montreal, you probably sense yourself at more of a disadvantage here and there than if you only know English. If you’re an English speaker and you didn’t know any French, well, okay, the waitress speaks French. That’s interesting, but the second you make a mistake in trying to speak French she speaks English and she’s quite comfortable.

In general, you’re not going to get shushed or frowned on for using your language. It is very hard to create a situation where there is no diglossia. This varies in different parts of Quebec. But the principle is there.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Diglossia Among the Elite

Illustration of a banquet, on the left there's a woman wearing a flowing purple dress, speaking to two men dressed in   tailored suits, one of them is wearing a monocle, on the right there are women wearing pink and ciolet dresses dancing   with their partners, and in the center of the frame in an old, distinguished gentleman, with full-face of white beard and   well-fitting suit, standing and observing proceedings.
In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, very often for effect or for privacy, the characters, who are Russians, break into French, which is based on something that actually happened in Czarist Russia. (Image: Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock)

While extensive bilingualism without diglossia is rare and difficult, there are situations where there is diglossia among the elite, even if most people are not bilingual.

So for example, in Anna Karenina, very often for effect or for privacy, the characters, who are Russians, will break into French—and it’s good French. That is actually something that happened in Czarist Russia, where people from elite backgrounds were given good, strong training in French, and to not know any French was to be something of a barbarian among that class. Of course, the vast majority of Russians were not running around speaking French, they were speaking Russian.

Even in America, you can see hints of such elitism. In John O’Hara’s runaway hit of 1949, A Rage to Live, which is about the elite of what is supposed to be Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, every now and then it is indicated that they speak French, not as much as the characters in Anna Karenina, but the idea is that if you went to school you picked up at least some French. You can make your way in a conversation.

Learn more about the story of human language.

Diglossia in the United States

Remember Ebonics? What most people know about it is that it is this colorful slang used by a certain class of people. Ebonics, or what used to be called Black English or African-American Vernacular English, is a variety that is spoken by people alongside standard English.

So a person who can only conduct themselves in only the slang, the grammatical structure, and the different basic words that you sometimes find, and the very different sound system of that dialect, are rare. That’s a child.

If you go to a supermarket and there’s a Black mother with a little kid, often the child only speaks Black English. But that’s because he or she has not been to school yet.

But in general, if you are an African-American, and if you control Black English then you also control standard English. For example, Black English is not usually written. It may appear in some pieces of fiction. But even then, to have even the narrative parts written in Black English is rare. It is thought of as a spoken variety. You might depict people speaking it, but you certainly do not, for example, write a news report in Black English except for comedic purposes.

Then, in terms of acquisition, you don’t learn Black English at school. You don’t need to because you learned it at home. For a person who grows up with Black English, it’s standard English that they get to practice their chops on in school. That’s what’s being presented there. Standardization is standard English.

There is no official rule book for Black English. One could be written, but nobody has particularly bothered because generally it is thought only among a certain small class of linguists and societal activists that Black English is real at all. A great many people, as many of them Black as White, tend to labor under the misimpression that it’s all just bad grammar.

So what Ebonics was about was diglossia in the United States. Because diglossia is not generally known as a term among people other than linguists and anthropologists, it renders all that more confusing than it could be. But now you know more than you did.

Common Questions about Diglossia in Separate Languages

Q: Which country has the most official languages?

India has Hindi, English, and 14 other languages as official languages, which is the most in the world.

Q: Why did the characters speak French in Anna Karenina?

In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, very often for effect or for privacy, the characters, who are Russians, break into polished French. This is something that was actually common in Czarist Russia, where the elites were given good, strong training in French, and to not know any French was to be something of a barbarian among that class.

Q: Is it rude to speak English in Montreal?

If you only know French in Montreal, you probably sense yourself at more of a disadvantage here and there than if you only know English. And in general, you’re not going to get shushed or frowned on for using English.

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