Any language has a formal variety, primarily (although not exclusively) used in writing, and one or more informal varieties, used in everyday speech. Yet, for some languages, like Norwegian and Arabic, these two varieties lie so far apart that they are considered two distinct dialects. According to Wikipedia, this situation is called diglossia. This is not the case (as far as I know) in most English speaking countries, for example.

So, where do linguists draw the line? What are the features that must be taken into account to consider a certain society diglossic?

3 Answers 3


As far as I know, there is no real objective criteria for diglossia. Like the terms pidgin and creole, it is understandable as a concept, but there are noticeable gray areas that will challenge any definition.

Generally, the criteria I've seen for diglossia involve a stable linguistic community with (at least) two languages or dialects* in which 1) one of the two varieties is of a higher or more prestigious register than than the other; 2) each variety has defined and separate spheres of use, for example the H(igh) variety might be used in formal contexts like education, business, writing, or formal spoken contexts like speeches, while the L(ow) variety might be used in informal contexts, between friends, in everyday spoken conversation; and 3) the H variety is often not the native tongue but acquired later through formal instruction, e.g. in school, and it is strictly codified. The H and L varieties do not have to be related, though they often are.

It is true for most if not all languages that there are artificial conventions in the formal register of the language, often archaisms or rules arbitrarily superposed by grammarians. So, when does a situation become diglossic? Generally, the term is reserved for cases in which there is a significant degree of unintelligibility between the two varieties, such that speakers need formal instruction and training to understand and communicate in the H variety. Just like English speakers, many speakers in diglossic communities will maintain that the high and low varieties are the same language. However, in the case of a diglossic community, there are so many differences in the syntax/phonology/lexicon that there is reason to consider the varieties separate -- though it is worth pointing out that that is subjective. Again, too, an important criterion is that each variety in diglossia has a strictly defined domain of use. Contrast this with English, in which "correct" English according to prescriptivists is notably rare in even much of the literary language anymore.

There are gray areas of course. Even though for most American English speakers the written/oral and formal/informal languages are highly similar, it is arguable that, for example, for a native speaker of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), learning "standard" English (SE), especially learning to write, is something of a diglossic situation, because of the many differences between AAVE and SE despite their general mutual intelligibility, and also because AAVE is particularly frowned upon by nonspeakers compared to other somewhat nonstandard dialects, resulting in a restricted domain and difference in prestige.

*Of course, where to draw the boundary between dialects versus languages becomes muddled, but that's another question.

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    Just to add: one of the classic examples of diglossia is Paraguay, with Spanish and Guarani. Some useful discussion of diglossia (definitions, disputes) here. Commented Jan 13, 2012 at 3:44
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    Good answer, especially including AAVE in English-speaking countries as potential example of diglossia. Similarly, in other countries in which English is an official language, but a large part of the population speak an English-based creole as their first language (e.g. parts of the Caribbean and Africa), the situation can also be described as diglossic. English in these situations tends to be used in more formal, administrative contexts, and is acquired through formal schooling rather than as a mother tongue, even though there may be surface similarities between the creole and English. Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 21:03

Sociolinguistically, many talk of diglossia when the spoken language of middle and upper classes is very different from the language used in formal writing: Tamil, Arabic, Kannada, Sinhalese are the most given examples, as for Western languages: Czech, Swiss German, Belgian Dutch, Greek in Cyprus and Portuguese in Brazil have been mentioned in this context.

When languages were standardized back in the 19th century, Czechs chose a very conservative form as their standard language (based on the 17th century literary usage). The same thing happened in Brazil, the elites preferred Continental Portuguese with some orthographic differences to the way most Brazilians spoke. With diglossia, you get a high level of linguistic insecurity and ''Schizoglossia'' (see the scandal from last year,with a Brazilian textbook Por uma Vida Melhor which revived the old tensions of two languages of Brazil: ''spoken Brazilian and written Portuguese'' (described as such by Mário de Andrade in his novel ''Macunaíma'' 100 years ago).

The tension in Norway is not between Bokmål and Nynorsk, but between a conservative Bokmål (Danonorwegian), and a modern Bokmål (called ''radical''). The differences divide even the city of Oslo in two parts: West Oslo (which is the center of Dano-Norwegian) and East Oslo (where dialect close to ''radical'' Bokmål are spoken). Even though it's perfectly acceptable to use a feminine gender in Bokmål, some people think treating female nouns as masculine nouns gives a text a more sophisticated feel, so Danish-made usage is prestigious, the same thing happens in Brazil, while most Brazilians would say: Me chamo, Se diz, Te ver, Chegar em... most of them think that usage imported from Portugal looks more sophisticated in writing: Chamo-me, diz-se, ver-te, chegar a...

Argentinian Spanish is quite opposite to Brazilian Portuguese. The difference between the spoken and the written language is minimal. Argentinians achieved this by upgrading their colloquial usage to the status of the national standard. No Argentinians say ''We speak Spanish so incorrectly''. They accepted voseo, different verbal usage, vocabulary as parts of their identity. In Brazil, you still see Portuguese professors making big bucks selling books like ''Como evitar erros'' (how to avoid mistakes) or ''Fale melhor sua língua'' (speak your language better).

To cut a long story short:

if the language used in movies, sitcoms, soap operas is very different from the language used in narration of novels, magazines, newspapers, then there is something fishy and there may be a diglossish situation. In Mexican soap operas the language used is standard Mexican Spanish [no grammar errors], in Argentinian soap operas the language used is standard Argentinian Spanish [no grammar errors], but in Brazilian soap operas, the language used is NOT standard Brazilian Portuguese, but a substandard Brazilian Portuguese: you can't write things like: ME CHAMO, VI ELE, CHEGAR NO RIO, FUI NA PRAIA, ENTRE EU E VOCÊ, VOCÊ SABE QUE TE AMO in a magazine. Brazilian elites benefit from the gap between the written and the spoken language, because it's one of the way they can control the society. Were colloquial forms fully accepted as a part of the new standard language (as it's been happening in Argentina), Portuguese language would no longer be one of the most difficult subjects in university entrance process, and virtually everyone could get enrolled (for the time being, the elites want only students from private high schools to enter Universities, that's why they benefit from the diglossia and like the status quo).

I haven't really seen ''A grammar of spoken Spanish'' or ''A grammar of spoken Slovak'' but I've seen ''A grammar of spoken Brazilian Portuguese'' and ''A grammar of spoken Tamil''...You don't normally get books like these unless there is a huge gap between the written and spoken grammar.

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    Good point about the spoken language grammars.
    – user325
    Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 23:05

I would say the distinction becomes artificial when a person in that diglossic society can no longer tell which language or dialect he is speaking in if the context is removed. As the two languages assimilate each other their differences fade with time.

Because the division of tongues into languages and dialects is very political, one should also beware of falsely created divisions between languages that create an empty diglossia.

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    I'm not sure if I understand what "removing the context" means, in this case. Would you mind elaborating on that? Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 21:48
  • By "removing the context" I mean languages such as Serbian and Croation. They are mutually intelligible and were considered one language until political concerns motivated a split. To me, that would be an artificial diglossia.
    – mac389
    Commented Jan 13, 2012 at 22:01

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