Dialects: What Are Diglossia and Triglossia?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

People know and speak the standard and non-standard varieties of a dialect. But, more often than not one is considered to be superior than the other. Why does this happen? Do we deliberately prefer one over the other while speaking in public? Also, how can we differentiate between the two? Let’s take a look.

Two road signs informing people that the road is closed that they need to follow a diversion, with the one on the left written in the Yorkshire dialect with a bit of tongue-in-cheek saying 'Ey up road closed slign thi hook', and the one on the right written in standard English saying 'Go this way' and an arrow pointing towards the way.
Just like around the world most countries and most people are bilingual, except for the monolingual state of the typical American, you could also say that most people are bi-dialectal. (Image: Northallertonman/Shutterstock)

What Is Diglossia?

Diglossia is Greek for two tongues, but that doesn’t really help us. Diglossia is a term that linguists often use to refer to something else about the way nonstandard varieties of a native language or dialects are distributed in real life across the globe.

Often, the standard and the nonstandard dialects are in a structured relationship in the society, and they are in a structured relationship in the mouths of the individual. So rattling around in the back of your head you might think to yourself, is there such a person who only speaks Brooklynese? Who is unfamiliar with what standard English is like? It is hard to imagine that person.

And indeed, just as actually around the world it’s been said that most people are bilingual, and that the monolingual state of the typical American is the exception, you could also say that most people are bi-dialectal. So the nonstandard and the standard variety exist in the same mouth. So diglossia—two tongues.

Learn more about dialects-two tongues in one mouth.

Dialects: The High and the Low

It is not that people speak in a good way and a bad way, it is more that people speak in two ways. It is independent of whatever other people might think of the way they speak and, more to the point, whatever people themselves might think about the two different things that they speak. An example of this would be Arabic. In Egypt, one may find people speaking in modern standard Arabic as well ad Egyptian Arabic.

Similarly, in Germany, in a region where the local variety is very different from High German (Hochdeutsch), we’d be talking about High German versus, for example, outside of Germany itself, Switzerland—Swiss German, which is itself extremely different from High German. The two languages co-exist in German-speaking Switzerland.

Or, in Greece, there is Katharévousa versus the Dhimotikí—the more familiar kind of Greek.

What all of these things have in common is that one of the varieties is considered the high one and the other one is considered the low one. The idea is that one of them is considered more formal—often considered better. The other is considered more meat and potatoes, more what you would use after you smack your child on the butt or what you would use to date somebody, or something like that.

So we now have a basic understanding of high and low of a dialect. Let’s call them the H and the L to ease us out of the tendency to think that the vernacular one is somehow broken.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Dialects: High For Writing, Low For Casual Conversations

Typically, in a diglossia, you get four commonalities. One of them is that the H variety is used in writing and the L variety is used in casual speech. For example, people read the paper in H and then they’ll discuss it in L. Or speeches (formal ones, at least) are given in H, maybe seasoned by a bit of L. But casual conversations are conducted in L. At best seasoned by a bit of H.

Then there is the acquisition issue, which is that the L version is learned on your mother’s knee. That is your native language. That is what you speak with no effort at all. The H is learned at school. You learn that later. So if you happen to not benefit from education for some reason, then you probably don’t know much about H. So L is learned at home. You could call it the real language. H is something which is pounded into you later. H is the salad fork, while L is the spoon!

Dialects: What Is Standardized, What Is Not?

Let’s take a look at the standardization issue, which is that H typically is given official rules by an academy or the academy, while the nonstandard L’s are generally described in a systematic way only by missionaries or linguists. So if you go to a Barnes & Noble or Borders, you will not find those sorts of things.

In general, the L variety is cherished by the linguist, the fan of the exotic, the missionary. But for people who are actually there living these two varieties, H is the one that gets standardized, gets taught in school, and is thought of as having rules.

The head of the cartoon character Asterix, with brunette/ginger hair tied in two ponytails on either side of the face and   a thick mustache, a blue skull cap or helmet and white face, as a piece of crochet art on a table.
In Germany, the Asterix series, which originated in France, has been translated into several local dialects, such as Swiss German, the German of Cologne, Schwaebisch in south Germany, and Bavarian. (Image: Timothy Kuiper/Shutterstock)

The Asterix series—about the little fighting Gaul who is bedeviled by the Romans and has a big friend named Obelisk—which originated in France, is particularly popular in Europe. In Germany, in particular, it is available not just in Hochdeutsch. The series has been translated into several local German varieties. The idea being to help stem what is seen as a threat to those existing local varieties. So there is Swiss German Asterix; there is Asterix in the German of Cologne; there is Asterix in Schwaebisch in south Germany; and there’s Bavarian Asterix.

H is standardized, L is not. This also tends to mean that H gets kind of frozen and many different varieties of L end up developing, as it is inherent to language to always change.

Learn more about dialects-spoken style, written style.

Is High the Real Language?

Finally, there is the prestige issue. This is something that can make it hard as a linguist to study language in its full variety. Generally, H is considered the real language. People who are fluent speakers of L tend to feel funny about the fact that they use it. Their self-conception often conditions them to suppose that they speak it less well than they do. And to the extent that they realize that they speak it, but often in public, they will disown it.

If you try to record somebody speaking the L, then they’re going to sprinkle it with a lot of H or have trouble not using H, as that’s what is used in formal contexts. So it can be difficult to even get a sense of what the systematicity of an L is, as it is not something you are accustomed to using with outsiders, with a microphone, when you are presenting yourself at your best.

You think of it as a kind of slumming that you do. And you very well may not be aware that you slum linguistically as much as you do because there is a sense that the L variety is not real.

The publication of the New Testament in Dhimotikí led to riots in Greece in 1903. Dhimotikí, as we know, was the L, which was chosen chosen over the very formal and artificial Katharévousa. The idea here was that if we are talking about the word of religious figures, then we certainly must have it in the high, artificial, inaccessible, difficult language, rather than the common dialect that most people actually speak.

Different Types of Diglossic Relationships

When you look at diglossic relationships between different dialects, you see big differences.

In Egyptian Arabic now is dilwa’ti. In standard Arabic, the word is ‘al’āna. These are two completely different words. If you’re talking about nose in standard Arabic, the word is ‘anf. In Egyptian Arabic it is manaxīr. So, if you’re in Egypt and you’re bouncing on your mother’s knee, and you are learning manaxīr, you are learning dilwa’ti. Those are your words. That’s how you come into the world.

Then gradually you realize that there is this other thing that you see on TV. Or, the language used whether people make speeches in, or what the Koran seems to be written in. Which is not just kind of different, the way the King James Version of English is for us. It’s really a whole different thing. If you have learned manaxīr for nose, and then you try to talk about your nose in a formal setting and it’s ‘anf, clearly you have a great deal of learning to do.

Sometimes it’s not that far. Many in standard Arabic is kathirah. In Egyptian Arabic it’s kәtir. There’s a relationship, but it’s quite different. So an Egyptian might say, ‘I learned Arabic in school’, because it is different enough that you really are acquiring a whole different system, not just cleaning up and formalizing what you already learned, the way we standard English speakers do.

Learn more about dialects-where do you draw the line?

What Is Triglossia?

Triglossia, as you might have guessed, is when you’ve three levels of language, instead of two. This happens in some particularly hierarchical societies, where these hierarchies are very formal and codified.

Javanese is one such language with this kind of triglossic usage. Not only is there an H and an L, but there is a middle rung as well. So, just ordinary sentences become quite different in these three levels of language that one must be able to manipulate.

Six women seated on the ground with food served on banana leaves placed in front of them, they are speaking, smiling to   each other and in various stages of savouring the food, and three of the women are wearing the traditional Muslim   headscarf.
Javanese is one language with triglossic usage, which not only has High Javanese and Low Javanese, but also a Middle Javanese. (Image: Odua Images/Shutterstock)

For example, let’s take just rice and cassava now—those words, in that order. In High Javanese, rice and cassava now are sekul kalijan kaspé samenika. In Middle Javanese, it’s sekul lan kaspé saniki. So kalijan just becomes lan, and samenika, now, becomes saniki. These are related, but shorter and different.

Then in Lower Javanese, instead of sekul kalijan kaspé samenika, you have sega lan kaspé saiki. The are very different. The High version of Javanese and the Low version of Javanese are practically different languages. Yet, to be able to make your way in Java, you have to be able to handle that kind of difference.

Dialects: The High and Low of English

The closest equivalent to the H and L in English is the difference that we don’t think about that much, between, say, dine and eat. You do not ‘dine’ at KFC. Dine is used in very formal situations. Children versus kids is another one. If you’re talking about your kids then chances are you are not in a very formal situation. Children is the formal word and kids is the more informal word.

We now know these differences. But imagine if you had to deal with something like that with pretty much every word in the language. Then you get a sense of how diglossia with, say, Egyptian Arabic or any local Arabic or Javanese work. That kind of thing is taken to a greater degree in some languages than others.

Common Questions about Dialects, Diglossia, and Triglossia

Q: What is the difference between diglossia and dialect?

Often the standard and the nonstandard varieties of a language are in a structured relationship in society, and they are in a structured relationship in the mouths of the individuals. The term diglossia is used by linguists to refer to the way nonstandard varieties of language are distributed in real life across the globe. So, the nonstandard and the standard varieties exist in the same mouth. Whereas, dialect is a nonstandard variety of a language.

Q: What are the high and low varieties of a language?

In most countries, two or more varieties of a language co-exist. Commonly, one of the varieties is considered the high one and the other one is considered the low one. The idea is that one of them is considered more formal, often considered better, while the other one is considered inferior.

Q: What is an examples of diglossia?

A very good example of diglossia or diglossic relationship between two versions of the same language is the relationship between Egyptian Arabic and modern standard Arabic. Egyptian Arabic is what one would learn at home, while modern standard Arabic is taught at school and the Koran is written in it. If you only know Egyptian Arabic, then you will have to go to school to learn modern standard Arabic, because the two are different enough that you really are acquiring a whole different system, not just cleaning up and formalizing what you’ve already learned.

Q: Is Javanese hard to learn?

Javanese is one of the languages in the world with three levels of language, which means not only is there a High Javanese and a Low Javanese, but there is a Middle Javanese, as well. So, just ordinary sentences become quite different in these three levels of language that one must be able to manipulate. This makes Javanese harder to learn.

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