In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Diglossia

  • Introduction
  • Early Use of the Term “Diglossia”
  • Diglossia, Education, and Literacy
  • Diglossia, Language Emergence, and Language Standardization

Linguistics Diglossia
Lotfi Sayahi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0237


Diglossia describes a situation of a complementary functional distribution of two or more language varieties. The varieties in question may belong to the same historical language, as in the case of standard Arabic and the Arabic dialects across the Arabic-speaking world (this first type of diglossia is referred to in the literature as classical, genetic, or endoglossic diglossia), or they may be more separate and genetically distant languages, as in the case of Spanish and Guarani in Paraguay (this second type of diglossia is referred to as extended, non-genetic, or exoglossic diglossia). The complementary functional distribution is often assumed, as opposed to strictly adhered to. Domains of use tend to overlap, and increasingly so since the advent of digital communication. In cases when the varieties that are in a diglossic situation are part of the same language, the differences between them are usually more prominent at the lexical level, but there may also be divergent phonological and morphosyntactic features. Most commonly, diglossia implies the existence of one High (H) variety and one Low (L) variety (Ferguson 1959, cited under Ferguson’s Classical Diglossia: Definition). The H variety is the code associated with education, government, religion, and other institutional domains. The H variety is also the one that tends to be the standardized form of the historical language and the one used for writing and scripted communication. By contrast, the L variety is the code used extemporaneously for daily communication within the family and in other informal domains of interaction. Generally, the L variety is not standardized and shows a wide range of variation along geographical and socioeconomic lines. Another distinction between the H variety and the L variety has to do with attitude and language ideology: while speakers may not naturally transmit the H variety to their children, and while these children acquire the L variety as a native language, speakers in diglossic situations tend to have much more favorable attitudes toward the H variety. In fact, the L variety often is perceived as a “corrupt” form of the H variety, or in cases of separate languages, as a less sophisticated form of communication. Diglossia is a central concept for the study of both dialect drift and the emergence of new varieties, and language contact and contact-induced change, with implications for a variety of issues that relate broadly to language in society.

General References on Diglossia

The concept of “diglossia” is often introduced in linguistics textbooks, handbooks, and encyclopedias either under a separate section or together with societal bilingualism. There are very few publications that are dedicated entirely to the topic.

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