"Topolect" is in China!

« previous post | next post »

Readers of Language Log will be thoroughly familiar with "topolect", since it is one of our regular categories (see, for example, hereherehereherehere, and especially here).  Imagine my delight when I received from Neil Kubler the following photograph of a label in an ethnographical museum in China:

An initial note from Neil:

At the Hakka Culture Museum in Meixian that I visited one morning they have a large display showing different Hakka (sub)dialects; and in the English version they use the word "topolect" that you first created and popularized. So topolects have made it to China!

Another, later note from Neil:

I have to admit, I was (pleasantly) surprised to see the word "topolect" staring me in the face 10 days ago at the Zhōngguó Kèjiā bówùguǎn 中國客家博物館 HAKKA MUSEUM OF CHINA in Meizhou, Guangdong Province. I'm genuinely curious as to how it got there. Perhaps one of your students, or a student of a student, eventually returned to China and began using or spreading it?

We all know, of course, why it's the Zhōngguó kèjiā bówùguǎn 中國客家博物館 HAKKA MUSEUM OF CHINA and not just the Kèjiā bówùguǎn 客家博物館 ("Hakka Museum"). The same reason why one of my favorite Southern Min dictionaries published by the Maryknoll Fathers in Taichung, Taiwan is titled the Zhōngguó Mǐnnányǔ Yīngyǔ zìdiǎn 中國閩南語英語字典 (China Southern MIn-English Dictionary), though the English title is merely Amoy-English Dictionary.

Three cheers for topolects.

I'm all the more intrigued that the word "topolect" on the Hakka Museum label occurs not as a direct translation of fāngyán 方言, which it was designed to render with exactitude into English, but as the equivalent of Kèjiāhuà 客家话 ("Hakka [language]") (the translation of the Chinese into English is not an exact one-for-one rendering, but more of a loose paraphrase).  Indeed, the word fāngyán 方言 doesn't even appear on the label at all, which is fine by me.  Instead, the only other linguistic term on the label is Méizhōu huà 梅州话 ("Meizhou speech").  This indicates all the more that "topolect" has been indigenized in Chinese English, at least as it is used in Meizhou, and is not viewed simply as a makeshift equivalent of fāngyán 方言.

A couple of earlier posts on Hakka language and people:


  1. Michael Watts said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 1:18 am

    I'm all the more intrigued that the word "topolect" on the Hakka Museum label occurs not as a direct translation of fāngyán 方言, which it was designed to render with exactitude into English, but as the equivalent of Kèjiāhuà 客家话 ("Hakka [language]")

    I was going to ask about this very thing. Given that Hakka is not conceived of as the language of a place but the language of a people, wherever those people might happen to be, why do we want to call it a "topolect"?

  2. S. Valkemirer said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 4:25 am

    Did Victor Mair coin the word "topolect" or did he actually re-coin it?

    The word is listed here:

    Gold, David L. 1981. “Lect: A New Productive Suffix and Free Form.” Leuvense Bijdragen: Tijdschrift voor Germaanse filologie. Vol. 70. Pp. 49-52.

    __. 1982. “More on lect.” Leuvense Bijdragen: Tijdschrift voor Germaanse filologie. Vol. 71. No. 4. Pp. 443-445.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 7:13 am

    @S. Valkemirer

    Since I was completely unaware of those two articles by David L. Gold, and since I expressly invented "topolect" to be an exact rendering of fāngyán 方言, it was an independent coinage.

    If anyone has access to the two articles by David L. Gold, I'd be grateful if you could tell me what he says about "topolect", and whether he provides references to earlier usages of the term.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 7:33 am

    "why do we want to call it a 'topolect'?"

    1. To match the Chinese usage, i.e., fāngyán 方言. That's what Chinese linguists call it.

    2. Chinese linguists consider Meixian to be the standard form of Hakka, and that is what the Hakka Culture Museum there proudly stresses on the label in question.

    Ideally, in terms of linguistic classification, I believe that we should think of Hakka as a language, but we cannot completely ignore the past and current usage of 1.3 billion Chinese who do refer to it as a fāngyán 方言 ("topolect"). Furthermore, all languages and lects are manifested / realized as they are spoken in certain places, and that includes Russian, German, Italian, English, French, Swahili, Thai, etc. So, in that sense, the notion of fāngyán 方言 ("topolect") does fill a need in discussions of language, i.e., when focusing on a particular place or places where a form of speech is spoken. As I have stated many times before, I do not think that the term fāngyán 方言 ("topolect") is useful for purposes of linguistic classification.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 9:32 am

    I'm even more surprised that anything "has been approbated as standard Hakka by the Chinese Government".

  6. Levantine said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 6:48 pm

    Searching Google Books, the earliest example I found of "topolect" is from a volume of Language Quarterly published between 1962 and 1967 (I can't tell more precisely from the snippet), where it's used as a calque of the German "örtliche Sprachform" and is defined as "the speech forms of individual localities" (https://books.google.com/books?id=JokeAQAAMAAJ&dq=topolect). A case of great minds thinking alike, it seems!

  7. Levantine said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 6:55 pm

    The term also pops up in several studies of Yiddish that were published in the 1980s: https://www.google.com/search?q=topolect+yiddish&hl=en&tbm=bks&ei=h5TSWujrEaeJ5wLF5rrACQ&start=0&sa=N&biw=1680&bih=899&dpr=1&tbas=0

  8. S. Valkemirer said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 9:00 pm

    I do not have access at the moment to David L. Gold's articles.

    Here is an earlier use of the word:

    "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" (University of South Florida Language Quarterly, vol. 2, 1964. p. iii).

    So far as I know, "topolect" is now used in replacement of "dialect" rather than in addition to it when reference is to a lect defined spatially.

    It often happens that a word is coined more than once, another example being the French word "sociologie," which Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès used in a manuscript he wrote in 1780.

    The manuscript remained unknown and unpublished until after 1838, the year that August Comte either recoined the word or first used it in print. Comte could at the time not possibly have known of the manuscript.

    In fact, recoinage takes place countless times every day when people use available derivational processes.

    Michael Watts asks, "Given that Hakka is not conceived of as the language of a place but the language of a people, wherever those people might happen to be, why do we want to call it a 'topolect'?"

    If the lect in question is defined spatially, 'topolect" is the best generic term. If it is defined according to the group of persons using it, it is an ethnolect.

    Since έθνος has a broad meaning (no single English word covers all its semantic territory), it can easily be applied to groups defined in different ways.

  9. S. Valkemirer said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 11:52 pm

    Levantine says, "where it's used as a calque of the German "örtliche Sprachform"."

    I interpret that passage to mean that the author gave English "topolect" as the translation equivalent of German "örtliche Sprachform" or vice versa, that is, without implying an etymological relationship between the two.

    Rather, "topolect" was in all likelihood formed in the same way that much of Western technical terminology of Greco-Latin origin has been and continued to be formed, namely, by combining prefixes, bases (also called "stems"), and/or suffixes in languages other than Greek and Latin.

    Thus, to take the English word under discussion. since English "topo-" is a productive prefix (topography, topology, toponym, and so on) and English "-lect" is productive (see David L. Gold's articles), the two can be freely combined to form English "topolect," no model being necessary in any another language to stimulate that coinage.

    "Topolect" was coined because "dialect" had become polysemous (as we see, for example, from the term "social dialect," which has been replaced by "sociolect"), that is, it had become untethered from its original meaning of 'spatial variant, topolect', and because it had become tainted by lay use, where the word tends to be a pejorism ("What they speak is not a real language — it's only a dialect," and so on).

    Consequently, the advantages of "topolect" are that it is a monosemous word (always a desideratum in technical vocabulary) and it is a neutral, rather than a pejorative, word (likewise always a desideratum in technical vocabulary).

  10. S. Valkemirer said,

    April 14, 2018 @ 11:56 pm

    Correction of a slip of the pen: "continues to be formed," not "continues…"
    Is there an edit option here (as on Disqus)?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 15, 2018 @ 12:30 am

    @S. Valkemirer

    Thank you for understanding and explaining why I coined the term "topolect".

    We used to have an edit function here, but it disappeared about a year ago during some updating and fine-tuning of the system. I'll ask if we can get it back.

  12. Levantine said,

    April 15, 2018 @ 4:04 am

    S. Valkemirer, "calque" was a bad choice of word on my part. I merely meant that "topolect" is presented as semantically equivalent to the German "örtliche Sprachform" in the journal for which I provided a link. I think it's self-evident that the term was coined along the lines you describe.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2018 @ 11:18 am

    More evidence that "topolect" is "in China"

    Amazing comment by the lead vocal of the Yishi Band:


    A comment to:

    "Yibin, Sichuanese, Cantonese, Mandarin…; topolect, dialect, language"


    The power of Language Log to reach out all around the world!

    And he uses the word "topolect"!

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment