People use different codes of speech for various situations in a mutually exclusive way. This phenomenon intrigued the attention of many linguists who studied it and called it “diglossia”. This term originated from the Greek diglōssos, with “di-” for “two” and “glossa” for “tongue” or “language”, so meaning speaking two languages (The Free Dictionary, n.d.). It was tackled by some linguists such as the Greek writer Emmanuel Rhoides in 1885, the French philologist Ioannis Psycharis (1854-1929), and the French oriental author William Marçais in 1930. Then, the American sociolinguist Charles A. Ferguson presented a seminal article entitled “Diglossia” in 1959 that opened the door for many scholars to examine this phenomenon closely and develop it into a new field of study (Diglossia, nd).

Literature Review

First of all, Ferguson (1959) defined diglossia as a linguistic situation in which “two or more varieties of the same language are used by some speakers under different conditions” (p. 232). He called the variety singled out for formal situations the “superposed variety” or H (‘high’) variety, and the varieties used in common, informal situations L (‘low’) varieties (pp. 233-234). Then, Ferguson presented nine features that are shared almost by all diglossic communities. First of all, “the specialization of function for H and L” (p. 235) is the base of diglossia. That is, the L variety is spoken in family conversations and friends’ chats whereas the H variety is used in religion, literature, and career (p. 236). Secondly, the H variety is regarded as more prestigious than the L. Sometimes, “H alone is regarded as real and L is reported ‘not to exist’.” Some people may tell that “H is somehow more beautiful, more logical, better able to express important thoughts” (p. 237). Thirdly, any diglossic community should have a considerable amount of “literary heritage” in H, which is supposed to be as prestigious as the H variety (p. 238). Fourthly, L is acquired by infants as their mother tongue through exposure to it while H can be learnt by means of books and dictionaries (p. 239).

Fifthly, the H variety undergoes the process of “standardization”. That is, linguists have codified its rules of phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Such efforts are rarely exerted in studying the L variety (p. 239). The sixth feature is that diglossia cannot be considered (must be followed by as) just a step in a whole process, but a “relatively stable” and extensive process which dates back to many centuries (pp. 240, 245). Seventhly, Ferguson referred to the “extensive differences between the grammatical structures of H and L” (p. 241). For example, CA has three inflections that mark the case of a noun, whether nominative, accusative, or genitive/ ablative, which are absent in the colloquial. The eighth feature is related to “lexicon”. H and L share almost all of the vocabulary, allowing some variation, for instance, in Arabic, “pen” is said qalam in H and ’alam in L. Also, H and L may have different terms for the same meaning such as the Arabic H ra’a and L šāf which both mean “to see” (Ferguson, 1959, p. 242). Ninthly, in all diglossic communities, H and L phonologies can be integrated into one inventory of sounds in which L phonology is the primary one. Moreover, the sounds which are found only in the H variety can be replaced by L phonemes in colloquial speech (Ferguson, 1959, p. 244).

Following Ferguson, Fishman (1967) developed the concept of diglossia to be applicable to many speech communities. As a result, diglossia included any linguistic situation in which “separate dialects, registers, or functionally differentiated language varieties of whatever kind” are used for different functions (Fishman 1972: 92, as cited in Stępkowska, n.d., p.204). So, diglossia, for Fishman, includes any number of varieties, whether divergent of the same language or totally different languages on condition of the distribution of functions.

Unlike Ferguson and Fishman who agreed upon the complementary distribution of H and L, El-Said Muhammed Badawi (1973) demonstrated that varieties are mixed together, in different degrees, to form diglossic levels of communication. However, one may move from one level to another not only in different situations, but in the same speech as well. This idea of mixture was hinted at by Ferguson (1959) when he argued that “in one set of situations only H is appropriate and in another only L, with the two sets overlapping only very slightly” (pp. 235-236). Applying this model to the Egyptian society, Badawi divided Arabic into five levels. Firstly, the classical language of tradition is derived from the sacred language of the Holy Qur’an. Secondly, the modern classical Arabic is heavily influenced by the Arabic modern culture. The third variety is the colloquial of the educated which is influenced by the two previous varieties. The fourth variety is the colloquial of the enlightened which is spoken by people of a limited amount of literacy. The fifth is the colloquial of illiterate which is characterized by its vulgarity (Badawi, 1973, as cited in Shousha, 2000).

Significance of the Study

From this literature review, we can infer the points of convergence and divergence among these linguists. Ferguson and Fishman agreed upon the functional distribution of H and L, but differed in the number of the diglossic varieties and the kind of relation between them. Afterwards, Badawi varied with the previous ones in the point of separation of H and L, asserting that they are mixed together to form levels of discourse. Nevertheless, their views cannot be considered competitive, but complementary as, together, they give a whole picture of diglossia, reflecting the past and present times, and, maybe, predicting the future.


This study will show the different shapes of diglossia in Egypt and explain them in the light of the different views of Ferguson, Fishman, and Badawi. It will survey the historical and social background of Egypt by the mid- and late twentieth century. Next, it will relate this background to the diglossic situation in the both phases. Then, when examining the current climate of Egypt, we can predict the new shape of diglossia of the future.


Egypt Around the Mid-20th century

Egypt was plagued by the British colonization during the period (1882-1922) which left gross effects on the whole society. The Westerners’ interest in studying the Arabic language and culture increased, but it aimed, often, at undermining the Arab identity. For example, Arabic was claimed to be “chaotic and random” (Stadlbauer, 2010, p. 2). Moreover, those scholars described the Arabs as “nil, or next to nil” (Said, p. 416, as cited in Stadlbauer, 2010, p.2). As a reaction against this, the concept of Arab nationalism, including the shared language, culture, and goals,was introduced to unify all the Arabs together. (Abuhamida, 1988; Haeri, 2003; Suleiman, 2003, as cited in Stadlbauer, 2010, p. 3). Another landmark in this period of Egypt was the advent of television which was closely related to the Arab nationalism as it was a means of communication between the Arab countries.

The Mid-20th Century Egyptian Diglossia

During that time, the Egyptian community had more than just two diglossic varieties. Ferguson spoke of classical Arabic (H) and Egyptian colloquial Arabic (L), but added  a “relatively uncodified, unstable, intermediate” variety which was used in semiformal situations (p. 240). Inspired by Ferguson, Badawi (1973) adopted this idea of multiplicity to find out five levels of the Arabic language in Egypt (as cited in Freeman, 1996)

Figure 1. Badawi's diagram "levels of Egyptian Arabic"

Figure 1. Badawi’s diagram “levels of Egyptian Arabic”1996):

Firstly, the classical Arabic of tradition comprises mainly classical Arabic and the least amounts of colloquial Arabic and foreign language. CA held a high prestige because it was the language of the Qur’an. So, people would feel elevated to a spiritual, pure atmosphere when listening to it (Haeri, 2003, as cited in Stadlbauer, 2010, p. 5). It was used by men of religion and men of law and, sometimes, by Egyptian leaders such as Gamal Abd El-Nasir. He inserted some classical Arabic terms in his speeches, for instance he addressed people as “sons of Egypt” to assert the kind nature of the Egyptians who called for peace and affection, but who also would fight when necessary (Holes, 2004, as cited in Stadlbauer, 2010, p. 11). Secondly, modern classical/ standard Arabic or “al-lugah al-wustā”, as Ferguson calls it, gets away a little bit from classical Arabic and contains more colloquial Arabic and non-Arabic terms. This variety was also prestigious as a product of “Arab nationalism”; it made the Egyptians feel proud of their supreme Arab identity. It was used in education, press, media, literature, and public speeches. Amal Donkol, e.g., composed a poem entitled “ta‘līq ‘ala mā ћadatha fī mukhayyam il-waћadāt” in 1970, using this variety as in “’inna almadāfi‘ allati tastaffu ‘ala alhudūd, fi ilsaħāra/ lā tutliq ilnirān .. ’illa ћina tastadīr lilwarā’” (6-7). Here, the poet addresses the whole Egyptian people as a nation, expressing the defeat of Egypt in 1967 and criticizing the Egyptian soldiers and leaders. Furthermore, president Gamal Abd El-Nasir often used MSA in his speeches as in “wa lākin il-istighlāl wa l-’iqtā‘ war ra’s il-māl al-mustaghill qadā ‘ala kilmit id-dimuqrātiyya”. Here, Nasir used this variety to express his “political axioms” (Holes, 2004, as cited in Stadlbauer, 2010, p. 12).

Thirdly, the colloquial of the educated is the most variety that has foreign elements along with equal portions of classical and colloquial Arabic. Despite being colloquial, this variety is respected due to its relation to good education and general knowledge. The educated people speak it for discussing academic, political, and social materials.

Then, while Ferguson spoke of Egyptian colloquial Arabic (L), Badawi divided it into two varieties: colloquial of the enlightened and colloquial of the illiterate. As for the former, there is an increase in the colloquial Arabic and a decrease in the classical Arabic and foreign language. This variety was associated with popularity and friendliness, so it was used by common people. Nasir made use of this point while addressing the Egyptian people as in “Iħna musta‘iddiin ’ayyuha l-ikhwa ’an nuqātil”. It shows the intimate relation between the president and people (Holes, 2004, as cited in Stadlbauer, 2010, pp. 11-12). In literature, Abd El-Rahman El-Abnudi used the Egyptian Arabic in “‘adda il-nahār” and “’aћlif bisamāha w biturābha” to express the defeat of Egypt in 1967 to common people.

The fifth variety is the colloquial of the illiterate which is mainly colloquial Arabic, mixed with the least amounts of classical Arabic and foreign elements. It is used by vulgar people of the lower classes, and associated with indecency and the absence of education (Badawi, 1973, as cited in Shousha, 2004). Despite being used for different functions, these varieties were not totally separated as one might need to perform different functions in the same context.

Egypt by the Late 20th Century

By 1973, Egypt entered a military war against Israel in 1973, the result of which was the Egyptian victory. That war was a milestone in the Egyptian history as it inaugurated a new age. The first key aspect of this new age is the propagation of the idea of globalization that has required eliminating the boundaries between the countries and connecting them into a melting pot. Thus, Egypt has begun its economic openness to the foreign markets and its political and educational subjugation to the Western policies. The second feature of this age is the technological development that has swept Egypt. For instance, satellite channels, computers, the internet, and online social networks have facilitated communication between people wherever they are. Thus, all such changes have helped strengthening the relations between Egypt and the West, tying the future of the former to the latter.

The Late 20th- and Early 21st- Century Egyptian Diglossia

Unlike Ferguson’s diglossia, Fishman’s adaptation of this concept (1967) has made it feasible to describe the present linguistic situation of Egypt. Egypt has had more than just two varieties some of which are Arabic and others are non-Arabic. These diglossic varieties or levels, according to Badawi (1973), are produced from mixing the three main components in different degrees: classical Arabic, colloquial Arabic, and foreign language. If Badawi’s model is adapted to the present situation, it may include about nine levels.

At the top, the Classical Arabic of tradition is still the most variety that retains its rules despite the emergence of some mistakes and the intrusion of some colloquial and foreign expressions. It is used only in religious and legal domains. This variety keeps its sacred and spiritual status for many people despite being underestimated by some.

As for the second level of modern classical Arabic, its base of classical Arabic has ebbed away, giving more space to colloquial and foreign elements. This variety signals conservativeness and cherishing or yearning for the Arab identity. It is used in some programs on the radio, newscasts, and press.

Thirdly, the Standard Egyptian Arabic consists mainly of colloquial Arabic and more foreign elements, with rapid reduction in the classical Arabic. It is spoken by many announcers in the talk shows and social programs. Fourthly, the standard foreign language is the most variety that has the foreign content as its main component, but mixed with few Arabic items. These foreign languages are used in media such as the Nile TV International channel, the press such as Al-Ahram Weekly, and education as in the international schools, AUC, and GUC. They are associated with good education and progress in society.

Fifthly, Arabic chat alphabet is the language used in the online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. It is a written language that comprises colloquial Arabic terms in Latin script. It may be considered a sign of the creativity of youths and post-modernity, or a reason for the degeneration of the Arabic language and a product of the melting pot.

Sixthly, the colloquial of the high class has a large amount of foreign elements, enough colloquial Arabic, and little classical. People, especially women, belonging to such class, speak this variety mainly in public places as part of their etiquette so as to look prestigious and elegant. Seventhly, the colloquial of the educated establishes a proportional relationship between the three varieties. It is used in classes for discussing academic subjects. People look up to speakers of this variety as truly well-educated and open-minded.

Eighthly, the colloquial of the enlightened contains colloquial Arabic, as its base, with no much classical Arabic or foreign language. It is used by the majority of people of the middle class in their daily, routine life. Finally, the colloquial of the illiterate is just vernacular, with almost no classical Arabic or foreign language. It is used by vulgar people belonging to the lower classes who are not refined by any kind of education. Despite the distribution of functions, these levels may be mixed together, or interchanged one for another.

The Egyptian Status Quo

First of all, the role of religion has receded in a considerable way, with the image of Islam deformed either by Muslims or non-Muslims. Secondly, the educational process has deteriorated as it has turned to add just a social, prestigious façade. Thirdly, the blatant foreign intrusion into our political domain has provoked unrest and made up clashes between people who may end in a real division of Egypt into petty states. The fourth aspect of this age is the offensive campaign waged against the national institutions such as the media and press and against law represented by the judges and courts.

The Linguistic Situation in the Future

While the mixture was and is between the three main components to form diglossic varieties, by the future, the mixture may be between only two: colloquial Arabic and foreign language. So, the classical Arabic of tradition and modern classical Arabic may totally vanish with the recession of religion and education. To go further, the standard Egyptian Arabic may exist no more if Egypt is divided since each new state will have its own standard language. These new standard varieties may be used in formal domains as media, press, education, and literature despite being close to the vernacular. The second variety is the standard foreign language that may increase to occupy much more space in many fields such as literature as well as its previous domains.

Then, the colloquial of the enlightened and the colloquial of the illiterate may be integrated into the colloquial of the lower classes which will be separated from the colloquial of the high class that will keep its position. Moreover, there may be no colloquial of the educated as a sign of the deterioration of education, but Arabic chat alphabet will remain as an evidence of post-modernity.


All in all, at all the phases of the Egyptian diglossia, varieties form a continuum, beginning with the most degree of formality and ending with total informality. In the past, the diglossic situation included five varieties, beginning with the classical Arabic of tradition. At the present time, the diglossic varieties have increased to be nine, beginning also with the classical Arabic of tradition. Concerning the future, there may be only five varieties, the most formal of which may be newly coined standard varieties. As the time passes, diglossia takes different shapes as some varieties are added and some omitted. Actually, the varieties closer to the classical Arabic recede to be replaced by colloquial or quasi-colloquial Arabic, or foreign language. Some kind of correlation exists between the evolution of the Egyptian diglossia and getting away from the original form of the Arabic language.

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(DOI) doi: 10.4467/20834624SL.12.013.0602

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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