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topo- ‎(place) +‎ -lect ‎([language] variety). Coined by Victor Mair to translate the Chinese term 方言 (fāngyán), "which has been perennially mistranslated as 'dialect'."[1]


topolect ‎(plural topolects)

  1. The speech-form (lect) of a particular place, sidestepping the question of whether it is a language or a dialect.
    • 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).[2]


Usage notes[edit]

Besides its original use to translate Chinese 方言 (fāngyán), "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".

Compare chronolect.


  1. ^ Language Log » Maps and charts of the world's languages
  2. ^ Jewish Language Review, 5:155, 1985