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What Is Diglossia?

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  • Written By: Esther Ejim
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 22 March 2014
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Diglossia refers to a situation in which two different languages are spoken by the members of one community. It also applies to a situation in which members of a community speak a different dialect or derivative of the same language. The application of diglossia to such communities is the fact that one language is official or recognized, while the other is not. Even though the other language is not official, it is still widely spoken by some members of the community, in addition to the official language.

The official language is called the “high” language, while the other is the “low” language. The low language is the common language spoken by the members of the community in a wide variety of settings. Communities use the high language in official capacities like writing, teaching and speaking at official or formal functions. Some common examples of the application of diglossia can be found in former colonies of countries like Britain and France. India is a former colony of Britain in which the principle of diglossia can be seen. This country has two official languages. Hindi is known as the principal language, while English is the secondary language.

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In another British colony, the reverse is the same. The official language is English, which is also the high language. The country has many languages and dialects, so the low language depends on the community. One of the languages is the Yoruba language. For members of the Yoruba-speaking community, the English language is the main language, while Yoruba is the language they mainly use to communicate with each other during other everyday conversation. Children are taught in English, as they learn to read and write in the language.

Another example of diglossia can be seen in countries with immigrants, like the United States. The high language is English, while the low language may be the mother tongue of the various immigrants. For instance, a Spanish immigrant may speak English at work, when writing or when interacting with other non-Spanish speaking people. The same immigrant may speak Spanish at home, at church, at a Spanish store, or when interacting with other members of the Spanish community.

One of the effects of diglossia is the way in which it serves as a tool for interpersonal communication and social classification. The low language is almost always relegated to the background and is considered less important that the high language. Those who are proficient in the low language may be considered illiterate or of a lower social class if they do not understand or know how to speak the high language.

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