Diglossia in Sociolinguistics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

English novelist Thomas Hardy (here pictured with two actresses who performed in the stage version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles) demonstrated how regional speech often coexists with standard English. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

In sociolinguistics, diglossia is a situation in which two distinct varieties of a language are spoken within the same speech community. Adjective: diglossic or diglossial.

Bilingual diglossia is a type of diglossia in which one language variety is used for writing and another for speech.

In Dialectology (1980), Chambers and Trudgill note that "people who are known to be bidialectal [i.e., those with a facility for using two dialects of the same language] do actually control the two dialects, using one of them in special circumstances, such as when visiting a speaker with a similar 'home' background, and using the other for daily social and business affairs." 

The term diglossia (from the Greek for "speaking two languages") was first used in English by linguist Charles Ferguson in 1959.

Examples and Observations

"In the classic diglossic situation, two varieties of a language, such as standard French and Haitian creole French, exist alongside each other in a single society. Each variety has its own fixed functions—one a 'high,' prestigious variety, and one a 'low,' or colloquial, one. Using the wrong variety in the wrong situation would be socially inappropriate, almost on the level of delivering the BBC's nightly news in broad Scots.

"Children learn the low variety as a native language; in diglossic cultures, it is the language of home, the family, the streets and marketplaces, friendship, and solidarity. By contrast, the high variety is spoken by few or none as a first language. It must be taught in school. The high variety is used for public speaking, formal lectures and higher education, television broadcasts, sermons, liturgies, and writing.

(Often the low variety has no written form.)" (Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak. Delacorte, 2011)

Diglossia in Hardy's  Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Thomas Hardy illustrates diglossia throughout his novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1892). Tess's mother, for instance, uses the "Wessex" (Dorset) dialect while Tess herself speaks "two languages," as described in the following passage from the novel.

"Her mother bore Tess no ill-will for leaving the house-work to her single-handed efforts for so long; indeed, Joan seldom upbraided her thereon at any time, feeling but slightly the lack of Tess's assistance whilst her instinctive plan for relieving herself of her labours lay in postponing them. To-night, however, she was even in a blither mood than usual. There was a dreaminess, a preoccupation, an exaltation, in the maternal look which the girl could not understand.

“'Well, I’m glad you’ve come,' her mother said, as soon as the last note had passed out of her. 'I want to go and fetch your father; but what’s more’n that, I want to tell 'ee what have happened. Y’ll be fess enough, my poppet, when th’st know!’

"(Mrs. Durbeyfield habitually spoke the dialect; her daughter, who had passed the Sixth Standard in the National School under a London-trained mistress, spoke two languages; the dialect at home, more or less; ordinary English abroad and to persons of quality.)

"‘Since I’ve been away?’ Tess asked.


"'Had it anything to do with father's making such a mommet of himself in the carriage this afternoon? Why did he? I felt inclined to sink into the ground with shame!’" (Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented,1892)

High (H) and Low (L) Varieties

"A very significant aspect of diglossia is the different patterns of language acquisition associated with the High [H] and Low [L] dialects. . . . Most reasonably well-educated people in diglossic communities can recite the rules of H grammar, but not the rules for L. On the other hand, they unconsciously apply the grammatical rules of L in their normal speech with near perfection, whereas the corresponding ability in H is limited. In many diglossic communities, if speakers are asked, they will tell you L has no grammar, and that L speech is the result of the failure to follow the rules of H grammar." (Ralph W. Fasold, Introduction to Sociolinguistics: The Sociolinguistics of Society, Basil Blackwell, 1984)

Diglossia and the Social Hierarchy

"Diglossia reinforces social distinctions.

It is used to assert social position and to keep people in their place, particularly those at the lower end of the social hierarchy. Any move to extend the L variety . . . is likely to be perceived to be a direct threat to those who want to maintain traditional relationships and the existing power structure." (Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 5th ed. Blackwell, 2006)

Diglossia in the U.S.

"Ethnicity typically includes a heritage language, particularly among groups whose members include recent arrivals. A heritage language can play a significant role in a community despite the fact that not all members actually speak it. Relatively balanced, native bilinguals, though being designated native speakers of English, may have younger siblings or other family members who speak little or no English. Consequently, they may not use English all the time, particularly in situations of diglossia in which language varieties are compartmentalized according to situations of usage.

"The home is also one likely place for a social dialect (or vernacular) to develop that can, consequently, spread throughout the community. Children will undoubtedly bring that language variety with them into the classroom. Consequently, educators need to consider the relationship of SAE and nonstandard varieties of English such as Ebonics (African American Vernacular English—AAVE), Chicano English (ChE), and Vietnamese English (VE), all recognized social dialects. Children speaking these varieties may be counted as native speakers of English, despite the fact that they may also be considered LM [language minority] students entitled to certain rights as a result." (Fredric Field, Bilingualism in the USA: The Case of the Chicano-Latino Community.

John Benjamins, 2011)

Pronunciation: di-GLO-see-eh