the diglossia survey again

James Gair jwg2 at CORNELL.EDU
Tue Feb 5 23:30:10 UTC 2008

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I have to thank Hal Schiffman for his sensible and reasoned  attempt  
to clarify the questions and the issues  raised by John's request and  
the characterizations that formed part of it. Personally, I have no  
desire or intention of entering into a contentious discussion on the  
topic (or any others of that kind--I have had enough of those in my  
quite long academic career,)

However, I cannot forbear from a few comments and suggestions.

First, John raised some interesting points, some of which have been  
pursued in the research literature more than others, and further  
research on diglossia in both its structural and socio- 
anthropological aspects should be welcomed. If it leads to  
discussion, the bringing together of research in different languages  
and settings, great, and that would be even better if it lead to new  
	What seems to have happened here is that John used the word  
"fanaticism", which appears to be what disturbed Peter. On the other  
hand, it might be advisable to avoid words like "offensive". and I   
suggest that we might usefully apply ourselves to  the collection and  
analysis of results and data, and relating the work from different  
languages, contrasting and comparing what is there in some principled  
fashion. i that that John was, in fact contemplating something of the  
kind, which is all to the good.
	I didn't think that he was really suggesting that political pan- 
Arabism is a *general* motivation for the maintenance of thediglossic  
system in Arabic-speaking societies" in those terms. Rather, as I  
read it, however unfortunately it might have been put, and once I  
stripped it of the hot word, he opined that diglossic maintenance in  
that case was linked to religion and Arab nationalism and  
identity.Setting aside the PC aspects, this can be considered as a  
hypothesis to be entertained. As Hal says "In other words, there are  
many sociolingustic factors involved here, but Ithink it's an area  
for more research.  In any event, it's not an ignorant question, and  
it's not meant to be offensive."
	I have had limited contact with Arabic, but I have guided at least  
one thesis in Arabic diglossia (or multi-glossia), and the attitude  
toward Qu'ranic Arabic among Arabic speakers, and the veneration in  
which it is held is I found quite different from that towards Tamil,  
with which i had somewhat more experience, and Sinhala, with which i  
have had considerably more. The latter two lack the intimate  
religious connection that forms an integral part of the Arabic  
situation. (Someone is sure to bring up some connection of Sinhala  
with Buddhism, but that is at most indirect, filtered through  
communal identity, and in any event not directly related to H, as far  
as I know). There has been a fair amount of work on the Sinhala  
situation, some of it mine, and also a significant amount on Tamil by  
Hal and others. We could use more of it.  I hope that people are  
aware of the volume South Asian Languages: Structure, Convergence and  
Diglossia, edited bh Bh. Krishnamurti and others (Motilal  
Banarsidass, 1986), which contains several papers on the subject,  
including Hal (with Arokianathan) and me, and including one by my  
late, lamented colleague M.W.S. De Silva that directly addresses  
Diglossia and literacy.  He also has a 1976 Monograph entitled   
Diglossia and Literacy, and one happy byproduct of the present  
exchange is that it spurred my recollection of that work. Three of my  
own papers, including the one in the Krishnamurti volume, are  
included in my 1998 OUP collection, and I would be happy to make them  
available. There is also interesting work on diglossia by John  
Paolillo, focusing on Sinhala.
One thing is clear: the situations, whatever features they share, are  
also different in significant ways, and the factors affecting  
maintenance are different. Hal mentioned  distance between varieties  
as a factor, and the difficulty of measuring it.One feature of  
Sinhala, for example, is the considerable grammatical distance  
between H and L, and the emergence of a kind of "middle" variety  
(formal spoken). the growth of which has been energized by the  
demands of immediate communication in the mass media. One factor that  
I might mention, with regard to both maintenance and literacy, is a  
kind of cross-varirty asymmetry in the relation of script and  
phonology. The variety of script used in Literary includes several  
historically relevant distinctions not maintained in the spoken  
language (or, for that matter in some earlier literary varieties. For  
example, the full alphabet includes aspirated and unaspirated  
consonants, a distinction lost by the earliest inscriptions ca. 3rd  
ctry BCE, and certainly in the spoken language but used in dealing  
with IA loanwords.It also writes a distinction between retroflex and  
dental nasals and laterals, which were retained in early Sinhala, but  
lost by about the 8th ctry CE.
	In reading, this does not cause any really serious handicap, since,  
for example, aspirated and unaspirated  consonants are pronounced  
unaspirated (except in rare  cases where one may attempt virtuosity  
in rendering the aspirated ones). Thus in essence, the two-to-one  
drelationshipis relatively straightforwatd. In writing, however one  
must learn the distinctions as they pertain to specific lexical  
items. Thus <tana> 'breast' and <taNa> 'grass' are orthographically  
distinct but phonologically the same. I once ventured that, counter  
to Ferguson's initial description of diglossia and what might lead to  
its demise, widespread literacy in Sinhala did not lead to its loss,  
but that there might be such an effect when more people were led to  
write more extensively. Whether this is indeed to be the case remains  
to be seen, but without attempting a formal survey of some sort, it  
does appear that the formal spoken mentioned above is expanding its  

One last point, since this is already becoming much longer than i had  
It is undoubtedly true that, as Peter says,  " that diglossia is  
perpetuated because it is traditionally an integral part of some  
linguistic culture". However,the important question is what are the  
elements of the different  "linguistic cultures" that bear on and  
define the different situations with regard to nature and maintenance.

We have to thank John Myhill for bringing up the issue, and Peter  
Slomanson for stirring it up. Now let's hope for some further knowledge.
The interesting  contributions by Hal and Lakshmi Srinivas came in,  
apparently while I was writing this, but I'll send it as it is, since  
there is no conflict, noting alao note that Lakshmi brings in a new  
dimension, leading one to recall also the much discussed line in the  
Pali canon in which the Buddha states in what variety his teachings  
may be conveyed.

James W. Gair
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