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A language is a dialect with an army and navy

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Title: A language is a dialect with an army and navy  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Sociolinguistics, Dialectology, Linguistic purism, Language/Did you know, Dialect
Collection: Adages, Dialectology, Language Versus Dialect, Sociolinguistics, Yiddish Words and Phrases
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

A language is a dialect with an army and navy

"A language is a dialect with an army and navy" is a quip[1][2][3] about the arbitrariness[4] of the distinction between a dialect and a language. It points out the influence that social[5] and political conditions can have over a community's perception of the status of a language or dialect. The 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.


  • Weinreich 1
  • Other possible originators 2
  • Relevance to Yiddish 3
  • Variants 4
  • Weinreich's Yiddish-language text 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8


This statement is commonly attributed to one of the leading figures in modern Yiddish linguistics, Max Weinreich, 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]

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.

Other possible originators

The sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Joshua Fishman suggested that he might have been the auditor at the Weinreich lecture, and has subsequently been cited as the originator of the army-navy statement in several references. However, Fishman was assuming that the exchange took place at a conference in 1967, more than twenty years later than the YIVO lecture (1945)[8] and in any case does not fit Weinreich's description.

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 suggested that Hubert Lyautey (1854–1934) may have originated the phrase at a meeting of the Académie française, and proposed to call it the "Loi de Lyautey" 'Lyautey's law'.[10] But again there is no good evidence for this.

Other suggested sources post-date the Weinreich publication.

Relevance to Yiddish

Weinreich observed that the phrase is a "wonderful expression of the social plight of Yiddish". In his lecture, he discusses not just linguistic, but also broader notions of "yidishkeyt" (ייִדישקייט – lit. Jewishness).


Randolph Quirk adapted the definition to "A language is a dialect with an army and a flag" (adding a defense policy and a national airline).[11]

Weinreich's Yiddish-language text

Here is the passage from the 1945 text in the original Yiddish, followed by a romanized transliteration:

פֿאַר אַ יאָרן האָבן מיר אין דער ד״ר צמח שאַבאַד־אַספּיראַנטור געהאַט אַ קורס פֿון צוואַנציק לעקציעס אויף דער טעמע׃ „פּראָבלעמען אין דער געשיכטע פֿון דער ייִדישער שפּראַך“. צווישן די צוהערערס איז איין מאָל אױך אַרײַנגעפֿאַלן אַ לערער פֿון אַ בראָנקסער הײַסקול. ער איז געקומען קײן אַמעריקע ווי אַ קינד און האָט פֿאַר דער גאַנצער צײַט קײן מאָל ניט געהערט, אַז ייִדיש האָט אַ געשיכטע און קען דינען פֿאַר העכערע ענינים אויך. ווי אַזוי ער איז פֿון דער אַספּיראַנטור פֿון ייִוואָ געווויר געוואָרן ווייס איך ניט, נאָר פֿון יעמאָלט אָן האָט ער שוין גענומען קומען. איין מאָל נאָך אַ לעקציע גייט ער צו צו מיר און פֿרעגט׃ „וואָס איז דער חילוק פֿון אַ דיאַלעקט ביז אַ שפּראַך?“ איך האָב געמיינט, אַז עס רופֿט זיך אים דער משׂכּילישער ביטול, און איך האָב אים געפּרוּווט אַרויפֿפֿירן אויפֿן ריכטיקן וועג, נאָר ער האָט מיך איבערגעריסן׃ „דאָס ווייס איך, אָבער איך וועל אײַך געבן אַ בעסערע דעפֿיניציע׃ אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט“. איך האָב זיך יעמאָלט באַלד פֿאַרגעדענקט, אַז די דאָזיקע וווּנדערלעכע פֿאָרמולירונג פֿון דער סאָציאַלער מערכה פֿון ייִדיש מוז איך ברענגען צו אַ גרויסן עולם.

Far a yorn hobn mir in der d[okto]r Tsemakh Shabad-aspirantur gehat a kurs fun tsvantsik lektsyes oyf der teme, "problemen in der geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh". Tsvishn di tsuherers iz eyn mol oykh arayngefaln a lerer fun a bronkser hayskul. Er iz gekumen keyn amerike vi a kind un hot far der gantser tsayt keyn mol nit gehert, az yidish hot a geshikhte un ken dinen far hekhere inyonem oykh. Vi azoy er iz fun der aspirantur fun YIVO gevoyr gevorn veys ikh nit, nor fun yemolt on hot er shoyn genumen kumen. Eyn mol nokh a lektsye geyt er tsu tsu mir un fregt, "Vos iz der khilek fun a dialekt biz a shprakh?" Ikh hob gemeynt, az es ruft zikh im der maskilisher bitl, un ikh hob im gepruvt aroyffirn afn rikhtikn veg, nor er hot mikh ibergerisn "Dos veys ikh, ober ikh vel aykh gebn a besere definitsye. A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot." Ikh hob zikh yemolt bald fargedenkt, az di dozike vunderlekhe formulirung fun der sotsyaler marokhe fun yidish muz ikh brengen tsu a groysn oylem.

See also


  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. ^ Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, p. 20 full text: "There's an old joke that..."
  3. ^ 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 ..."
  4. ^ Timothy B. Weston, Lionel M. Jensen, China beyond the headlines, p. 85 full text: "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). Jan–Feb 1945. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  7. ^ "YIVO Bleter (vol. 23 nr. 3)" (in Yiddish). May–June 1944. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  8. ^ "Mendele: Yiddish literature and language (Vol. 6.077)" (in Yiddish). 1996-10-08. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  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. ^ La gouvernance linguistique : le Canada en perspective (in French). 2004-01-01. Retrieved 2010-01-10. 
  11. ^ Thomas Burns McArthur: The English languages, p.05

Further reading

  • John Earl Joseph (2004). Language and identity: national, ethnic, religious. Palgrave Macmillan.  
  • Robert McColl Millar (2005). Language, nation and power: an introduction. Palgrave Macmillan.  
  • John Edwards (2009). Language and identity: an introduction. Cambridge University Press.  
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