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Sociolinguistics: Diglossia Essay

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Sociolinguistics may be defined as the study of language in relation to society (Hudson, 1996). Most of the growth in sociolinguistics has taken place since the late 1960s. What is new is the widespread interest in sociolinguistics and the realization that it can throw much light both on the nature of language and on the nature of society. It is important to recognize that much of the interest in sociolinguistics has come from people (such as educationalists) who have a practical concern for language, rather than a desire simply to understand better how this small area of the universe works (Hudson, 1996).


When sociolinguistics became popularized as a field of study in the late 1960s, there were two labels – sociolinguistics and sociology of language – for the same phenomenon, the study of the intersection and interaction of language and society, and these two terms were used interchangeably. Eventually a difference came to be made,, and as an oversimplification one might say that while sociolinguistics is mainly concerned with an increased and wider description of language, sociology of language is concerned with an explanation and prediction of language phenomena in a society at the group level. Sociolinguistics and language Sociolinguistics thinks of language as a social object that gets its meaning and power through speakers’ participation in language using groups. But what do we really mean by “social” in this context? More specifically,, what exactly are the social groups that matter in determining what people are doing with language at any particular time? For sociolinguistics who studies language, this question is often ready answered in some kind of official sense. There are specific social and political entities that are responsible for different domains of language. In Canada for example, most decisions about language – official language, language in education – are made at the provincial level, and there might be specific agencies responsible for some aspect of language.

Nations and languages The sociolinguistics of society is about the social importance of language to groups of people, from small socio-cultural groups of a few hundred people to entire nations. If everyone in the group spoke exactly the same as everyone else in the group, there would be no such thing as the socio-linguistics of society. Not only do people use language to share their thoughts and feelings, with other people, they exploit the subtle and not so subtle aspects of language to reveal and define their social relationships with the people they are talking to, with people who can overhear them, and even with people who are nowhere around.


In many countries today, classrooms reflect a rich diversity of linguistic background. Students bring to the classroom not only other languages but also different varieties of English and culturally learned ways of using English. It is against the backdrop that teachers in general and language teachers specifically, face the challenging task of respecting linguistic diversity while promoting common standards. Central to fulfilling this task is an understanding of the relationship between language and society, for it is the social context that both provides the conditions for linguistic diversity and reinforces the conventions necessary to maintain linguistic standards.


Diglossia is a sociolinguistic situation in which two very different varieties of language are both used in a society, but in different situations (Rogers, 2005). Typically, one is used in more formal or literary situations such as formal writing, university lectures, and news broadcasts, and is learned and encouraged in schools. The other is used in conversation, in formal television situations, folk literature and many others and is preferred at home.

The term ‘diglossia’ is usually reserved for quite distinct versions of the same language. However, other related variations occur. In English, there is not a sharp division between written and spoken English. For instance, I forgot to put my watch this morning seems to be appropriate in any style of discourse, written or spoken. However, words such as lest, pursuant, or vouchsafe are much more likely to be found in written English, or in English read aloud from a written text. Forms such as isn’t, aren’t, would’ve are normal, almost required, in spoken English. In written English, they are regularly written as two words.

In many situations, diglossia involves different languages, for instance, the Scots Gaelic situation where native speakers of Scots Gaelic are likely to write in English rather than in Gaelic. In medieval Western Europe, it was normal to write in Latin, no matter what language the writer normally spoke. In many areas of the world today, the colonial history is such that writing is normally done in French, Spanish, or English, rather than in native language. We can refer to such situations as bilingual diglossia. Note that diglossia, bilingual or not does not necessarily involve writing, although it commonly does (Rogers, 2005).

How do people in diglossic contexts decide which language to use in a particular context (Herk, 2012)? The answer seems to relate to Hymes’ SPEAKING metric; in particular, speakers consider where they are, who they are talking to, and what kind of speech activities is involved. Bilinguals in Paraguay use Guarani in rural areas, and in non-serious discourse among intimates, but they use Spanish in urban areas for formal conversations and for informal conversations with non – intimates (Herk, 2012).

Problems of teaching languages with diglossia

It is assumed that, other things being equal, the learning of a modern foreign language is more effectively accomplished if; The learner concentrates first on understanding and speaking and later on reading and writing. The learner has a model a native or near – native speaker of the language he is studying. The basic phonology and grammatical patterns of the language are learned to a great extent through extensive, carefully planned drills intended to develop automatic responses similar to those of the native speaker. The instruction is planned and supervised by someone with sound orientation in linguistics and is carried out with the use of materials prepared on the basis of sound linguistic analysis. The learning is on an intensive basis, that is, involves at least ten contact hours a week with a model to be imitated.


Some of the problems which are serious and deserve careful examination include the following. Learning two languages in one: essentially, the problem of teaching a language with two major forms cannot be solved by teaching only one off the forms.

Dialect problems: strictly speaking, the question of which dialect or dialects should be chosen for instruction in L is not a problem directly connected with diglossia. If there is a single standard variety of L (as in Haitian Creole and Greek), this is obviously the one reason to be chosen, but if there is no standard L the situation is parallel to a language without digglosia which has no standard form. In this case the one who is planning the course must decide on the variety of spoken language to be taught.

Future directions

There is still ample room for refining and strengthening both the original Fergusonian notion of diglossia and the extended version (Frawley, 2003). As Ferguson 1991 points out, one task that lies ahead is that of fine tuning the classic definition of diglossia, because “the original conceptualization had a number of weaknesses.” Ferguson had identified seven points relating to both the social and the linguistic dimensions of diglossia that he would have dealt with differently if he had been writing in the 1990s rather than the late 1950s.

The overall strengthening of research in this field will require a move away from a strict taxonomic approach to the description and analysis of sociolinguistic approach to the description and analysis of sociolinguistic situations, which seeks only to identify what counts as an instance of diglossia on the basis of predetermined checklist criteria (Frawley, 2003).

References Frawley, W. (2003). International encyclopedia of linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Herk, G. V. (2012). What Is Sociolinguistics. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Hudson, R. (1996). Sociolinguistics. New York: Cambridge University Press. Rogers, H. (2005). Writing systems:a linguistic approach. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

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