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Diglossia’s Definition in the Context of Language Research Paper

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Updated: May 7th, 2019

In many societies especially where there is social biasness there exists two distinct set of languages or dialects that used by the people depending on their social standing in the society. The vernacular dialect or language which is the mother tongue of such societies is usually widespread and is considered to have low prestige and is classified by the scholars as the L variant, endoglossia or basilect. This variant is considered to be of esteem even though it is the common language spoken in such societies.

It is usually associated with people of low social standings in the society such as servants, women and children. In diglossic societies, such groups are considered lesser mortals. On the other hand, the other dialect or language, the H variant, exoglossia or acrolect, is held in high esteem due to its high prestige in the society. This variant is used by high and the mighty in the society; it is preserve for the rich and powerful people. However, its usage may accidentally trickle down to those considered to be of low class.

Charles Ferguson while writing in the 15th volume of Word journal aptly captured this state of bilingualism of some sort when he defined diglossia as a stable language situation where a more complex and formal variety dialect or language superposes itself on the vernacular dialect or language that exists in the society. He notes that the new variant is highly codified and greatly deviates from the primary dialect or language hence understanding it requires formal learning process (Ferguson 325 – 326).

In such diglossic societies, the two variants of the same language different are so different that it is sometimes almost impossible for one social class to understand the other. This is because the differences run deeper than just the social ladder. The way these two social groups pronounce the same words are different too. Moreover, the way these two groups structure their sentences are different even though they aim at expressing the same thing in most cases.

In addition, they also modify their words in such a way that the two dialects or language become very different from each other yet so closely related. In some cases, the divergence that exists between the two dialects may be so extreme that any traces of common origin may be hard to find and the reverse is also true. Considering such differences, many scholars and linguists have in many cases classified these two dialects or languages which share a common origin as two distinct dialects or languages.

Diglossia is a common occurrence in many regions, countries and states in the world. For example, in Switzerland the two languages (Standard German and Swiss German) have a complementary distribution (Rash 121 – 125).

Charles Ferguson also notes that in Indian societies, diglossia exists where the two distinct social groups use the Standard Arabic and vernacular Arabic in which case Standard Arabic is considered to be the H variant and the vernacular Arabic the L variant. This is also the case in Haiti where Standard French is considered to be of high prestige than Creole, Greece where Katharevousa is for the chosen few while Dhimotiki is the vernacular and of low esteem and Alsace region of France.

The society in this populous region is diglossic as they use both the Alsatian language and French. French is considered as the high prestige language (L variant) and the vernacular the low prestige dialect. However, the Alsace region is a case study of how diglossia can go beyond just one language undergoing divergent linguistic evolution to become two dialects which are closely related. It shows that diglossia in the society can also exist between distinct and unrelated languages (Fishman 29 – 38).

However, some scholars believe that there exists an intermediate language or dialect in a diglossic society which is not preserved to any social group. Such is the scenario being witnessed in Jamaica where Jamaican Creole is considered to be of low esteem and Standard English is considered to be of high prestige. However, there exists a mesolect depending on the speaker’s social, political and economic status in the society.

Just like they have differences in terms of pronunciation, word modification and sentence structure, these two dialects also have different functions. It is important to note that in totally diglossic societies, misusing either of the two dialects would not only be considered offensive and hence punishable by law, it can lead to rejection and scorn in the society.

Ferguson in his writings notes that using the L variant in the section of the society belonging to the H domain would not only be considered disgraceful, it will also be preposterous and anomalous. Thus, these dialects have specific functions they perform in any given diglossic society.

The low esteem variant (L) is used in informal gatherings and situations. It is used in market places to transact informal businesses which are a common feature of the low social class. It is also used in informal conversations, in the streets, and cinema. For amusement purposes, this variant has for many decades served as the juice in many jokes in plays, television shows, films and even conversations between friends and families (Ferguson 336 – 337).

On the other, the high prestige variant (the H dialect) is used in formal domains such formal business transactions, and in preaching. Moreover, proper education which is in line with international standards can only be achieved when the high prestige dialect is used.

Leaders always try to reach the masses locally and globally while making public speeches. However, the meaning and purpose of such important speeches will be lost without using the proper dialect; the high prestige dialect or language. Clearly, these dialects serve one purpose: showing a distinction and defining a social order in the society.

They aim at defining the social order in a given society which is usually heterogeneous. Such societies can be divided socially along the lines of power, money, education level and such demographic parameters such as age and sex. Based on these factors, the diglossic society will have various social groups associated with a given dialect.

The distinction between these two closely related dialects does not just stop at usage; they also differ in terms of acquisition. The low esteem dialect of language is usually associated with the conservative social group in the society. In most cases, such groups do not allow for any literature of their dialect to be made. Thus, it being a mother tongue, it is not taught but rather learned through instinct. The dialect is passed from generation to generation and to others through listening.

On the contrary, the H dialect is usually associated with a liberal domain in the society which allows for literature of their language or dialect to be made. Thus, the high prestige dialect is acquired through a learning process and is mostly taught in learning institutions. Unlike the L dialect, it has numerous literature materials such as dictionaries and conical texts written purposely for its acquisition. This availability of such literary materials is mainly due to the complexity of the H dialect or language.

The sentence structure, tenses and the general grammar associated with the H language is usually more complex than in the case of L variant. It is such differences in functions and complexity that has driven many scholars to conclude that the only language or dialect is the high prestige variant and not the simple and not vernacular dialect (Ferguson 338). This view is biased though because such scholars usually belong to the H domain in the society.

These two dialects have a value attached to them. However, the prestige of these two languages is usually measured by the scholars who belong to the H domain in the society who use the characteristics of the H dialect as the yardstick for measuring the quality of the L variant.

The prestige language, like it name suggests, is considered to be of high value hence is considered as the standard language. This gives credence to the fact that the H dialect is used in all formal gatherings and situations including teaching, preaching and public speaking. It is associated with splendor and is used as the measure of true scholarliness.

On the contrary, the L language is associated with primitivism and just like its name suggest, it is of low value in the society that is why it is associated with the less mortals. Anyone using that dialect is usually considered to be rude and in most case, indecorous (Ferguson 339 – 340). All in all, these dialects serve an important role in determining how interacts in the society and as such should be preserved and respected for what they are and the purpose they serve.

Works Cited

Ferguson, Charles. “Diglossia”. Word, 15.2(1959): 325–340. Print.

Fishman, Joshua. “Bilingualism with and without Diglossia: Diglossia with and without Bilingualism”. Journal of Social Issues 32.2(1967): 29–38. Print.

Rash, Felicity. The German Language in Switzerland: Multilingualism, Diglossia and Variation. Berne: Peter Lang, 1998. Print.

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