that "offensive" survey request on diglossia

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at CCAT.SAS.UPENN.EDU
Tue Feb 5 15:13:46 UTC 2008

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In reply to various people who found the diglossia survey "offensive", I'd
like to add what I can to hopefully clarify this. The point John was
trying to make is that the greater degree of distance there is between the
H and L varieties of a language, the more difficult it is to achieve
literacy for people who only know L and are attempting to master H. I am
not an expert on Arabic, but I have heard people who are say that the
extreme diglossia of Arabic is in fact an impediment to literacy in
H-variety (Qu'ranic) Arabic, and I would agree that this is true for
Tamil, a language I spent 28 years of my career teaching. In fact I used
to teach H-variety Tamil and L-variety spoken Tamil separately, almost as
if they were two different but related languages, because otherwise
students tended to confuse the two varieties, especially at first.  So I
don't think that offense was meant by this question, and I don't find the
question offensive when seen in this light.

My only reservation is that I don't know of any number-crunching metric
one can use to ascertain what the "distance" is between the H and L of any
diglossic language, so that unless someone has come up with a way to
measure this, the "degree of distance" can only be guessed at,
impressionistically.  I think there is room here for some interesting
kinds of testing, e.g. to see how much of a different dialect speakers of
a given language can understand, e.g. how much Sri Lanka Tamil can Indian
Tamil speakers understand, vs. Sri Lanka speakers understanding Indian

The problem of course is that mutual intelligibility, or lack of it, often
has to do with factors other than "pure" perceptual cues, or measurable as
phonological morphological, lexical or syntactic differences.  (SL Tamil
speakers tend to understand Indian Tamil better than vice versa because of
the dominance of Indian Tamil in films, etc., or so I'm told.  I once had
the experience of speaking Indian Tamil to a woman in Sri Lanka who
replied to me in H-variety Tamil; if she had spoken SL Tamil I would have
not understood, but the arrangement worked well.) And we also have
literature on non-reciprocal intelligibility that is based on political

In other words, there are many sociolingustic factors involved here, but I
think it's an area for more research.  In any event, it's not an ignorant
question, and it's not meant to be offensive.

Hal Schiffman

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