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


This statement is usually attributed to Max Weinreich, a specialist in Yiddish linguistics, 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.

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.[8] 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 above.

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 noted in 2004 that the phrase had been attributed in "la petite histoire" (essentially anecdote) to Hubert Lyautey (1854–1934) at a meeting of the Académie Française; Laponce referred to the adage as "la loi de Lyautey" ('Lyautey's law').[10]

Randolph Quirk adapted the definition to "A language is a dialect with an army and a flag".[11]

See also[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. ^ Blum, Susan D. (2000). "Chapter 3: China's Many Faces: Ethnic, Cultural, and Religious Pluralism, pp. 69-96". In Weston, Timothy B.; Jensen, Lionel M. (eds.). China Beyond the Headlines. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 85. ISBN 9780847698554. 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). January–February 1945. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  7. ^ "YIVO Bleter (vol. 23 nr. 3)" (in Yiddish). May–June 1944. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  8. ^ "Mendele: Yiddish literature and language (Vol. 6.077)" (in Yiddish). 8 October 1996. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  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. ^ Laponce, Jean (2005). La Gouvernance linguistique: Le Canada en perspective. Ottawa: University of Ottawa. p. 13. ISBN 9782760316225.
  11. ^ Thomas Burns McArthur: The English languages, p.05

Further reading[edit]

  • John Edwards (2009). Language and identity: an introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-69602-9.
  • 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.
  • Alexander Maxwell (2018). When Theory is a Joke: The Weinreich Witticism in Linguistics (pp 263–292). Beiträge zur Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft. Vol 28, No 2.