Talk:A language is a dialect with an army and navy

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Antoine Meillet wrote extensively about the differences between dialects and languages, and described military and political action as significant determinitive forces. An aphoristic military analogy is therefore a very reasonable thing to expect from him. A linguist familiar with his work and who had never heard the statement “a language is a dialect with an army and navy” associated with any specific author, if asked to comment on its origin might reasonably answer, “I don't know where it comes from, but it certainly sounds like something that Antoine Meillet could have said.” Pending the location of an explicit reference in Meillet's work, the belief held by some linguists that he was the originator of the aphorism may have its explanation in this speculative process.

Similarly, because the Yiddish version is in such wide circulation, the aphorism is often regarded as an expression of specifically Yiddish ethos. If this is in fact a correct assessment, a Yiddish speaking high school teacher with a particular interest in linguistics might very well have coined it. On the other hand, such a person might equally easily have come across it in some other context. Either way, there is no particular reason to expect an earlier Yiddish published source to turn up, but the francophone origin remains to be thoroughly investigated. Without suggesting there to be anything particuIarly scholarly about it, I scanned several of Meillet's books in which the aphorism might be likely to appear line by line looking for it without success. He was, however, a prolific writer and it would have taken a good deal of luck for that approach to lead anywhere. It is also worth noting that a number of people actively hunted for the source of the Weinreich citation before it was finally located in a not particularly obscure place. --futhark 14:16, 20 October 2005 (UTC)


The present title of this article ("Language-dialect aphorism") strikes me as hiding a vivid statement behind a clumsy academic title. -- Jmabel | Talk 23:58, 16 October 2005 (UTC)

Any suggestions for a less stodgy alternative? --futhark 09:11, 17 October 2005 (UTC)
Yes, move it to Language is a dialect with an army and navy. We have far more clumsier titles on Wikipedia, and it's popular enough to be a likely search subject. Duja 08:05, 26 May 2006 (UTC)


What I think is funny that no one has pointed out (at least, I have not noticed) that both UK and US have an army and a navy; Germany, Austria and Switzerland each have an army (Germany a navy, too, and so had Austria in its imperial times); Latin American countries have armies and navies, etc.; and yet these "dialects with armies and navies" are never considered to be separate languages. This fact alone renders the famous aphorism a liability. -- A Finn. (13 April 2006)

Consider The American Language by H. L. Mencken. Septentrionalis 20:42, 26 May 2006 (UTC)
The reason that is not pointed out is that it obviously doesn't grasp the point the aphorism is making. (Apart from being a logical fallacy of course, called Affirming the consequent, by making the following leap: A language (p) is a dialect with an army (q). This country's dialect has an army (q), therefore it must be a language (p).)
American English is the Language Standard in the USA, not British English, and vice versa. There is no need nor desire to use the army in these countries to elevate one of these two to become "the language" and subordinating the other to become a mere "dialect" of the real "language". The aphorism is often applied to situations where "Having an army" means being able to elevate your dialect, at the expense of other similar dialects, to a state language and thereby putting all other dialects in a position of inferiority in relation to yours and rendering their use an "incorrect" use of your "real language". Pia 21:51, 27 May 2006 (UTC)
Indeed, a better example might be the Scandinavian languages, which link here. --Belg4mit 18:42, 9 June 2007 (UTC)
The colonial languages are bad examples. The Scandinavian languages are good examples, so are the division between the Iberic and Italian languages (Spanish vs Catalonian vs Castilian vs Italian), and the disappearance of the German sub-languages, many of which were considered separate languages until the unification. The most recent example is the split of serbo-croatian into serbian, croatian and bosnian Carewolf (talk) 11:20, 28 September 2011 (UTC)
I don't agree that "at the expense of other similar dialects" is a necessary element. At what dialects' expense was Croatian, for example, promoted from a dialect of Serbo-Croatian? —Tamfang (talk) 23:11, 5 March 2015 (UTC)
One way of resolving this problem would read "an army and navy" as a mathematician would: to mean "at least one army and navy." I.e., a language is the national speech of at least one nation. Works for me! Gambaguru (talk) 15:39, 11 October 2015 (UTC)

Requested move[edit]

The following discussion is an archived debate of the proposal. Please do not modify it. Subsequent comments should be made in a new section on the talk page. No further edits should be made to this section.

The result of the debate was move. —Nightstallion (?) 11:38, 31 May 2006 (UTC)


Language-dialect aphorism → Language is a dialect with an army and navy – There's no reason to hide the popular saying behind the pseudo-scientific title. The new title would be a likely search term, and I found the article using Google (!) rather than the Wikisearch.Duja 08:24, 26 May 2006 (UTC)


Add *Support or *Oppose followed by an optional one-sentence explanation, then sign your opinion with ~~~~
  • Support as nominator Duja 08:24, 26 May 2006 (UTC)
  • Support as the originator of the present title and the author of most of the text in the article (other than the source material) --futhark 14:54, 26 May 2006 (UTC)
  • Support. Septentrionalis 20:38, 26 May 2006 (UTC)
  • Support, also recommend that the page be expanded to explain what it's supposed to mean and not just the history of the phrase. Ewlyahoocom 21:03, 26 May 2006 (UTC)
  • Support, agree with Ewlyahoocom about expansion as well. Pia 05:02, 29 May 2006 (UTC)


Add any additional comments

This has also been quoted as: "with an army and a flag", which may be an improvement. (Mongolian is a language, isn't it?). This should be expanded, and may be a useful redirect. Septentrionalis 20:40, 26 May 2006 (UTC)

The above discussion is preserved as an archive of the debate. Please do not modify it. Subsequent comments should be made in a new section on this talk page. No further edits should be made to this section.

The meaning of the aphorism[edit]

I spent almost 30 minutes wondering what does the sentence "a language is a dialect with an army and navy" means. It means that a dialect attains the status of language when its speakers have powers, am I right? Anyway, I think this article should contain an explanation of the meaning of the aphorism for the dull people like me. --Acepectif 13:50, 29 June 2006 (UTC)

Ah-ha! Reminds me of the aphorism about cults: "The only difference between a cult and a religion is a hundred years". Ewlyahoocom 14:48, 29 June 2006 (UTC)
Nice one, too. —Nightstallion (?) 22:40, 1 July 2006 (UTC)
Apt indeed, but not wholly accurate I'd say. Witness the public's perceptions of Mormonism or Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.; the latter of whom neatly fit with the Adventists into the Xian family tree. Maybe a thousand years. Some instances of this on the web say "several hundred years," and others "the amount of real estate they own" (attributed to Frank Zappa). --Belg4mit 18:53, 9 June 2007 (UTC)
Acepectif- close, but not quite. The gist is more that, for instance, Yorkshire is a dialect of English. When we say "English," we essentially mean the language from London, which had the army and the navy. Same thing with Ancient Greek--there are several dialects, but when you say "Classical Greek," the language you mean is that of Athens. Same thing with French--Paris French is the language and the varieties in the South are "dialects". -- Dogandpony
Well,the article needs this. Howbout right after the section entitled Relevance to Yiddish, or right before, or, howbout even right in the introduction? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:28, 8 September 2007 (UTC)

The illustration with English is neither appropriate nor correct. The term "English" when used without a qualifier is not preferentially associated with British English. When the reference is being made to British English, the Received Pronunciation is most likely to come to mind. This is neither the London nor the Yorkshire accent (a concept that is being confused here with dialect; to say nothing of the incorrect assertion that London speech is typified by a single accent). Neither is it clear how the British Army and Royal Navy are "had" in London, at least in any manner that acts to the detriment of the identity of the language spoken in Yorkshire. Weinreich's own remarks about the aphorism go on to indicate what he takes it to mean and, if there is a strong indication of interest in adding a section for speculative attempts to squeeze more meaning into a cute saying than I personally feel it sustains, I will add Weinreich's further observations. --Futhark|Talk 07:04, 9 September 2007 (UTC)

I believe the meaning is that independent nations have languages, After all most languages have the same name as a nationality, French, English, Spanish. saying something has an army and a navy, is a euphemism of saying it is a country, since by far most have at least one, and I can't think of an entity with both that is not a government. (talk) 06:33, 28 August 2010 (UTC)

More common form in English[edit]

"A language is a dialect with an army and a navy" appears to be considerably more common in English writing than the literal but slightly awkward-sounding "A language is a dialect with an army and navy" (which we have the article at now). The former by far predominates in Google Scholar and Google Books. Should we move it?--Pharos (talk) 01:23, 31 January 2008 (UTC)


The attribution to Hubert Lyautey isn't just in online sources; this book (based on papers presented at a 2002 Ottawa conference), raises the "loi de Lyautey". My hunch, based on some of the contexts this has been raised in, is that this attribution (accurate or not) may have something to do with Lyautey's Berber Policy (supporting Berbers as separate from Arabs culturally and militarily), when he was governor of French Morocco. --Pharos (talk) 01:40, 31 January 2008 (UTC)

  • Also, he founded the École Supérieure de Langue Arabe et de Dialectes Berbères (ESLADB) in Rabat in 1912.--Pharos (talk) 01:59, 31 January 2008 (UTC)
I've moved this reference into the body of the article. It's important to note, however, that the coinage loi de Lyautey is explicitly the author of the article's, who presents the entire episode as anecdotal:
"Lors d'une des réunions hebdomaires de l'Académie française qui, selon la petite histoire, débattait de la définition du mot 'langue', le Maréchal lyautey aurait dit 'une langue, c'est un dialecte qui a une armée et une marine.' J'élève cette boutade au rang de loi, tout en la modifiant un peu." --Futhark|Talk 15:59, 10 January 2010 (UTC)

Speculation / original research[edit]

In its present form, the article is rife with speculation and original research, neither one of which is appropriate under Wikipedia policy. I haven't hacked out the parts that seem totally unverifiable yet but any editor may do so; the parts that state facts that could be verifiable but aren't yet cited should probably be marked {{fact}} or {{or}} for a reasonable period of time then removed. - Regards, PhilipR (talk) 07:46, 7 January 2010 (UTC)

I'm not a big fan of the headings in this article and wasn't the one who added them. For the sake of argument, however, let's accept the heading of the section under question as non-rhetorical. Suggesting that the answer to the question, "Who might have made the remark?", is "We don't know.", and supporting that contention by illustrating the tenuousness of a number of documented assertions about named authors, is hardly a research result — original or otherwise.
Forgetting about research ideology and looking at substance: The realization that the attribution to Weinreich was a textbook error can be credited to Joshua Fishman as cited in the article. The URL provided there has become temporarily disfunctional in the interim and I've just updated it. For the sake of convenience of Yiddish readers the full citation (romanized in the original) is:
Mendele: Yiddish literature and language, Vol. 6.077
Date: Tue, 8 Oct 1996 08:05:34 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: A geoyem opshik far an oftn "tsitat"
Men tsitirt oft max vaynraykhn (Max Weinreich) in shaykhes mitn zog "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy". Tsi hot emetser a genoyem opshik far yenem tsitat in eyne fun vaynraykhs publikatsiyes? Vaynraykh aleyn hot dem zog "tsugeshribn" tsu "emetsn do in zal" in zayns a referat in yivo beys a konferents vegn tsveyshprakhikeyt, April 1967. Vaynraykh hot geredt ad"t "Tsvey toyznt anderthalbn yor yidishe tsveyshprakhikeyt". Dem referat hot men rekordirt un er gefint zikh inem arkhiv funem yivo. Loyt mayn zikorn, bin ikh der "emetser", nor oyb men ken gefinen af dem a genoyem opshik in vaynraykhs a publikatsiye, iz dos nit mer vi a shpitsl fun mayn zikorn un der emetser do in zal iz gor an anderer. Ikh fleg dem oysdruk nutsn in mayne klasn un hob dos ibergezogt far vaynraykhn. Ober efsher hobn mir dos beyde fun an andern vos is oykh geven "do in zal" beys vaynraykh hot geredt. Tsi hot emetser a genoyem opshik tsu a gedruktn moker fun yener tsayt?
Shikl Fishman
This clearly states that Fishman took the date of Weinreich's remark to be 1967 and therefore felt he might have been the unnamed informant. However, his own biographical details are not consistent with his having been present at the far earlier original event.
The suggested attribution to Antoine Meillet is warranted by the cited remarks of William Bright.
The similar reference to Louis-Hubert Lyautey was, I had long thought, an artifact of unsupported Wikipedian scholarship but then the preceding topic on this discussion page appeared. (FWIW I still doubt that attribution.)
So — I'd be happy to see this article as rigorously adherent to Wikipedia policy as it can possibly be, but am at somewhat of a loss to see anything original in the research presented here. If you could sketch some specific detail I'll gladly undertake the editorial burden. --Futhark|Talk 15:45, 7 January 2010 (UTC)
I agree with PhilipR above -- not only is the article full of original research in the Wikipedia sense, but its tone and approach is not encyclopedic. I will try to find some time to work on it. --Macrakis (talk) 14:11, 15 October 2010 (UTC)

Article's purpose[edit]

As written, the article is an essay intended to show, in great detail, that Max Weinrich is not the originator of the aphorism "A language is a dialect with an army and navy". The point is so belabored that the article title probably ought to be "Max Weinrich is not the originator of the aphorism 'A language is a dialect with an army and navy'". Nietzche didn't say God is dead either, except through a character, but that article doesn't focus soley on the fact that Nietzche wasn't saying it himself. It mentions the fact, and goes on to talk about the larger meaning and context of the phrase. Should not this article do the same thing?

In particular, I submitted that the sentence in the introduction,

The aphorism is often incorrectly attributed to the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, who published but did not coin it.


The aphorism was first published by the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich.

Both are true, but the former seems to me to be insisting on an point of questionable importance, almost as if it were to say

The aphorism was first published by the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, who despite being Jewish did not keep kosher.

(I have no idea if he did or not, but even if he did, it's not really the central point.) User:Futhark undid my edit on the grounds that "calling attention to the misattribution is a primary purpose of this article". Well, the article goes on to spend eight paragraphs expounding on this minor point, which I would submit is about as relevant as saying that Nietzche didn't directly say "God is dead". It may be an interesting point, to some, but it is not really that central to the quote's significance that it was in indirect speech.

Ultimately, then the question is, does the aphorism "A language is a dialect with an army and navy" really have an encyclopaedia article on it because of the significance of who didn't say it first? -- (talk) 15:06, 30 June 2010 (UTC)

If the article is as overworked an exposition of a trivial subject as you assert, it becomes all the more important to summarize its salient point in the lead paragraph. The reader for whom that is sufficient can then ignore the rest of the article. Readers who are interested in greater detail will hopefully not find the rest of the text quite as irksome as you seem to. It is not about who didn't say something. It is about the details of what despite everything is a very frequently quoted and very frequently misattributed statement. That in turn results in it being taken as specifically about Yiddish and not of a general sociolinguistic phenomenon. Rectifying this misperception is by no means without encyclopedic value. --Futhark|Talk 18:01, 30 June 2010 (UTC)
I agree entirely with User: It is just bizarre to say that "calling attention to the misattribution is a primary purpose of this article". After all, we're not talking about a case like Let them eat cake, where Marie-Antoinette did not utter the phrase at all as far as anyone can tell, or a case like Iron curtain, where the phrase had currency in a variety of public contexts for decades before Churchill's speech (which nonetheless is pivotal to the modern meaning of the phrase). As for the phrase being taken as being specifically about Yiddish, this is the first I hear of that interpretation. In any case, there is nothing in the article that indicates that the phrase is less about Yiddish -- quite the contrary! The auditor (to use the article's language) in fact was referring specifically to the Yiddish situation and Weinreich summarizes the comment as "this wonderful formulation of the social plight of Yiddish"! --Macrakis (talk) 15:25, 15 October 2010 (UTC)
I have tried to tighten up the wording in the article and minimize the original research phrasing, while keeping the full substance of previous contributions. Comments? --Macrakis (talk) 02:26, 24 October 2010 (UTC)

Current Applicability? The Chinese Case[edit]

So, we have the statement, which I take to mean "if a few weak people speak it it is a dialect, but if many powerful people speak it then it's, arbitrarily, elevated in status to a language.

But, my understanding as an amateur is that linguists would define the difference as one of mutual intelligibility. Thus, closely related languages, such as those of Portugal and Spain, or England and the Netherlands, are indisputably languages, whereas the various forms of English spoken around the world trail off into dialects.

And, thus, I understand that mutual intelligibility is the only true academic criterion for the distinction. And therefore the army/navy comment might be taken as a comment on the interference of political power into what should remain strictly an academic determination.

Which brings me to my topic, China. China has at least 8 languages spoken, as first languages, by at least 10 million native residents each. (I insert the word "native" to avoid English being considered here. Or I could cite longevity by saying these languages have been around X hundreds of years.) I furthermore exclude languages universally recognized as non-Chinese, such as Korean.

And by some calculations there are 15 such major Chinese languages.

However, the official word from the Beijing government is that there is only ONE Chinese language, and all the others are mere dialects (as though there is something faintly repugnant about them). The schools all across this land teach only the Beijing form of the "common language" (pu tong hua, or Mandarin), and television is televised only in that language. "Only" in the previous sentence might be technically incorrect; it may be that 99% of teaching and broadcasting time are in pu tong hua and the remainder is an "offering" by the central government of support of local cultures.

Pu tong hua is spoken as a first language by about 50% of the 1.3 billion people of China and the national government (or the Party) has a clear policy of increasing that percentage as a political goal aimed at unifying the nation.

As an American university teacher of English in central China (Wuhan city), over the past 5 years I've discussed this matter with many of my students and they are universally of one opinion that Chinese is a single language with several dialects. They often point to the written language as a sort of lingua franca across these dialects claiming (with roughly 90% accuracy) that although the "dialects" are truly mutually unintelligible, a speaker of Cantonese (a Hong Kong resident of the far south for instance) can read a newspaper or book written in pu tong hua and published in Beijing, in the distant north, whereas of course if he listened to a non-Cantonese-speaker reading it out loud, he's be unable to understand.

When I saw the army/navy phrase, I smiled and muttered, "This one will go into my lecture materials, for sure!"

Anyone care to comment?

Ertdfgcvb (talk) 08:02, 21 January 2011 (UTC)

The wry comment that "a language is a dialect with an army and navy" was surely not intended to define a language as contrasted as a dialect; quite the contrary, it underlines how arbitrary the distinction is. Mutual intelligibility is no bright line, either, cf. dialect continuum and Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache and Dachsprache for more discussion. Anyway, substantive discussion of this doesn't belong on a talk page. --Macrakis (talk) 03:06, 7 February 2011 (UTC)
I believe this aphorism is popular among Jews because Yiddish is considered a dialect of German. The aphorism encompasses in a humorous form the ideas of Zionism - to live in a nation state with an army and a navy and with an official language, not a dialect. It's certainly not a scientific statement and it may not apply well outside the original context. Proski (talk) 04:34, 6 January 2012 (UTC)
Firstly, in order to answer your question, you need to define "language" and "dialect".
I disagree with the statement that Chinese is a single language with several dialects.
It would the same as saying that Latin is a single language with several dialects.
Whilst I agree that mandarin is a single language in itself. Cantonese, Minnan, Gan, Hakka, Xiang and Wuu are separate languages in themselves. In spoken form, these languages are mutually untelligible amongst each other. When these languages are written in the romanized alphabet, it is untelligible to the mandarin speaker (Just as English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish and Italian are separate languages.) --BrianJ34 (talk) 13:00, 31 May 2013 (UTC)
Chinese is very complex, as you would expect from something that's been around for so long in the same place. I would say that written Chinese is a language with dialects, but spoken Chinese is, linguistically speaking, a grouping of separate languages, each with their own clusters of dialects, with some of those dialects intermediate between the different clusters. Because Mandarin is considered standard Chinese by the majority of the speakers of pretty much all the lects, its probably best to treat Chinese as a macrolanguage. At Wiktionary, we decided to go with treating the dialects as separate languages, but there are some who strongly disagree. It's one of those cases where no matter what you do, there are real problems- all tradeoffs and no clear-cut right answer. A far better example would be the Scandinavian languages: Most of the varieties of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are mutually intelligible, though some of this has to do with the influence of Danish on standard varieties of Swedish and Norwegian. Still, each country has its own standard, and its speakers consider each as an independent language. Which brings up another point: sociopolitical clout (as exemplified by this quote) counts for a lot, but, in the end, it's the perception of the speakers that makes the most difference. Chuck Entz (talk) 14:36, 11 June 2013 (UTC)

ex yugoslavia?[edit]

the language of yugoslavia was serbocroatian - today: the language of serbia is serbian - the language of croatia is croatian - thelanguage of montenegro is montenegrin - languages of bosia are croation serbian and bosnian 16:08, 12 July 2014 (UTC) — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk)

Yep, and the irony comes from the fact that they're all based on the same dialect proving the case of this article, in fact it might be handy to include in this article.
Sincerely, --Namlong618 (talk) 09:19, 27 February 2015 (UTC)

Possible lead[edit]

I remember first seeing this decades ago in an older book (1960s or older) on (I think) historical linguistics (it had tables of Indo-European sound correspondences). The saying was attributed to someone with a German name and a noble title, presumably a diplomat, in the 19th century. I wish I could remember more details. Chuck Entz (talk) 14:06, 22 May 2012 (UTC)

beyond paraphrase[edit]

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 at the Annual YIVO (then known as the Yiddish Scientific Institute) Conference on 5 January 1945.

The first "translation" is absurdly loose, and no improvement on the literal. Any objection to dropping it? —Tamfang (talk) 06:35, 12 October 2014 (UTC)

Also, the "then known" parenthesis implies that the Yiddish Scientific Institute changed its name to YIVO sometime after 1945, making me wonder why the future name appears in the title of the speech! I've rewritten that bit. —Tamfang (talk) 06:40, 12 October 2014 (UTC)

It's not a translation. It's the title as it appears in the English language table of contents in the publication, itself. --Futhark|Talk 13:04, 12 October 2014 (UTC)
So YIVO Bleter had a bi-(or multi-)lingual ToC? That could be put more explicitly. —Tamfang (talk) 23:54, 12 October 2014 (UTC)
Many Yiddish publications produced in the USA have some form of English language title sheet. I see nothing noteworthy about YIVO Bleter having a separate English table of contents but if it is worth mention, nonetheless, there would probably be more appropriate articles for doing so than this one. The separate Indication of an English language title for a non-English article is otherwise consistent with basic principles of bibliographic control and, again, not noteworthy in itself. --Futhark|Talk 00:42, 13 October 2014 (UTC)

The last section[edit]

It's great that we have a section quoting the original text in Yiddish and a romanised transliteration, but it's pretty much unintelligible to anyone who doesn't understand Yiddish. Could we perhaps get a translation? ansh666 04:30, 15 April 2016 (UTC)

Um, the translation is in the main body of the article as a block-quote: "A teacher at a Bronx high school ... Yiddish to a large audience." The Yiddish text is introduced with "Here is <the> passage from the 1945 text..." --Macrakis (talk) 04:42, 15 April 2016 (UTC)
See, as a non-Yiddish speaker, I wouldn't have known that. The text introducing the two different passages make no link between them. I'll update it to make it more clear. Thanks, ansh666 04:50, 15 April 2016 (UTC)
I'm not a Yiddish speaker either, BTW. And I don't think the full Yiddish text (in both Hebrew script and transliteration!) belongs in the article at all. But I do think it's clear that this is the text of the 1945 speech. --Macrakis (talk) 14:03, 25 April 2016 (UTC)