Diglossia: Language Change & Standardization

I recently ran across some old notes from a presentation series that I'd like to publish as a resource here. The first topic I'd like to cover is "Diglossia". This is a key term that anyone with interest in Tibetan language should know; the term was coined in Ferguson's seminal work, title of the same name. Here is the citation and a definiton: 

Ferguson, “Diglossia,” (1959). Word 15: 325–340.

In linguistics, diglossia (/daɪˈɡlɒsiə/) is a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community. In addition to the community's everyday or vernacular language variety (labeled "L" or "low" variety), a second, highly codified variety (labeled "H" or "high") is used in certain situations such as literature, formal education, or other specific settings, but not used for ordinary conversation. In most cases, the H variety has no native speakers.

Ferguson expands on this definition of diglossia (di- two, glossia- languages) by offering us 3 aspects common to diglossic languages: 

  1. there is a large body of culturally defining literature;
  2. there are low literacy rates; and
  3. the literature has been around for centuries.

In other words, a large body of culturally defining literature, often religious in nature, tends to have an effect on the linguistic norms of a speech community. This effect is conservative in nature, so that as the spoken form (L) naturally changes and evolves, the literary form (H) remains frozen and fixed. 

This exacerbates a common phenomenon where any and all language change is viewed as "degradation". To quote Steven Pinker from his book "Sense of Style", 

"Every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it... Moral panic about the decline of writing may be as old as writing itself. According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young". 

For more on this, let's turn to John McWhorter (from his book, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue"):

“In ancient times, few societies had achieved widespread literacy. Writing was primarily for high literary, liturgical, and commercial purposes. Spoken language changed always, but the written form rested unchanging on the page. There was not felt to be a need to keep the written form in step with the way people were changing the language with each generation.

"For one, each language was actually spoken as a group of dialects very different from one another, such that there was no single spoken variety to keep up with. As long as the written form was relatively accessible to the general population, however they actually spoke, then the job was done. Old English, for example, came in four flavors: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, and West Saxon.

"Most Old English documents are in the West Saxon dialect, because Wessex happened to become politically dominant early on. But this means that what we know as Old English is mostly in what is properly one dialect of Old English, and the speakers of the other dialects just had to suck it up. They did, and there is no evidence that anyone much minded.

"In addition, there was always a natural tendency, which lives on today, to view the written language as the 'legitimate' or 'true' version, with the spoken forms of the language as degraded or, at best, quaint—certainly not something you would take the trouble of etching onto the page for posterity with quill and ink. As such, the sense we moderns have that language on the page is supposed to more or less reflect the way the language is spoken would have seemed peculiar to a person living a thousand years ago, or even five hundred.

"In Europe, for example, it was the technology of the printing press and the democratic impulses in the wake of the Reformation that led to calls for written material in local languages. Until then, people in France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal readily accepted Latin—a different language entirely from what was spoken 'in the street'—on the page.”

In other words, we can imagine that “diglossia” was the world-wide standard among languages prior to the widespread literacy that was made available by the printing press and a move to written vernaculars... 

And that brings us to our final note on the day, that there is another modern diglossic language that closely parallels Tibetan: Arabic. Mohamed Maamouri writes: 

“There is a growing awareness among some Arab education specialists that the low levels of educational achievement and high illiteracy (and low literacy) rates in most Arab countries are directly related to the complexities of the standard Arabic language used in formal schooling and in non-formal education. These complexities mostly relate to the diglossic situation of the Arabic language and make reading in Arabic an overly arduous process.”

“A gap was formed between that standardized language of Islam as recorded in the Quran and related religious writings and the Arabic language commonly used by Arabs and non-Arabs alike. This language duality was reflected in the debate between Al-Kufa and Al- Basra, two major schools of .Arabic grammar, around issues of language 'degradation' and 'corruption' and the consequent issues of usage over linguistic purity and correctness.”

Diglossias form, in part, because all language change at odds with religious scripture is seen as “degradation”. And this lack of change in written norms leads, naturally and over time, to greater and greater gaps in "how things are spoken" and "how things are written". This gap, in turn, makes in harder and harder to become literate - hence the low literacy rates. 

For more, I suggest the following resources: 

  • McWhorter, John. "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue". 
  • Gelder, Beatrice. "Speech & Reading: A Comparative Approach". A collection of essays on speech and reading.
  • Aitchison, Jean. "Language Change: Progress or Decay?" A discussion of how and why language changes. Spoiler: the answer to “Progress or Decay” is “neither;” language change is simply a fact. For example, if language is continually in a state of decline and decay (as each subsequent generation of every language that exists usually claims), how has language not ceased to exist? 
  • Arokay, Judit. "Divided Languages? Diglossia, Translation, and the Rise of Modernity in Japan, China, and the Slavic World". An in-depth survey of diglossic languages in Asia (particularly Japan, China, and Eastern Europe/Russia), and how they “dissolved” the gap between formal, traditional literature and informal, modern vernacular by adopting modern vernacular for literature.
  • Linn, Andrew R. "Standardization: Studies from the Germanic Language"
  • Freeborn, Dennis. "From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation Across Time"
  • Deumert, Ana. "Standard Languages: Taxonomies & histories"