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What Is Diglossia?

Esther Ejim
Esther Ejim

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.

While Ukrainian is the official language of the Ukraine, over 70 percent of the population is fluent in Russian.
While Ukrainian is the official language of the Ukraine, over 70 percent of the population is fluent in Russian.

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.

Discussion Comments


@MrsPramm - Well, Hawaiian is an official language in Hawaii at least. And the problem with making a language official is that it doesn't mean much unless you actually back it up with signs in both languages and so forth. Which can be extremely expensive and confusing, especially if the territory in question has several local languages and dialects.

There are definitely places where I'd say oppression is at work, but in others, it's got more to do with being practical I think.


@Ana1234 - I don't think it's a bad idea to have multiple languages, I just think it becomes a matter of oppression when one is considered the official language and the other is not, particularly when the official language isn't the local one.

You have the same problem in a lot of countries that were colonized. There isn't a single official Aboriginal language in Australia, for example, or a Native American language made official in the United States.


I lived in West Africa for a while and this is very common, often with even more than two or three languages. The official language was French, which only a relatively small percentage of people spoke. The country borders were somewhat arbitrary and there were a lot of different groups within country that had been joined together by an outside group.

So, often French was only spoken by the upper class, and the rest of the country had their own common language to speak in the market, as well as their own ethnic language to speak within their village.

It wasn't unusual for people to speak more than four different languages, just to be able to communicate with everyone they encountered in their daily life.

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    • While Ukrainian is the official language of the Ukraine, over 70 percent of the population is fluent in Russian.
      By: Masyanya
      While Ukrainian is the official language of the Ukraine, over 70 percent of the population is fluent in Russian.