Developmental Diglossia in the Arabic Language


Diglossia is defined by Fergusson (1959) as a specialized form of study where a specific ancient language is analyzed in the context of comprehending its dynamics for writing and oral works. However, he identifies that the summed up knowledge is not essentially used in day-to-day conversations. This is affirmed through his assertions that diglossia is:

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“… a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which may include a standard or regional standards ), there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but it is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation” (Fergusson, 1959, p.75).

In the study of prehistoric languages, Ferguson identifies Arabic dialects as the major forms of language considered Diglossic. About the Arabic language, he identifies various levels of stratification. On one hand, he makes reference to the high-end Arabic dialect characterized by immense variety and mostly attributed to the Quran but on the other hand, he makes reference to the middle-level Arabic language which is normally written and not applied in formal language setting (therefore not considered as part of Arabic original languages).

Lastly, he refers to the low-end Arabic dialect (Al-ammiyya) which is normally associated with Arabic parents. Previous studies have been centred on understanding the dynamics of diglossia and the structural variation between high-end and low-end linguistic varieties but this study will be focused on understanding the dynamics of diglossia concerning its effect on young children.

Statement of the Problem

Even though Ferguson (1959) says that high-end Arabic variety can be best understood through formal education, there has been enough evidence showing that the same Arabic dialect need not only be understood through formal education. This observation has been affirmed from studies done on young children who have developed high-end Arabic dialect understanding from other means, apart from formal education. Myers-Scotton (2006) advances the fact that:

“it only makes sense that young children should develop a sense of diglossia because this is part of one’s communicative competence (or, in terms of my Markedness Model, a sense of which choices are unmarked in certain contexts and which are marked)” (p. 2).

What significantly comes out from this understanding is that children can understand different language dialects based on the context of the study. There is, therefore, a pressing need to understand the code-switches adopted by young children and how they are theoretically explained.

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Significance of the Study

This study seeks to provide insights into the code-switching of young children as regards diglossic effect on speech. To the best of my knowledge, such studies currently do not exist and this one, therefore, provides a platform through which future studies of the same nature can be done. More importantly, many more researchers can have the opportunity of providing different perspectives to the same research problem.


This study essentially seeks to provide different perspectives on why diglossic switching occurs among preschoolers. In a different sense, this study also seeks to establish the sociopragmatic reasons why children engage in diglossic switching. In comprehending the objectives of this study, it should be understood that the variation between Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic is not part of this study, but on the contrary, the linguistic reasons behind diglossic switching between the H variety (regardless of whether it is the Modern Standard Arabic or Classical Arabic) and the L variety (Urban Hejazi variety) contribute a great part of this study.

Definitions of Special Terms

In the context of this study, code-switching essentially refers to the use of different language varieties in the same conversation. Also, in the context of this study, code-switching and diglossic switching are used interchangeably to mean the same thing.

Literature Review

Diglossic switching has often been used by several researchers in the context of typologically distant pairs of language varieties. However, this context of analysis has often been pondered by some researchers on whether they can be used in the context of standard languages or genetically related dialects. Ramat (1995) identifies the importance of this analysis in sociolinguistic studies because it essentially defines the grammatical and structural approach in CS studies.

In the same manner, sociolinguistic intrigues are also known to affect the bilingual behaviour of its subjects and the way CS studies are undertaken (Myers-Scotton, 1990). From this understanding, we can also deduce the fact that the understanding of the structural implications of CS studies is also an essential component in the understanding of bilingual interaction (Muysken, 1990). With regards to Hejazzi preschoolers, Sabir and Safi (2007) note that in the same manner that CS in speech is observed, code-switching also exposes the same level of structural limitations (equivalent constraints).

Bilingual Adults

There are some reasons advanced to explain why CS occurs among adults, as can be evidenced by the assertion of Ramat (1995) who tries to explain the occurrence of CS through the accommodation theory. The Myers- Scotton’s Markedness Model has also been used to try to explain the same phenomenon. Also, in the same context, the Markedness model has been used to explain the same occurrence. However, some scholars have not taken lightly the relationship between cognitive and structural factors in linguistics with many identifying that the analysis is contrary to the social psychology approach. Finally, several scholars have tried to identify the link between code-switching and talk interaction where it has been affirmed that code-switching is analyzed in the context of understanding conversational exchange.

Bilingual Children

The evidence of code-switching in bilingual children has often been assumed to be a source of confusion. The functionality of child code-switching has been attributed to a child’s quest to build his or her grammatical or lexicon progression; or in some sense, a lack of knowing what language word to use. There is also evidence that diglossia switching among bilingual children is also sensitive to interlocutor variables, with many studies showing that children often try to express themselves through the use of different interlocutor variables. In attestation to this observation, Genesee (2001) goes further to state that “true bilingual communicative competence entails the ability to adapt one’s language use by relevant characteristics of the situation, including the preferred or more proficient language of one’s interlocutor” (p. 174).

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Code-switching has also been identified to be determinant of pragmatic functions but this observation has often been associated with older children (Zentella, 1999). Other studies to evaluate code-switching among young and old children note that there is more lexical item CS in younger than older children.

As identified earlier, it is assumed that children normally code switch if they are not familiar with how the wordings of one language are. In other instances, it has been established that children normally code-switch because of stylistic reasons and situational demands. For example, Jørgensen (1998) notes that children can code switch for power-wielding purposes. However, in older children, it has been affirmed that children code-switch when they believe the words of the other language can best express their thoughts.

Theoretical Framework

Considering there is limited research done on code-switching, this study has greatly relied on theoretical assumptions obtained from bilingualism and communicative competence. For instance, in comprehensively understanding code-switching, the age of the children should be factored into the analysis and the stage of their language competence development should also be considered. The focus of this study is to determine how Hejazzi school children code-switch through the H and L varieties of their languages.

From this understanding, the research question is as follows: What are the sociopragmatic functions of diglossia switching among Hejazi preschoolers? In this context, Auer (1998) notes that the conversation analysis approach of code-switching exposes two benefits: The first is the fact that whatever language dialect a person chooses; it has an effect on subsequent language choices and secondly, the selected choice relates to the conceptual understanding of members’ interpretations through their linguistic behaviours.

Research Question and Methodology

Research Question

This study will focus on analyzing the sociopragmatic functions of diglossic switching in the speech of Hejazi preschoolers.


This study will be a quantitative design and descriptive where observation will be analyzed in the natural environment without any artificial influence.


Monolingual children of Hejazi origin will be analyzed. Their ages are 4:5; 5.0 and 5:6 years old respectively.

Data Collection and Transcription

Data was collected using the traditional notebook technique. The author recorded sentences uttered by the subjects and transcribed them using the International Phonetic Association’s phonetic alphabet symbols (IPA) (for sounds that could not be transcribed).

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Data Analysis

The difference between Modern Standard Arabic, Classical Arabic, and dialectal varieties were introduced using the framework of analysis developed by Holes (2004).

Modern Standard Arabic, Classical Arabic and Dialectal Varieties

It is widely believed that Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), or Modern Literary Arabic (MLA), are both antecedents of classical Arabic because they share a common similarity, in terms of syntax composition, and their vocabulary makes up. However, Holes (2004) notes that CLA differs from MLA in terms of dialect composition, and in the same manner, it has a very sophisticated vowel system.


The data was analyzed into various parts constituting samples of each sociopragmatic functions.

Gap Filling

It is estimated that the code-switching evidenced were primarily motivated by linguistic switching to imply that speakers switch to high-end Arabic dialects when there is a clear lack of Hejazi lexical system.

Context Sensitivity Factors


Upon completion of the study, it was estimated that the subjects interviewed were responsive to their interlocutors. This means that they knew who knew how to speak MSA or Fuṣħa, and who did not. Since the parents of the subjects were educated and their grandparents were not, it was observed that the children could easily code switch when they were interacting with their parents but never did so when it came to their grandparents.


The topic is very essential in determining a person’s code-switching propensity, in the sense that, the difference between H and L varieties are functional and therefore the topic is likely to determine the variable being analyzed.

Purpose of Interaction

Upon analysis of the research’s findings, it was established that the subjects were critical to the purpose of interaction. This means that the students interacted in different degrees, based on the purpose of interaction.

Pragmatic Functions


In the same manner that topic was critical to code-switching among the subjects of analysis, the Hejazi preschoolers were also noted to code switch differently when there were different pragmatic functions. In analyzing the subjects’ speech, it was established that emphasis was very critical when it was observed that Children often use H forms to emphasize a lexical item or a certain point in a conversation.


Apart from emphasis, it was also established that appeal was very critical to the speech of preschoolers (this because, just like adults, children felt the need to impress their peers and parents).


In code-switching, it was also noted that the children found it quite essential to quote someone when talking. It was also observed that teachers were most commonly quoted and they often used the H variety when teaching.

Discussion and Conclusion

The sociopragmatic functions identified in this study encompass quoting, gap filling, sensitivity to the interlocutor, purpose of interaction, emphasis and appeal but the most important finding of this study is that (unlike previous findings) the subjects analyzed did not code-switch because of symbolic purposes.

However, comprehensively, there were significant variations in the sociolinguistic functions evidenced in diglossia switching. In the course of the research, it was established that the most common systemic function for CS was the topic of conversation because it was established that children who had a stronger linguistic competence were very conscious of their listeners’ linguistic prowess and therefore, they code-switched according to this variable.

The above observation-only sought to confirm McClure’s (1981) assertion that using CS to have a clear meaning in translation was an art learned by people at a very tender age. It can also be established that children when using CS to meet their linguistic needs, developed a stronger command of language. It is therefore important to note that children generally code switch for several variable reasons. There is a need to undertake more studies to evaluate the same research topic but on different subjects and different language basis. However, these findings are very important to teachers and parents alike in facilitating children to achieve their communicative goals.


Auer, P. (1998). Code-Switching in Conversation. London: Routledge.

Ferguson, C. A. (2005). Diglossia: The Bilingualism Reader. London: Routledge.

Genesee, F. (2001). Bilingual first language acquisition: Exploring the limits of the language faculty. 21st Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 153-168.

Holes, C. (2004). Modern Arabic. Washington D. C.: Georgetown University Press.

Jørgensen, J. (1998). Children’s Acquisition Of Code-Switching For Power Wielding. London: Routledge.

McClure, E. (1981). Formal and Functional Aspects Of The Code Switched Discourse Of Bilingual Children. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Muysken, P. (1990). Concepts Methodology and Data in Language Contact Research: Ten Remarks from the Perspective of Grammatical Theory. Strasbourg: European Science Foundations.

Myers-Scotton, C. (1990). Intersections between Social Motivations and Structural Processing In Code-Switching. In Papers for the Workshop on Constraints, Conditions and Models. Strasbourg: European Science Foundations.

Myers-Scotton, C. (2006). Multiple Voices: an Introduction to Bilingualism. London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Ramat, A. G. (1995). Code-Switching in the Context of Dialect/Standard Language Relations: One Speaker, Two Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sabir, M. and Safi, S. (2007). Developmental Diglossia: Diglossic Switching and the Equivalence Constraint. Presented in Linguistics in the Gulf, Qatar, 2007.

Zentella, A.C. (1999). Growing Up Bilingual. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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