February 15, 2014


Diglossia, (also called linguistic duality) is a language situation in which two different varieties of the same language are used in different social contexts or for performing different functions by the same speakers. Trudgill (1995) defined the term as under:

“Diglossia is a particular kind of language standardization where two distinct varieties of a language exist side by side throughout the speech community … and where each of the two varieties is assigned a definite social function”.

Origin of the Term

The Greek word diglossos wasfirst introduced by Emmanuel (also Emmanouil)Rhoides (also Roidis) in the prologue of his Parerga in 1885. In the following year the term was transliterated into French as diglossie by the French philologist of Greek descent Ioannis (also Jean; Yannis) Psycharis (also Psichari) in his Essais de Grammaire Historique Néo-Grecque, citing Rhoides. Subsequently, in 1959 the American sociolinguist Charles A. Ferguson coined the English counterpart diglossia on the pattern of the French term.

Historical Background

With the publication of his famous article “Diglossia” in Word journal in 1959, Charles A. Ferguson introduced a novel idea into sociolinguistic literature. It was later implicitly extended by John J. Gumperz in 1964 and explicitly in 1967 by Joshua A. Fishman. Fishman’s ideas were further extended by Ralph Fasold in 1985.

As Ferguson is the first contributor to describe this notion, his definition of diglossia is considered to be the classic or narrow version, especially in view of the later modifications to the concept proposed by Fishman (1967). The post-1959 researches on diglossia, particularly by Fishman entailed a broad or extended version of definition.
Classic Diglossia
Ferguson defined Diglossia in the following way:

 “DIGLOSSIA is a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which may include a standard or regional standards), there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any section of the community for ordinary conversation.”

Pursuant to Ferguson’s apprehension, diglossia prevails in communities where two varieties of the same language are used for different functions and in different contexts. Ferguson labelled these varieties as under:
  1. High Variety (H variety), and
  2.  Low Variety (L variety).
He elaborated his theory mainly based on the following language pairs:

Situations High Variety Low Variety
Arabic Classical Arabic Colloquial Varieties of Arabic
Swiss German Standard German Swiss German
Haitian Standard French Haitian Creole
Greek Katharevousa Dhimotiki
Characteristics of Classic Diglossia
In order to fully explain the concept, Ferguson explained some typical characteristics or criteriafor determining diglossia:
  1. Function: Diglossia is not merely the alternate usage of a standard language and its variety, rather it is the use of two distinct varieties in a speech community each with a clearly defined role. In true diglossic situations H is used in for writing, formal speech and education while L is used for everyday interaction. For example, he mentioned about the Arabic speaking countries, where there is a High variety and a Low one of the same language fulfilling different functions in society.
  2. Prestige: It is concerned with the attitude of the speakers towards the varieties. Typically the H variety enjoys superiority over the L variety, as the latter is believed to be inferior in a number of respects. The speakers proficient in the H variety may tend to avoid using the L variety with foreigners and may even deny its existence, even though the latter is far more frequently used than the former. For instance, in Arabic communities, if a speaker is not fluent in H he is considered as ignorant of Arabic. This discrimination has arrived from the notion that the H variety is more prestigious since it is more grand, logical, and expressive than the L variety. For this reason, the H variety is deemed to be the appropriate variety for literary use, for religious purposes, and so on.
  3. Literary Heritage: H usually has a long literary tradition and is used in writing. In most diglossic languages, the literature is all in H variety .
  4. Acquisition: The L variety is learnt naturally at home whereas the H variety is taught via schooling.
  5. Standardization: It is predominantly associated with the H variety since it has well established norms for orthography, grammar and pronunciation. In H variety the Grammars and dictionaries are written by the native grammarians. L is rarely standardized. The Grammars of the L variety are usually written by foreigners.
  6. Stability: Diglossia is a highly stable phenomenon and can last several hundreds of years. For instance, diglossia in Arab countries has survived for centuries. H and L borrow from one another. The L varieties displace the H variety, but H only displaces L if H is the mother tongue of an elite.
  7. Grammar: H and L have two different grammatical structures. The grammars of H are more complex than the grammars of the L variety. The H variety has a complex morphology, tense systems, gender systems, agreement, and syntax than the L variety. Cases and verb inflections are reduced in L.
  8. Lexicon: Much of the vocabulary of the two varieties is shared.  However, the H variety includes in its lexicon technical terms and expressions which have no L variety equivalents. The L variety includes in its lexicon popular expressions and some nouns which are absent in the H variety.
  9. Phonology: There are two phonological systems. The phonology of H is more complex. H has usually underlying phonological system while L diverges from this system in the course of development of thousands of years.
Extended Diglossia
In 1967 the American sociolinguist Joshua A. Fishman attempted to redefine and extend Ferguson’s classical idea of diglossia in his article “Bilingualism With and Without Diglossia; Diglossia With and Without Bilingualism” in Journal of Social Issues. Fishman maintained Ferguson’s concept of H and L varieties to characterize the functional difference between them. But he slightly altered his predecessor’s definition to encompass domains more relevant to separate languages that are both used in a spoken form. According to Fishman H variety is used for most written and formal spoken purposes and it is related to and supported by educational, governmental, social and religious institutions. This variety is typically codified and standardized. On the contrary, the L variety is used in unofficial, informal, and private usage. These are generally mother tongues and learnt at home and are used in everyday conversation within the immediate community.

For Fishman, diglossia is: “the stable existence of two or more complementary and non-conflicting idioms used for contact within the same group. Diglossia exists, therefore, when one language is reserved for certain domains and one or more other languages are reserved for other domains...”
Difference Between Classical and Extended Diglossia
Fishman’s version of diglossia differed from Ferguson’s to the following extent:

Firstly, the degree of relationship between the languages or language varieties: Fishman’s view differed from Ferguson’s with regard to the number of languages to be considered. Ferguson’s original formulation explicitly pointed out that diglossia should be confined within two verities. But Fishman argued that diglossia could be also traced in situations with more than two linguistic varieties.

Secondly, the nature of functional differentiation: Ferguson argued that diglossia engenders in multilingual societies within two closely related verities of the same language. Contrariwise, Fishman claimed that diglossic situation may include completely separate languages along with dialects or registers that were reserved for specific social functions. In his words:

 “diglossia exists not only in multilingual societies which officially recognize several ‘languages’, or societies that utilize vernacular and classical varieties, but also in societies which employ separate dialects, registers, or functionally differentiated language varieties of whatever kind” (1972).

Kinds of Diglossia

In his revision, Fishman also attempted to categorize diglossia in number of situations. Following his steps many other linguists also endeavoured to revise and sub-categorize the concept. In his article, Fishman investigated the relationship between individual bilingualism and diglossia with the result being represented as a typology of bilingualism/diglossia combinations:

Kinds of Extended Diglossia
  1. Both diglossia and bilingualism: a situation when almost everyone in the community knows both H and L, and the two varieties are distributed in a manner typical of diglossia. Fishman recognized this as the only stable combination.
  2. Bilingualism without diglossia: refers to communities with a large number of bilingual individuals, but where there is no functional distinction between language varieties.
  3. Diglossia without bilingualism: a situation when there exist two disjunct groups within a single political, religious, and/or economic entity; one is a ruling group who speaks only the H language, the other, normally a larger group, has no power in the society and speaks exclusively the L language.
  4. Neither diglossia nor bilingualism: a hypothetical situation when a small linguistically isolated community does not have any sort of functional differentiation or societal bilingualism.
So far the name (i.e. ‘diglossia’) suggests, Ferguson’s sole motto was to restrict the distribution of diglossia to only two language varieties. Even Ferguson (1991) himself clarified that his original formulation of diglossia was not meant to encompass all instances of multilingualism or functional differentiation of languages. Therefore, the post-Fergusonian efforts to extend diglossia were futile to some extent.

Fishman’s re-conceptualization of diglossia somewhat complicated the original notion since he deviated from the binarity of diglossia. Many linguists found it illogical to ascribe the term diglossia to communities which uses more than two languages for distinct functions. Consequently, in course of time the term polyglossia (also called heteroglossia) was coined to describe complex diglossic situations prevalent in the different countries of the world. Again, various linguists have suggested different terminologies for categorization of polyglossias, including Ralph Fasold (1984). Fasold expanded Fishman’s ideas even further. First, he argued that there could exist several diglossic communities sharing the same H, thus explaining the relationship between diglossia and standard versus dialect variation.

He also resolved the problem of binarity in Fishman’s and Ferguson’s definitions by explaining multi-language differentiation with the existence of essentially binary double overlapping and double-nested diglossias. However, Fasold also identified one non-binary situation of linear polyglossia. Here follows a brief description of his observations:

1.   Double overlapping diglossia (also called triglossia): It is the intersection between two developing diglossic situations. This is a situation where three discrete languages have different roles in individual communities, and where each of the three languages has distinct but interrelated functions. Eastman (1983) defines it as under:

“Triglosssia is a situation in which three languages have some complementary functions in certain contexts”.

According to Abdulaziz Mkilifi (1978), in Tanzania there is an intersection between Swahili and some vernaculars and the other involving Swahili and English. Here, Swahili is both a L variety and H variety depending on the context. For example in rural communities Swahili is H and the Vernaculars is L, whereas in urban communities English is H and Swahili is L:

Double overlapping diglossia in Tanzania

2.   Double nested diglossia: It is the existence of sub-diglossic situations within the major diglossic situations with distinction in varieties of a language (or languages) and their functions. More specifically, double nested diglossia is a situation where within the H and L varieties a higher and lower H and a higher and lower L variety can be distinguished. In 1964, John Gumperz identified double nested diglossia, where, Hindi H is the formal national language, Khalapur L is a local dialect, each of which has a High and Low variety of its own. There are low - conversational Hindi and Moti boli Khalapur, and high - Oratorical Hindi and Saf boli Khalapur, varieties within both languages; so that the high/low within each of the languages is nested within high/low between Hindi and Khalapur:

Double Nested Diglossia in Khalapur, India

3.   Linear polyglossia: This is applicable for a community with more complex speech repertoire. Such a situation could be only represented as orderly choices amongst a list of linear possibilities. Therefore, linear polyglossia refers to the order of choice of language from a linguistic repertoire. The sequence includes one or more High varieties, one or more Medium varieties, and one or more Low varieties. According to Platt(1977) this situation is best manifested in Singapore and Malaysia. The following is an example from Malaysia:

Language Status
Formal Malaysian English H1
Bahasa Malaysian H2
Mandarin DH
Colloquial Malaysian English M1
Dominant Chinese language M2
‘Native’ Chinese language L1
Other Chinese languages L2-Ln
Bazaar Malay L- -

Broad Diglossia

Ralph Fasold’s idea of broad diglossia not only formalized Fishman’s notion of extended diglossia but also confirmed the place of Ferguson’s classic definition of diglossia. After a close analysis of various diglossic models, Fasold concluded that diglossia requires not only separate languages, rather style-shifting and other functional variations as well. In addition, his conclusion made it clear that since style-shifting involves the whole set of varying linguistic alternatives from colloquial to formal, it cannot be represented in a binary form and, consequently, binarity cannot be an absolute criteria for determining diglossia. Fasold (1984) defined broad diglossia in the following way:

Broad Diglossia “is the reservation of highly valued segments of a community’s linguistic repertoire (which are not the first to be learned, but are learned later and more consciously, usually through formal education), for situations perceived as more formal and guarded; and the reservation of less highly valued segments (which are learned first with little or no conscious effort), of any degree of linguistic relatedness to the higher valued segments, from stylistic differences to separate languages, for situations perceived as more informal and intimate”.

On the basis of this definition Fasold then distinguished three subtypes of broad diglossia, according to the degree of relatedness between the languages or language varieties involved:
  1. Classic Diglossia: a type of diglossia which exists whenever divergent dialects can befound;
  2. Superposed Bilingualism: it refers to functional differentiation ofseparate languages;
  3. Style Shifting: this takes place in the case of stylistic differencesbetween varieties.

Diglossic Stability

Although diglossia is deemed to be stable it may become unstable for a number of reasons. The stability of Diglossia could be determined by evaluating two negating criteria:
  1. Language Maintenance: it refers to the stable preference of the use of a particular language/variety as the means of communication by the speakers of a language community.
  2. Language Shift: it to refers to the adoption of a new language/variety by the collective speakers of a language community. Language shift may occur for number of reasons, such as existence of bilingualism during several generations, migration, industrialization, urbanization, modernization, educational and other government decree, decline in speaker population, and changes in language prestige.

Diglossias at a Glance

The following table summarizes the major differences among three types of diglossias:

Classic/Narrow Diglossia (Ferguson 1959) Extended Diglossia
(Fishman 1967)
Broad Diglossia
(Fasold 1984)
Number of Languages Two varieties of the same
Several separate
Any number of
varieties /languages
Linguistic Relatedness Intermediate range
of relatedness
Any degree of
Any degree of linguistic relatedness, from
separate languages to merely stylistic
Acquisition of H vs. L The H variety is never or almost never used in informal conversation, whereas everyone or at least the majority speaks the L as mother tongue Two or more L varieties are spoken as mother tongue, each of different segments of the population H is spoken natively by some,
and L is spoken natively by
Differentiation of Function H and L have separate
Different varieties are allocated to different functions Certain degree of correspondence between
functions of H and L
Stability Usually stable Usually unstable Usually unstable

Diglossic Situation in Bangladesh

Bangla (also spelt Bengali) is the official as well as the national language of Bangladesh. Bangla has two distinct varieties, each having different functions of their own:

Forms of Bangla

Written Forms of Bangla
There are two standard written forms of Bangla:
  1. Sadhu Bhasa (elegant or chaste language): also spelt Sadhubhasa, Shadhubhasha, Shadhu Bhasa, , Shuddhobhasha, a refined literary form of Bangla, which came from the archaic forms of Medieval Bangla of the 16th century. It derived much of its lexicon from Sanskrit. Sadhu Bhasa never deemed to be appropriate for everyday conversation and its use is restricted to only literary and formal contexts. Songs like Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem by Rabindranath Tagore and Vande Mataram, the national song of India by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay were originally composed in Sadhu Bhasha. Today it is an obsolete form and apart from the written constitution of Bangladesh its use is limited to some government letters and notices, legal affairs, special literature, and editorials of some newspapers only.
  2. Cholito Bhasa (current or colloquial language): also spelt Cholitobhasa, Choltibhasa, Chalit Bhasa, Calitbhasa, which came into literary use since the early 20th century, and by the early 21st century it became the dominant literary language as well as the standard colloquial form of speech among the educated people. Interestingly, Cholito Bhasa is not a vernacular of any regions of Bangladesh, it is modelled on the dialect spoken in the Shantipur region in Nadia district, West Bengal. This written standard was publicized primarily by the literary giants in Kolkata, including Peary Chand Mitra, Pramatha Chowdhury, and Rabindranath Tagore (in his later works). Nowadays, it is being used as the means for formal writing (including common literature) and conversation in Bangladesh.
Spoken Forms of Bangla
The inhabitants living in different parts of Bangladesh have separate vernaculars of their own. Therefore, the vernaculars spoken in Bangladesh exist with a number of dialectal varieties. These varieties are existing as a part of a language continuum of the Indo-Aryan languages (also known as Indic languages), such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bangla, Marathi, Gujrati, Bhojpuri, Chakma, and so on.

The classification of Bangla speech varieties has always been a debatable issue amongst scholars. However, depending upon various mainstream researches, typically the varieties of Bangla are classified in two groups:
  1. Ancholic Bhasa (Regional Varieties): These are the speech varieties of Bangla spoken by the Bangladeshi people for everyday communication. At present there are at least 16 regional varieties of Bangla spoken in different districts, such as Dhaka, Barisal, Bogra, Comilla, Chittagong, Sylhet,  Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Faridpur, Jessore, Khulna, Kushtia, Noakhali, Mymensingh, Pabna , and Rangpur. The regional varieties of Bangla show variation from one another at different levels, such as phonological level, morphological level, syntactic level and semantic level of their linguistic structure. This variation occurs due to a dialect continuum spanning from the region of Meherpur (formerly a subdivision of Nadia district) to regions of Southern districts, Chittagong or Khulna. Accordingly, a particular variety of Bangla in this continuum shows a deviation from its center or Nadia district on the basis of which the standard variety of Bangla was developed. As a consequence, the more distant is a particular region from Nadia, the more deviant is a speech variety of that region from the speech variety of Nadia. For instance, the varieties from Chittagong and Sylhet regions bear only a superficial resemblance to Standard Colloquial Bangla and are therefore, least intelligible to the speakers of other regional varieties. Notwithstanding, the majority of people in Bangladesh are able to communicate in more than one dialect: often, they are familiar with or fluent in Cholito Bhasa and one or more Ancholik Bhasa.
  2. Upojatiyo Bhasa (Indigenous Varieties): Apart from these regional varieties of Bangla, there are certain languages such as Chakma, Tanchangya, Hajong, Bishnupuryia, Oraon Sadri, Rajbangshi and Mal Paharia spoken by the indigenous people of Mongoloid origin. These languages of minority speech communities evolved from the vernaculars of the Tibeto-Burman origin as a result of a long contact with Apabhramsa and later regional varieties of Bangla. These aboriginal languages were mutually unintelligible to the speakers of other communities. However, these languages gradually helped to shape the regional varieties of Bangla.
Nature of Diglossia in Bangladesh
The diglossic situation in Bangladesh is much more intricate than any other cases found across the globe. As a result, the scholars face a number of problems during defining the nature of diglossic situations in Bangladesh. Up till now two contrary diglossic types have been proposed:
  1. Sadhu Bhasa and Cholito Bhasa
  2. Cholito Bhasa and  Ancholic Bhasa
Previously, many linguists preferred to restrict the diglossic situation in Bangladesh within Shadhu and Cholito pair. But it is not credible under the current socio-political context. As we have mentioned earlier, these days Shadhu Bhasa is almost non-existent in speech and creative writing and even in informal writings. Cholito variety, on the other hand, has been adopted by the majority of Bangladeshi as the standard for spoken and written communication. Due to this shift in preference of language use, a change in the language prestige has also occurred. Cholito Bhasa is as standardized as Shadhu Bhasa and has almost replaced the latter by proving its dominance in a number of domains. In this way, at present the Bangladeshi people use two separate varieties of Bangla for two distinct purposes, that is Ancholik Bhasa in everyday conversation and Cholito Bhasa in official capacities like writing, teaching and speaking at official or formal functions. Now it is a matter of debate whether Shadhu and Cholito pair is logical enough to describe diglossic situation in Bangladesh. In view of the above statement it could be said that at the moment it is more logical to describe the diglossic situation in Bangladesh involving Cholito Bhasha and Ancholic Bhasha.
Probability of  Triglossia in Bangladesh
Although the above linguistic situations are widely accepted by different scholars, still another combination is possible. This one is triglossia or double overlapping diglossia, involving the co-existence of three different languages with distinct functions of their own. Such linguistic situation could be hypothesized since Sadhu Bhasa is basically a written language while Ancholic Bhasa is chiefly a spoken language. On the contrary, Cholito Bhasa falls in between the two since it is used both as spoken and written forms. This linguistic situation could be referred to as double overlapping diglossia:

Probable triglossic situation in Bangladesh


Apparently, all of the aforementioned situations could be deemed as plausible while discussing the nature of Diglossic situations in Bangladesh. But to opt the right situation, the current socio-political context in Bangladesh should be taken into account. Without such consideration, any findings on this subject will certainly become irrelevant.




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