A language is a dialect with an army and navy
"A language is a dialect with an army and navy" is a quip about the arbitrariness of the distinction between a dialect and a language. It points out the influence that social and political conditions can have over a community's perception of the status of a language or dialect. The facetious adage was popularized by sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who heard it from a member of the audience at one of his lectures.
This statement is usually attributed to Max Weinreich, a specialist in Yiddish linguistics, 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.
In the article, Weinreich presents this statement as a remark of an auditor at a lecture series given between 13 December 1943 and 12 June 1944:
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.
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).
The sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Joshua Fishman suggested that he might have been the auditor at the Weinreich lecture, However, Fishman was assuming that the exchange took place at a conference in 1967, more than twenty years later than the YIVO lecture (1945) and in any case does not fit Weinreich's description above.
Jean Laponce suggested in 2004 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'. But again there is no good evidence for this.
- 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..."
- 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 ..."
- Walt Wolfram, Natalie Schilling, American English: Dialects and Variation, p. 218
- Timothy B. Weston, Lionel M. Jensen, China beyond the headlines, p. 85 full text: "Weinreich...pointing out the arbitrary division between [dialect and language]"
- 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."
- "YIVO Bleter (vol. 25 nr. 1)" (in Yiddish). January–February 1945. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
- "YIVO Bleter (vol. 23 nr. 3)" (in Yiddish). May–June 1944. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
- "Mendele: Yiddish literature and language (Vol. 6.077)" (in Yiddish). 8 October 1996. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
- 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."
- La gouvernance linguistique : le Canada en perspective (in French). 1 January 2004. Retrieved 10 January 2010.
- Thomas Burns McArthur: The English languages, p.05
- John Edwards (2009). Language and identity: an introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-69602-9.
- John Earl Joseph (2004). Language and identity: national, ethnic, religious. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-99752-9.
- Robert McColl Millar (2005). Language, nation and power: an introduction. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-3971-5.
- Alexander Maxwell (2018). When Theory is a Joke: The Weinreich Witticism in Linguistics (pp 263-292). Beiträge zur Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft. Vol 28, No 2.