A language is a dialect with an army and navy

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"A language is a dialect with an army and navy" is a quip[1][2] or humorous adage[3] about the arbitrariness[4] of the distinction between a dialect and a language. It points out the influence that social[5] and political conditions can have over a community's perception of the status of a language or dialect. The adage was popularized by the sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who heard it from a member of the audience at one of his lectures.

Weinreich[edit]

This statement is usually attributed to one of the leading figures in modern Yiddish linguistics, Max Weinreich, who expressed it in Yiddish:

אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט

a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot

The earliest known published source is Weinreich's article Der YIVO un di problemen fun undzer tsayt (דער ייִוואָ און די פּראָבלעמען פֿון אונדזער צײַט‎ "The YIVO Faces the Post-War World"; literally "The YIVO and the problems of our time"), originally presented as a speech on 5 January 1945 at the annual YIVO conference. Weinreich did not give an English version.[6]

In the article, Weinreich presents this statement as a remark of an auditor at a lecture series given between 13 December 1943 and 12 June 1944:[7]

A teacher at a Bronx high school once appeared among the auditors. He had come to America as a child and the entire time had never heard that Yiddish had a history and could also serve for higher matters.... Once after a lecture he approached me and asked, 'What is the difference between a dialect and language?' I thought that the maskilic contempt had affected him, and tried to lead him to the right path, but he interrupted me: 'I know that, but I will give you a better definition. A language is a dialect with an army and navy.' From that very time I made sure to remember that I must convey this wonderful formulation of the social plight of Yiddish to a large audience.

Weinreich observed that the phrase is a "wonderful expression of the social plight of Yiddish". In his lecture, he discusses not just linguistic, but also broader notions of "yidishkeyt" (ייִדישקייט – lit. Jewishness).

The sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Joshua Fishman suggested that he might have been the auditor at the Weinreich lecture, and has subsequently been cited as the originator of the army-navy statement in several references.[citation needed] However, Fishman was assuming that the exchange took place at a conference in 1967, more than twenty years later than the YIVO lecture (1945) and in any case does not fit Weinreich's description.[8][original research?]

Other mentions[edit]

Some scholars believe that Antoine Meillet had earlier said that a language is a dialect with an army, but there is no contemporary documentation of this.[9]

Jean Laponce suggested in 2004 that Hubert Lyautey (1854–1934) may have originated the phrase at a meeting of the Académie française, and proposed to call it the "Loi de Lyautey" 'Lyautey's law'.[10] But again there is no good evidence for this.[citation needed]

Randolph Quirk adapted the definition to "A language is a dialect with an army and a flag" (adding a defense policy and a national airline).[11]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Victor H. Mair, The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, p. 24 full text: "It has often been facetiously remarked... the falsity of this quip can be demonstrated..."
  2. ^ S. Mchombo, "Nyanja" in Keith Brown, Sarah Ogilvie, eds., Concise encyclopedia of languages of the world, p. 793 full text: "A recurrent joke in linguistics courses ... is the quip that ..."
  3. ^ Walt Wolfram, Natalie Schilling, American English: Dialects and Variation, p. 218
  4. ^ Timothy B. Weston, Lionel M. Jensen, China beyond the headlines, p. 85 full text: "Weinreich...pointing out the arbitrary division between [dialect and language]"
  5. ^ Thomas Barfield, The Dictionary of Anthropology, s.v. 'sociolinguistics' full text: "Fundamental notions such as 'language' and 'dialect' are primarily social, not linguistic, constructs, because they depend on society in crucial ways."
  6. ^ "YIVO Bleter (vol. 25 nr. 1)" (in Yiddish). Jan–Feb 1945. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  7. ^ "YIVO Bleter (vol. 23 nr. 3)" (in Yiddish). May–June 1944. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  8. ^ "Mendele: Yiddish literature and language (Vol. 6.077)" (in Yiddish). 1996-10-08. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  9. ^ William Bright, editorial note in Language in Society, 26:469 (1997): "Some scholars believe that the [Yiddish] saying is an expansion of a quote from Antoine Meillet, to the effect that a language is a dialect with an army. Up to now the source has not been found in the works of Meillet."
  10. ^ La gouvernance linguistique : le Canada en perspective (in French). 2004-01-01. Retrieved 2010-01-10. 
  11. ^ Thomas Burns McArthur: The English languages, p.05

Further reading[edit]

  • John Earl Joseph (2004). Language and identity: national, ethnic, religious. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-99752-9. 
  • Robert McColl Millar (2005). Language, nation and power: an introduction. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-3971-5. 
  • John Edwards (2009). Language and identity: an introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-69602-9.