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Diglossia in Mauritian Creole

by Ian Malcolm

The word code is frequently used as a cover term for all those language situations which we considered in the previous lectures, that is, terms like dialect, language, style, register, etc. The term code is a neutral term used to refer to any kind of system that people use to communicate with each other. In this lecture we will look at situations where more than one code exists and the values attached to these different codes. In particular we are interested in what are called diglossic situations, that is where more than one code exists and where there are ‘clear functional differences between the codes’ and these differences govern their use. (Wardhaugh 1998:86)

Diglossia is a term introduced by Charles Ferguson in 1959. ‘A diglossic situation exists in a society when it has two distinct codes which show clear functional separation; that is, one code is employed in one set of circumstances and the other in an entirely different set’ (op cit:87). Moreover, it is sometimes a serious violation of social behaviour if codes are used in inappropriate situations. This can cause certain codes to be associated with certain social groups or behaviours and these codes inevitably divide themselves into High and Low varieties.

High varieties are typically used for delivering sermons, formal lectures and legal and administrative transactions (eg. In courts of law, parliament, for political speeches and for radio broadcasting, editorials in newspapers, and for literature, etc).


Low varieties might be used for giving instruction to workers in low-prestige occupations (eg, in countries where there are servants), in casual conversations, within family and social groups, on popular radio and television, etc. Usually low varieties are represented in literature as embedded discourse and used to characterise particular people from particular socio-economic levels. Only occasionally is a low variety used to write an entire literary work. One example is the work of Chaucer, which, in its day, represented the vernacular at the end of the period of Norman control of Britain. This began in 1066 with the Norman Conquest and resulted in a diglossic situation which was to last for about 300 years and during which time the high variety (Norman French) co-existed with the low variety (English).

Low varieties, by not having a literary tradition will tend not to have established orthographies. Sometimes there are strong and long-running debates which result from developing appropriate forms of writing low varieties. For example, there are three different orthographies for the French-based creole of Mauritius which are distinguished in terms of if and how nasalisation is marked:

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In fact, the following dedication from the small booklet 'How to write Kreol properly' (1989) perhaps illustrates the strong identity this group of Mauritians has with the creole language:

"Dedicated to all those struggling against the aggression of "Francophonie" and in favour of the people's languages in Mauritius" (ibid).

High varieties enjoy considerable prestige. They are the varieties which allow social mobility, they are the varieties used in literature. Low varieties, on the other hand, are sometimes stigmatised and speakers of the high variety will even not admit to speaking the low variety. All children will learn the low variety, if not in their own homes, then from the servants who look after them and from other children at school. Frequently the low variety will become the common language or lingua franca of the playground while the high variety is taught inside the classroom. So we can differentiate the two varieties by saying that, for many speakers, the high variety is ‘taught’ but the low variety is ‘learned’. Nonetheless there have been situations where the low variety has been introduced as the medium of instruction for the first three years of schooling (eg, the Seychelles), or where the choice of medium of instruction is left to the discretion of the principal. For example, in Mauritius , within the education system, the choice of language instruction in schools is left to the discretion of the Director and very often the teacher will use either Bhojpuri(1)or Mauricien (Mauritian French-based creole) so that students understand in the lower levels. However, because of long-standing prejudices among teachers and parents Creole and Bhojpuri are not readily accepted as 'languages' per se in education.

(1)Bhojpuri (derived from the name of the town Bhojpur) is the name for a group of dialects closely related to Hindi and spoken by some 20 million people in the north eastern Indian province of Bihar today (Dinan 1986:16).

Low varieties will frequently borrow words from high varieties, particularly when a low variety is used more formally or when new words are required to expand the vocabulary. For example the influence of television has brought much new socio-economic terminology into the creole language of Mauritius , e.g: reklasifikasyon 'job reclassification', ekportasyon 'export' (noun)

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Copyright ©2002-2005 Encyclopaedia Mauritiana
. References .
Wardhaugh, Ronald (1998)
An Introduction to Sociolinguistics

3rd edition.
Oxford: Basil Blackwell (RW)


. Credits .
extract from :
by Professor Ian Malcolm
Lectures 1/2001
Centre for Applied Language and Literacy Research
Edith Cowan University, Australia