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Linguistic Rights:
What language should a nation officially call its own?

Language

Q: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LANGUAGE AND A DIALECT?
"A LANGUAGE IS A DIALECT WITH AN ARMY AND A NAVY."

Language in Society 26:3 (1997), p.469
by WB -- William Bright

This saying, long part of oral tradition among sociolinguists, was quoted in a review by Alan Kaye in _LiS_ 26:484 (1996). In his manuscript, Kaye had attributed the quote to Max Weinreich; the editor of this journal changed the attribution to his son Uriel Weinreich [from whom I first heard it in 1957 -- WB].
Recent e-mail correspondence involving Christina Paulston and Ellen Prince, as well as Kaye and Fishman, has brought out the following points:

armynavy

  • (a) However, it has also been attributed to Joshua Fishman. Weinreich is often cited as the author of a criterion for distinguishing between languages and dialects: "A language is a dialect with an army and navy" ("אַ שפראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמײ און פֿלאָט", "a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot"), but he was explicitly quoting an auditor at one of his lectures.

Max Weinreich’s famous linguistic maxim (a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot)

YES -- HERE IT IS

  • (b) The earliest documentation of the saying is in a publication in Yiddish by Max Weinreich. The following is a translation (by Ellen Prince) of a posting on "Mendele", a Yiddish e-mail list, by Yoshua Fishman on Oct. 28, 1996:

Source of Max Weinreich's saying that A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot ['A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.'] <BIG PIC> is found in Weinreich's "YIVO and the problems of our time," _Yivo-bleter_, 1945, vol. 25, no. 1, p. 13.

Weinreich attributes this formulation to a young man who came to his lectures, and he decided, "I must bring to a large audience this wonderful formulation of the social fate of Yiddish." Congratulations to our good friend Novershtern and to all Mendele-subscribers who helped look for the largely forgotten source of a famous saying that is relevant to Yiddish and to all "one-down" languages.

  • (c) Joshua Fishman believes that he may have been the young man who, as a student of Max Weinreich, originated the saying. It is clear, in any case, that the dictum derives from the tradition of Yiddish linguistics, and that it was made familiar by the Weinreichs and by Fishman. Further information from readers will be welcome. [end of quote]

From: Cary Karp Director of Internet Strategy and Technology, Swedish Museum of Natural History 9/05
"The attribution of the army-navy statement to Joshua Fishman is unlikely to be correct. In his 1945 article, Max Weinreich says that his informant immigrated to the USA as a child. Since Prof. Fishman was born there, he does not fit that part of the description. He was also no older than 18 at the time and in school elsewhere, thus not likely to be a teacher at a Bronx high school. Finally, the unnamed source of the saying knew little about the history and linguistic status of Yiddish. Joshua Fishman's knowledge of both was already significant.

 

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