The term bilingualism is typically used to describe the use of two or more languages by an individual. When the focus shifts to how multiple languages are used in a given society, linguists use the term diglossia. A bilingual community is unlikely to use two languages for exactly the same purpose—each language serves a specialized function and plays a certain role. One language is usually used in informal interactions in the home and in the community (referred to as the “Low (L) variety”) and another is used in more formal, prestigious domains such as government, media, and education (referred to as the “High (H) variety”) (see Ferguson, 1959; Fishman, 1967). A speech community is diglossic when specific language situations call for the use of one language or the other.

Ferguson (1959) first described diglossia in terms of two dialects serving different functions in a given society. He provides the example of Switzerland where Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch) is widely used in the home and community as the Low variety, and Standard High German (Hochdeutsch) is used in school, government, and businesses as the High variety. Swiss German is the spoken everyday language whereas Standard High German is the language of formal settings and written communication. Egypt provides another example, with Classical Arabic serving as the High variety, and Colloquial Arabic as the Low variety. Using Colloquial Arabic to write a formal letter would be considered highly inappropriate. Similarly, a person speaking Modern Standard Arabic (a modern version of Classical Arabic) in informal interactions with family and friends would sound stilted and pedantic. The L variety is acquired as one’s mother tongue and is used throughout life in informal interactions of the family and community. The H variety, on the other hand, is never learned at home and is related to institutions outside the home (see Table 3.2 for a typical distribution for High and Low varieties in a diglossic society).

Fishman (1967) extended Ferguson’s definition of diglossia to include not only dialects, but also different languages. Thus Ferguson’s (1959) original distinction between a High variety and a Low variety can be applied to a societal language (High variety) and a home/community language (Low variety) in a bilingual society. In Paraguay, Spanish is the H variety, the official language of government and education, while Guarani, spoken by 90% of the population, is the L variety, the language of informal interaction in the home and the community. In Ecuador, Spanish is the H variety and Quechua the L variety. In many post-colonial countries such as Paraguay and Ecuador, the language of the former colonizers serves as the H variety even after independence.

According to Fishman, individual bilingualism deals with language choice that is more or less flexible whereas diglossia depends on more rigid, functional distribution of the two languages in various situations. However, boundaries

A Typical Distribution for High and Low Varieties in Diglossia



High Variety

Low Variety

Conversation with family and friends


Social interaction in the community




Oral language teachers use to teach pupils in the classroom


Academic textbooks


Political speeches


Religious texts and sermons


Letter writing


TV news broadcast


between two languages are not so clear cut in many bilingual societies, and it is not always possible to predict with certainty which language will be used in a particular situation. For example, Romaine (2006) notes that in Quechua- speaking parts of Peru, the indigenous language, Quechua, is used as the language in the home and community (the L variety), whereas Spanish is used for everything outside those domains (the H variety). But students who talk with one another in Quechua outside the school often do so inside the school even though school is not considered part of the home/community. Similarly, a mother sitting in front of her home may address the school director in Quechua even though she would normally use Spanish (the H variety) to address him at school.

What complicates matters further is that in some multilingual societies, there are not two, but three, four, or more languages and dialects in a triglossic or even polyglossic relationship (Morocco and Singapore are two such countries, which I will describe later in this chapter). Moreover, bilingual speech in diglossic communities is frequently characterized by code-switching—the spontaneous mixing of two languages within the same conversation. I will describe code-switching in detail in Chapter 6. But in the following, I turn to the societal circumstances under which people become bilingual.

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