Majority Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

bilingual road sign
On this road sign (in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland), names appear in both Scottish Gaelic and English. The majority language of Scotland is English. (Tim Graham/Getty Images)

A majority language is the language that's usually spoken by a majority of the population in a country or in a region of a country. In a multilingual society, the majority language is generally considered the high-status language. (See linguistic prestige.) It is also called the dominant language or killer language, in contrast with minority language.

As Dr. Lenore Grenoble points out in the Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World (2009), "The respective terms 'majority' and 'minority' for Languages A and B are not always accurate; speakers of Language B may be numerically greater but in a disadvantaged social or economic position which makes the use of the language of wider communication attractive."

Examples and Observations

"[P]ublic institutions in the most powerful Western nations, the U.K., the United States, France, and Germany, have been monolingual for over a century or more with no significant movement toward challenging the hegemonic position of the majority language. Immigrants have not generally challenged the hegemony of these nations and have usually assimilated rapidly, and none of these countries has faced the linguistic challenges of Belgium, Spain, Canada, or Switzerland." (S. Romaine, "Language Policy in Multinational Educational Contexts." Concise Encyclopedia of Pragmatics, ed. by Jacob L. Mey. Elsevier, 2009)

From Cornish (Minority Language) to English (Majority Language)

"Cornish was formerly spoken by thousands of people in Cornwall [England], but the community of Cornish speakers did not succeed in maintaining its language under the pressure of English, the prestigious majority language and national language.

To put it differently: the Cornish community shifted from Cornish to English (cf. Pool, 1982). Such a process seems to be going on in many bilingual communities. More and more speakers use the majority language in domains where they formerly spoke the minority tongue. They adopt the majority language as their regular vehicle of communication, often mainly because they expect that speaking the language gives better chances for upward mobility and economic success." (René Appel and Pieter Muysken, Language Contact and Bilingualism.

Edward Arnold, 1987)

Code-Switching: The We-Code and the They-Code

"The tendency is for the ethnically specific, minority language to be regarded as the 'we code' and become associated with in-group and informal activities, and for the majority language to serve as the 'they code' associated with more formal, stiffer and less personal out-group relations." (John Gumperz, Discourse Strategies. Cambridge University Press, 1982)

Colin Baker on Elective and Circumstantial Bilingualism

  • "Elective bilingualism is a characteristic of individuals who choose to learn a language, for example in the classroom (Valdés, 2003). Elective bilinguals typically come from majority language groups (e.g. English-speaking North Americans who learn French or Arabic). They add a second language without losing their first language. Circumstantial bilinguals learn another language to function effectively because of their circumstances (e.g. as immigrants). Their first language is insufficient to meet their educational, political and employment requirements, and the communicative needs of the society in which they are placed. Circumstantial bilinguals are groups of individuals who must become bilingual to operate in the majority language society that surrounds them. Consequently, their first language is in danger of being replaced by the second language--subtractive context. The difference between elective and circumstantial bilingualism is important because it immediately locates differences of prestige and status, politics and power among bilinguals." (Colin Baker, Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 5th ed. Multilingual Matters, 2011)
  • "[U]ntil recently, bilinguals have often been wrongly portrayed negatively (e.g. as having a split identity, or cognitive deficits). Part of this is political (e.g. prejudice against immigrants; majority language groups asserting their greater power, status and economic ascendancy; those in power wanting social and political cohesion around monolingualism and monoculturism).

    "However, the portrayal of bilinguals varies internationally. In some countries (e.g. India, parts of Africa and Asia), it is normal and expected to be multilingual (e.g. in a national language, an international language and one or more local languages). In other countries, bilinguals are typically immigrants and seen as causing economic, social and cultural challenges to the dominant majority. . . . With both immigrant and indigenous minorities, the term 'minority' is decreasingly defined in terms of smaller numbers in the population and increasingly as a language of low prestige and low in power relative to the majority language." (Colin Baker, "Bilingualism and Multilingualism." The Linguistics Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., edited by Kirsten Malmkjaer. Routledge, 2004)

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Majority Language." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-majority-language-1691294. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 9). Majority Language. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-majority-language-1691294 Nordquist, Richard. "Majority Language." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-majority-language-1691294 (accessed December 13, 2017).