Meillet, Weinreich etc.

Nicholas Ostler nostler at
Thu Mar 11 11:48:57 UTC 2004

Since this seems to be causing a slight conversation, I'll tell you all what I said to Trond Trosterud in my personal reply to his mis-sent letter:

In a review I wrote of the first SALTMIL workshop (at LREC 1998, Granada)I began with the following paragraphs:

"The old quip attributed to Uriel Weinreich, that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, is being replaced in these progressive days: a language is a dialect with a dictionary, grammar, parser and a multi-million-word corpus of texts-and they'd better all be computer tractable. When you've got all of those, get yourself a speech database, and your language will be poised to compete on terms of equality in the new Information Society.

"This is in principle a much more accommodating doctrine than the old one: all that is necessary for the new attributes of linguistic dignity is some money, and a university team with an interest in your language, although (as with the army-and-navy test) it does help if there is some civic unity (to provide a centre of gravity for outliers) and if modern users of the language outnumber the records of its use by ancestors..."

You can find the rest, if you're interested, (it's only a page or so long) at

Evidently, I would have benefited from more detailed knowledge of the linguists in the Weinreich family when I wrote this, and in any case I am interested to know know that the original conceit came apparently from Antoine Meillet, to whom I owe so much of my knowledge about "The Indo-European Dialects".  Not many navies in his timescale, nor offcial standing armies, I should think.

Regards to all

Nicholas Ostler

haroldfs at wrote:
> I don't know Ostler's use of the quotation, but for the record Antoine
> Meillet first said "a language is a dialect with an army" - later Max
> Weinreich used it in a talk in NewYorkCity (in Yiddish) and added "with a
> navy". There was a long discussion of all this in LgeinSociety, summed up=
>  by
> the then editor William Bright. I am sure he can give you the exact
> reference to it <see address above) Lycka till med talet! Christina Bratt
> Paulston
> ----------
> >From: Trond Trosterud <trond.trosterud at>
> >To: lgpolicy-list at
> >Subject: Re: CFP: FEL VIII: On the Margins of Nations: correction of e-m=
> ail
> >Date: Mon, Mar 8, 2004, 3:34 AM
> >
> > Dear nicholas ostler!
> >
> > I am about to give a talk on laguage technology and minority languages
> > here in Tromsö (linked to my project
> >
> > Connected to that I would like to give a quote. i believe it comes from
> > you, in some publicaton I imagine i have seen you have paraphrased
> > Uriel Weinreich's "a language is a dialect with a fleet and an army"
> > into "a language is a dialect with a machine-readable dictionary and
> > basic language technology resources" (as you see, my attempt at
> > remembering  both quotes are quite inaccurate).
> >
> > So, do you know what I am talking about? If so, could you send me the
> > quote (and I'll make it famous here in Tromsø)
> >
> > Trond
> >
> > ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> > Trond Trosterud                                        t +47 7764 4763
> > Institutt for språkvitskap, Det humanistiske fakultet  m +47 950 7014=
> 0
> > N-9037 Universitetet i Tromsø, Noreg                   f +47 7764 423=
> 9
> > Trond.Trosterud (a)
> > ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> >

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