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"A language is a dialect with an army and navy" is one of the most frequently used aphorisms in the discussion of the distinction between dialect and language. It points out the influence that political conditions can have over a community's perception of the status of a language or dialect. The aphorism is often incorrectly attributed to the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, who published but did not coin it.

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Citable reference: Max Weinreich

This aphorism is commonly attributed to one of the leading figures in modern Yiddish linguistics, Max Weinreich, and it therefore often appears cited in the original Yiddish, as

"אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט"

(a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot). Indeed, the earliest recognized published source for this aphorism is Weinreich's article "דער ייִוואָ און די פּראָבלעמען פֿון אונדזער צײַט" (Der YIVO un di problemen fun undzer tsayt", literally, "The YIVO and the Problems of our Time", titled in its English abstract as, "The YIVO Faces the Post-War World"), in YIVO Bletter, vol. 25 nr. 1, Jan–Feb 1945, pp. 3–18. This text was presented as a speech at the opening session of the 19th Annual YIVO Conference in New York City on 5 January 1945, while World War II was still being fought. Thus, the earliest citable reference to the aphorism is the Yiddish version; there is no corresponding wording in the English abstract of Weinreich's article.

Most references which credit the aphorism to Max Weinreich overlook the fact that he presented it as an indirect quotation of something told to him by an auditor at one of his lectures, in a series held between 13 December 1943 and 12 June 1944 (detailed in YIVO Bletter, vol. 23 nr. 3, May–June 1944, pp. 420–421). He describes his informant in some detail but does not give a name. Weinreich says nothing more than that this person was relating a phrase, without in any way indicating whether he had devised it personally or acquired it from an earlier source. The relevant passage appears on p. 13 of the 1945 article:

Last year we held a course in the Dr. Tsemakh Shabad Graduate Training Program with twenty lectures on the subject, 'Problems in the History of the Yiddish Language'. 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. How he learned of the YIVO Training Program I do not know, but from then on he started coming. 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.

(A transcription of the original text and a romanized transliteration appear at the end of the present article.)

The originator of the aphorism

The details of the lecture series provided in the 1944 number of YIVO Bletter (to which footnoted reference is made in the 1945 article) include a description of a core audience of twenty students who attended all of the lectures (of which there were twenty-one not twenty) plus as many as twenty additional people who might attend any individual lecture. Informal discussions were frequently held between the lecturer, who was not always Max Weinreich, and the audience after a lecture was over. Weinreich's last presentation in the series was made on 8 May 1944, and he indicates that his informant joined the group at some point after the first lecture. The second lecture was held on 20 December 1943, thus narrowing the interval within which their exchange can have occurred.

The preeminent 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 more than twenty years later than the YIVO lecture (1967) and both recognized that this was not certain to have been the first reference Weinreich made to the pivotal dialog, and asked if anyone knew of an earlier source.[1] In any case, the description of the person in the Weinreich text does not match Fishman's biographical details well enough for it to have been him. (Fishman was born in America, a 17-year-old high school student at the time of the lecture, and well aware of the history and significance of the Yiddish language.)

In an editorial note in Language in Society, vol. 26, 1997, p. 469, William Bright, writes, "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." Meillet's dates (1866–1936) and area of specialization make him a plausible candidate, but as Bright notes, no bibliographic or other verifiable references have been provided to confirm the attribution.

Similar uncertainty attaches to the attribution to Hubert Lyautey (1854–1934) conveyed by Jean Laponce in his article, La gouvernance du français au Canada en cinq ou six lois, p.13 in La gouvernance linguistique : le Canada en perspective, ed. Jean-Pierre Wallot, University of Ottawa Press, (ISBN 9782760305892). He relates a "petite histoire" about a debate at a meeting of the French Academy where Lyautey is reported to have said, "Une langue, c'est un dialecte qui a une armée et une marine." He provides no source for this and further refers to it as a "boutade" (joke).[2]

Other suggested sources post-date the Weinreich publication.

Pending substantiation for any earlier attribution being brought forward, the identity of the person who first drew the military analogy will remain a matter of speculation and may, indeed, have been the unnamed auditor of Max Weinreich's lecture. The 1945 date for the first published appearance of the aphorism must, in any case, be accepted in the interim.

Relevance to Yiddish

As a result of its Yiddish version being in such wide circulation, coupled with the belief that it originated with Max Weinreich, the aphorism is often regarded as an expression of specifically Yiddish ethos. Although a Yiddish speaking high school teacher with a particular interest in linguistics may well have coined it, such a person could also have come across it in some other context that had no specific regard to Yiddish. If any credence is to be given to the suggestions of its Francophone origin, the aphorism may initially have been a comment on the linguistic consequences of colonialist military authority.

Weinreich's own observation about it being a "wonderful expression of the social plight of Yiddish" does, however, provide a clear statement of his assessment of its relevance to that language. Since an aphorism is nothing more than a catchy saying, if taken as such, the phrase does not broach detailed analysis. The reasons for Weinreich having ascribed significance to it are, however, apparent in the lecture in which he presented it. These extend beyond purely linguistic considerations into broader notions of "yidishkeyt" (ייִדישקייט – lit. Jewishness). The perception of the Yiddish language and its associated culture by external communities (and to a greater extent even within the Jewish community) had a long uneasy history, and was never at a more critical juncture than during the Second World War and the decades on either side of it. Although the full impact of that process could not yet be assessed when the 1945 lecture was being prepared, the applicability of the aphorism to subsequent developments does not appear to have diminished.

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.

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