The Social, Political and Cultural History of an International Prestige Language
2. Diglossia in Early Modern Europe
The concept of diglossia: ‘High’ and ‘Low’ languages
‘Diglossia’ is actually a contested concept among linguists. The term was coined in the 1880s to refer to two major varieties of modern Greek, katharevousa and dhimotikí, one of them with a high status and the other with a low one (the situation in Greece today is of course rather different, thanks to the political events of the last half-century, notably the rise and fall of a military regime).1
In a much cited article that was originally published over half a century ago, a specialist on Arabic, Charles Ferguson, used the term ‘diglossia’ to refer to two varieties of the same language that differed in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation and that were used, often by the same speakers, in different social situations or speech domains. There was a ‘High’ variety (H), otherwise known as classical Arabic, used for sermons, speeches and lectures, and a ‘Low’ or colloquial variety (L) used in ordinary conversation or for employers to give orders to their employees. ‘The speakers’, wrote Ferguson, ‘regard H as superior to L’.2 Refining the model, it has also been pointed out that individuals may switch between High and Low according to the topic they are speaking about. In nineteenth-century France, for instance, peasants spoke about local politics in patois but about national politics in French, the language of the newspapers.3
← 33 | 34 → A few years later another distinguished linguist, Joshua Fishman, extended the idea of...
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