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A language is a dialect with an army and navy

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"A language is a dialect with an army and navy", sometimes called the Weinreich witticism,[1] is a quip about the arbitrariness of the distinction between a dialect and a language.[2][3][4][5] 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.[6] The facetious 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 in the 1940s.


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 dyalekt 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.[7]

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:[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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').[11]

Randolph Quirk adapted the definition to "A language is a dialect with an army and a flag".[12]


In 1589, George Puttenham had made a similar comment about the political nature of the definition of a language as opposed to a language variety: "After a speech is fully fashioned to the common understanding, and accepted by consent of a whole country and nation, it is called a language".[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Abend, Gabriel (25 July 2023). Words and Distinctions for the Common Good: Practical Reason in the Logic of Social Science. Princeton University Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-691-24706-9.
  2. ^ Victor H. Mair (2002). The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press. p. 24. ISBN 9780231528511. It has often been facetiously remarked... the falsity of this quip can be demonstrated...
  3. ^ Mchombo, Sam (2008). "The Ascendancy of Chinyanja". In Brown, Keith; Ogilvie, Sarah (eds.). Concise encyclopedia of languages of the world. Elsevier. p. 793. ISBN 9780080877754. A recurrent joke in linguistics courses ... is the quip that ...
  4. ^ Wolfram, Walt; Schilling, Natalie (1998). American English: Dialects and Variation. p. 218.
  5. ^ 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]
  6. ^ Barfield, Thomas (1998). The Dictionary of Anthropology. Wiley. ISBN 9781577180579. Fundamental notions such as 'language' and 'dialect' are primarily social, not linguistic, constructs, because they depend on society in crucial ways.
  7. ^ "YIVO Bleter (vol. 25 nr. 1)" (in Yiddish). January–February 1945. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  8. ^ "YIVO Bleter (vol. 23 nr. 3)" (in Yiddish). May–June 1944. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
  9. ^ "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.
  10. ^ 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."
  11. ^ Laponce, Jean (2005). La Gouvernance linguistique: Le Canada en perspective. Ottawa: University of Ottawa. p. 13. ISBN 9782760316225.
  12. ^ Thomas Burns McArthur, The English languages, p.205
  13. ^ George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesie, English Reprints, ed. Edward Arber, London, 1869, p. 156; as quoted in Kamusella, Tomasz (2003). "The Szlonzoks and their Language: Between Germany, Poland and Szlonzokian Nationalism" (PDF). EUI Working Paper (HEC 2003/1): 8.

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.