How Diglossia Affects Every Nation of the World


Diglossia occurs when there is the assignment of roles to different varieties of languages co-existing in a bi/multilingual speech community.

The codes could be a language or dialect. Fishman (1980) views diglossia as an enduring arrangement that explains beyond a three-generation period whereby two codes enjoy secure phonological legitimacy and widely implemented functions.

The four criteria identified by Landry and Allerd (1994:16) for the analyses of the identities of diglossia are linguistics, sociological function, and, stability.

In Nigeria for instance, English is termed the official language thereby functioning in politics, education, trade and commerce, the media, the judiciary, administration, science, and technology while our indigenous languages are mere regional languages.

Again, specific roles in a narrow sense can be given to dialects of a language in a community. An instance is a role of education, administration, the media, etc. assigned to English or Educated Nigeria English and the assignment of mere interactional role to pidgin?

Domains of language use


A significant characteristic of diglossia is the specification of the roles of high (H) and low (L) varieties. This means that the variety is more important than the (H) variety and each has its domain of use. Nevertheless, there are instances, although too slightly, where the varieties overlap in their designed functions. Domains are institutionally recognized occasions of language use, e.g. homes, offices, schools, churches, mosques, etc.

Sermon in the church or mosque     x

Instructions to servants or maids           x

Political speech or university lecture    x

Personal letter to an official                   x

Family conversation                                 x

News broadcast                                         x

Soap opera                                                  x

Folktale                                                        x

Bilingualism with diaglossia

This is the situation in a community with two or more languages where the languages are given different roles, e.g. The following are good examples where Nigeria has English, Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, etc., and the languages are given different roles.

India has English, Hindi, Bengali, etc. and the languages are given different roles; Singapore has English, Mandarin, Malay, etc., and the languages are given different roles; Paraguay has Spanish and Guarani, and the languages are given different roles, and Haiti having French and Creole and the languages are given different roles.

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Nigeria                         English, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, etc.

India                             English, Hindi,  Bengali, etc.

Singapore                    English, Mandarin, Malay, etc.

Paraguay                     Spanish and Guarani

Haiti                             French and Creole

Bilingualism without Diglossia 

This refers to the assignment of equal status to the languages co-existing in a speech community, e.g. Canada with French and English.

Diglossia without Bilingualism

This is a monolingual society with different dialects of a single language and these dialects are assigned various roles, e.g. standard and non-standard English as used in the USA.

Neither Bilingualism nor Diglossia

Here both the community and the codes are mono. The community is monolingual and the language is also mono-dialectal. Such a community is a very closed one with a very small illiterate population, e.g. Koma village in Nigeria.

Features of Diglossia

A diglossic situation has been observed to possess the following features:


This is the specification and specialization of functions of high (H) and low (L) varieties. This means placing a language above the other or others with official functions assigned to the H variety.


It is typical for the languages or dialects of a society to be ranked relative to each other in terms of social status.

For instance, the upper class in the London area of England speaks “public school” English while the lower class often uses a Cockney dialect.

Consequently, upwardly mobile Cockeys in the business world do take language lessons to measure up to the “public school” speech standard.

This shows that (H) is the prestigious variety gaining a more positive attitude than (L), which is the stigmatized variety.

Literary heritage

H variety is deliberately chosen for the documentation of literary culture. The literary writing tradition continually points the new breed to the past literary work of the variety.

Nevertheless, L variety may be found in a few writings such as cartoons or the speech of debased characters in a novel.


L variety is always acquired as a first language and the exposition to his variety, especially to children’s conditions.

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This often generates some difficulty when attempts are made to shift usage to the H variety which is only achieved through formal normative instructions of the norms of the grammatical patterns.


The H variety is given the priority of standardization of the L variety. This often enjoys institutional support as well as arrangement with a boundary of linguistic usage. Also, dictionaries and grammars document the H variety while the L variety usually lacks such backings.


The grammar of both varieties has extensive differences. The morphology of L is often simpler than that of H with cases and verb inflections reduced.


As Fergusson puts it, they have a “shared lexicon with variations in form and with differences in use and meaning”. This means that both varieties have different terms for the same objects.

Though the two terms are roughly the same, the use of one or the other automatically stamps the utterance or written text as either H or L.


While the L variety diverges the underlying phonological system and preserves it, the L variety usually in oral use, subordinates pure phonemic items of H not found in it with those available in its system.

Tabular Representation of the Features of Diglossia

H                                            L

Function                               Formal                                   Informal

Prestige                                Superior                                 Inferior

Literary                                 Written                                  Oral/folktale

Heritage/Acquisition         Metropolitan                         Local (Village)

Standardization                  Codified                                  Not formalized

Grammar                             Complex, artificial                 Simple, national

Stability                                More stable                            Less stable

Lexicon                                 Learned words                       Homely words

Phonology                            Educated                                 local accent

Language contact

Today, most reference books give a figure of around six thousand.

This is a conservative estimate as many parts of the world have been insufficiently studied from linguistic points of view.

We simply do not know exactly what languages are spoken in some places. There is a popular metaphor in linguistics that “language is a living organism which a born, grass and dies”.

However, when we speak of language contact, we are simply referring to people in different parts of the world who speak a variety of languages coming into contact with one another.

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Human beings come into contact in different ways in which human beings mingle which in essence engendered language contact through politics, religion, economy, education, occupation, culture, science and technology, natural disaster, etc.

Whenever languages come in contact as a result of the aforementioned factors, the end product is often bi/multilingualism as well as bi/multilingualism.

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