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Diglossia in East Asia

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This article examines the most extensive case of diglossia in history, that of diglossia in East Asia. In pre-modern times, Classical Chinese functioned as the high (H) language variety in not only China, but also Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and this entire region can arguably be viewed as a single instance of diglossia in the sense that the rise and eventual decline of diglossia in these societies followed similar patterns, and changes in one society often affected the others. Examination of diglossia in East Asia shows that even during long centuries of apparent stability, gradual changes were always underway, hence supporting Hudson’s (2002) view that stability in diglossic patterns is at best relative. The East Asian case also supports Coulmas’ (2002) view that writing is pivotal to any theory of diglossia, in that the division of roles between H and L in East Asia was essentially one of written/spoken language. Finally, the case of East Asia suggests that there are two essentially different kinds of diglossia, a traditional kind which is common in pre-modern societies and in which H is what Anderson (2006) calls a “sacred language,” and a less common modern kind in which H is a modern standard language.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 14, 2010

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