Diglossia and usage of official language

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Lothar von Trotha
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Diglossia and usage of official language

Post by Lothar von Trotha »

Why do some official languages fail to become primary languages of their populations?

As an example, Standard German managed to become a language actually used as the primary language of vast majority of people in Germany and Austria. It replaced the spoken dialects (except in Bavaria) completely and nobody younger than 70 speaks a dialect.

Why didn't Modern Standard Arabic achieve the same? It is the sole high variety of Arabic that exists, it's used everywhere in the media and in schools heck there are even cartoons made in it... yet people still don't want to speak it. When two Arabs meet, they speak their local dialects and if they don't understand each other, they speak English/French not MSA. Even more, people would treat a native Arab speaker like a weirdo if he actually tried to speak MSA on a daily basis, it seems to be almost a ceremonial langugae.

Why such a difference?
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Re: Diglossia and usage of official language

Post by Pabappa »

i think at least in the case of Arabic, the difference is that Modern Standard Arabic is not the speech of any one dialect, but a scholarly form based on the archaic speech of the 7th century AD, almost as different from the modern forms as Latin is from the modern Romance languages. Whereas German, English, French etc started out as the sole language of their original dialect groups, being both scholarly and colloquial, and spread outward.
I'll take the theses, and you can have the thoses.
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Re: Diglossia and usage of official language

Post by Davush »

I think there are several things to consider which might help answer your question regarding the case of Arabic vs German in particular.

I think the first and probably main factor is that the Arabic-speaking world spans a huge ethno-culturally diverse region, the histories of which are very different from each other. Nor does the Arabic-speaking world function as a single, politically-united entity (indeed far from it). Even within a single Arabic-speaking country you can often find multiple dialects. For a fairer comparison, it would be difficult to imagine a standardised 'pan-Mediterranean' language, let alone a pan-European language which covers a roughly similar geographic scope. By contrast, Germany is a single, politically-united nation-state. A comparable situation might be to imagine if Latin had remained an influential language of the media and scholarship in the Romance-speaking regions – to expect the entire Mediterranean and beyond to switch to Classical Latin as the daily language (despite it being nobody's daily language for many centuries) would probably just not work. Many Arabic-speakers are also very much attached to their native dialects as a marker of identity, which is understandable given that the Arab world isn't a single, undifferentiated entity.

Another point is that Modern Standard Arabic itself exists on a continuum from the highly Qur'anic Arabic typical of religious scholars, to more 'dialect-icised', modern forms which you can hear on some TV shows and other forms of media which aren't particularly scholarly and/or very serious in tone. Nonetheless, if MSA is understood as roughly '7th century Arabic with a modernised lexicon' (of course it is more complex than this in practice), it is easy to see that this form of the language is somewhat 'artificial' in that it hasn't been the native language of daily-life for a long time. Even in schools it is common for teachers to speak in the local dialect, or to switch between registers as needed.

Regarding Arabic-speakers using English/French with speakers of another dialect: while this may be true in parts of North Africa, in my experience it is far more common elsewhere to speak a kind of mid-way 'dialectal' Arabic (a mesolect) with many of the highly-regional elements and vocabulary removed in such situations. Exposure to media of other Arab countries, particularly Egypt, the Levant and the Gulf means that most younger speakers are nowadays at least somewhat familiar with the main representative varieties. For example, a Gulf Arabic speaker in Egypt would often remove many of the highly marked Gulf dialectal features, and may use some Egyptian dialect, but would nonetheless be easily identifiable as from the Gulf region.

For the question as a whole, perhaps China would be an interesting case to consider? Mandarin is now widely understood and used among younger generations, maybe even supplanting local dialects in some regions? China being a unified state also probably plays a large role in this.
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Re: Diglossia and usage of official language

Post by Salmoneus »

I don't disagree with what's been said. But I'll say it again, in a different order.

To answer the general question of whether someone will adopt a language for a certain purpose, I think there's three more specific questions it's good to consider...

1. Can they adopt the language?

The easier it is to adopt a language/dialect, the more likely people are to do it. If the would-be standard is frequently encountered in multiple modes and contexts, and similar to the native dialect, then it's more likely to be widely adopted. If it's only encountered in a few contexts, particularly if it's only found in writing, and if it's counterintuitive for speakers of the local language, then it's less likely to be adopted, or only adopted in limited contexts (eg in writing, in law courts, etc). A particular issue can be the presence of native speakers: we learn more easily from native speakers than we do from people who are themselves learners; so a language that has some native speakers is more likely to gain more, compared to a language with an entirely L2 community.

2. Do they want to adopt the language?

What does the would-be standard symbolise? If it represents, to speakers of the local language, progress and prosperity, it is more likely to be adopted; if it represents the bad old days, it's less likely to be adopted, or, if adopted, more likely to be kept confined to certain contexts. And if it's seen as "ours", we are more likely to adopt it than if it's seen as an imposition on us by "them".

3. Do they have to adopt the language?

How easy would it be for people to NOT speak the standard? Here's some specific issues:
- what percentage of your conversations are with people who don't speak the local language?
- can you talk in the local language with people who have power and influence?
- can you use the local language in your commercial dealings?
- can children be educated in the local language?
- can you get news in the local language?
- can you access a wide array of artforms in the local language (novels, poems, songs, plays, etc)?
- is anyone intentionally trying to push you into adopting the standard? Do they give preferential treatment to those who do?

Obviously, if it's more difficult to live without the standard, people are moe likely to adopt it. This can be a big part of why the policies of a central government make such a difference, even if they're not explicitly genocidal.
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