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Combination of topo- (place) +‎ -lect ([language] variety). Popularized by sinologist Victor Mair since 1991 to distinguish Chinese 方言 (fāngyán) from English dialect.[1] Scattered attestation since the 1960s with similar, more general meaning.


topolect (plural topolects)

  1. (linguistics, sociolinguistics) The speech form, variety (lect) of a particular place or region.
    • 1964, University of South Florida Language Quarterly, 2, page iii:
      We can then establish and name further categories by means of the word "group" and the prefix "sub-", thus obtaining SUBDIALECT ("Untermundart") between topolect and dialect, DIALECT GROUP ("Mundartengruppe") between dialect and language, SUBFAMILY ("Unterfamilie") between language and family,
    • 1985, Jewish Language Review, 5:155:
      The degree to which Yahudic lects differ from coterritorial non-Jewish lects varies spatially, chronologically, stylistically, and idiolectically (for this reason it is important to study each Yahudic topolect together with its coterritorial Arabic topolect if it has one).
    Synonyms: geolect, regiolect, regionalect
  2. (linguistics) A regional variety of Chinese; especially a lect other than Standard Mandarin.
    • 2007, Samuel Cole, “Learning Putonghua as an adult: a study of four Hong Kong teachers' experiences”, in The University of Hong Kong (Thesis)[3]:
      Imminent Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang has said that everyone’s mother tongue is a topolect, whereas China’s standard spoken language has long been the “teacher tongue.”
    Synonym: regionalect

Usage notes[edit]

Victor Mair proposed that Chinese 方言 (fāngyán) be translated as topolect (while dialect should be translated into Chinese as ).[2] Besides this use, "topolect" has been used to characterize other speech varieties where an identification as either "language" or "dialect" would be controversial. Examples include Scots, the various regional varieties of Arabic and Roma (Gypsy), and the Jewish "languages". In all of these situations, an identification of distinct languages by the straightforward criterion of mutual intelligibility may not be politically or socially acceptable to many scholars. For example, several varieties of Southwestern Mandarin are not mutually intelligible, and they would be classified as distinct languages within the Mandarin branch of the Chinese (or Sinitic) language family, if it weren't for the dominant social, historical, and political concept of Chinese as a unitary language. Mandarin, Southwestern Mandarin, the mutually unintelligible varieties of Southwestern Mandarin, and indeed the mutually intelligible dialects within those varieties are all termed "topolects".


  • fangyan (specifically of Chinese topolects)


Related terms[edit]


  1. ^ Victor Mair (September, 1991), “What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms”, in Sino-Platonic Papers[1], volume 29
  2. ^ Victor Mair (November 21, 2016), “Language vs. script”, in Language Log[2]