Archive for Dialects

Topolect: a Four-Body Problem

From Jeff DeMarco:

The fanfic fourth book in the sāntǐ 三体 ("three-body [problem]") series, translated by Ken Liu has the following sentence:

Women dressed in flowing silk dresses oared elegant barges over the placid waterways, singing folk ditties in the gentle, refined accents of the Wu topolect …

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Internet as Russian dialect enabler

"Internet Not Killing Off Dialects within Russian as Many Suppose but Increasing Their Diversity, Moscow Scholar Says",  Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia (6/7/24)

It is widely assumed that the Internet is contributing to the homogenization of languages and killing off both dialects and local variants; but in fact, a Moscow scholar says, a new survey of Russian as spoken in the cities of that country finds that in many places, dialects are unexpectedly expanding.

Ivan Levan, a specialist at the Moscow Institute of the Russian Language at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that he and his colleagues have recently found “about 2,000” new words that vary from city to city and were not recorded in V.I. Belikov and V.P. Selegey’s 2005 work on Languages of Russian Cities (

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Aspects of Maltese linguistics

[Full disclosure:  the reason I am so consumed by the Arabic vernaculars is because of their own inherent, intrinsic nature, but I must confess that I'm also preoccupied by their comparative parallelism with the Sinitic "topolects".  The workings of both are extremely difficult to comprehend.]

This post is to follow up on VHM's "Arabic and the vernaculars, part 6" (5/12/24) and Mark's "Maltese Arabic: Correction?" (5/13/24), plus J.W. Brewer's excellent first comment to the latter.

Mark ends his post thus:  "…it seems entirely wrong to exclude Maltese from a taxonomy of Arabic 'colloquials' or 'vernaculars' (i.e. Arabic languages), purely on the grounds of its borrowings from Italian."  I would not want to do that.

To provide for a more nuanced evaluation of the position of Maltese vis-à-vis the Arabic vernaculars, below I cite several scholarly accounts of the subject and related issues.  Extensive coverage of the history of the languages on Malta is provided.


Maltese language, Semitic language of the Southern Central group spoken on the island of Malta. Maltese developed from a dialect of Arabic and is closely related to the western Arabic dialects of Algeria and Tunisia. Strongly influenced by the Sicilian language (spoken in Sicily), Maltese is the only form of Arabic to be written in the Latin alphabet."

That's the bare bones.  As we shall find in the following paragraphs, the complexities of Maltese are far greater than can be told in such a capsule description.

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Jichang Lulu briefly alluded to work on languages of Italy in the dialectometry thread (here [the whole comment is well worth reading, as are the comments by Jonathan Smith [here — this one on an earlier thread, here, here, and here] on that post). He also thought that Language Log readers might find of interest some comments in this paper by Mauro Tosco.

"Measuring languageness:  Fact-checking and debunking a few common myths", DIVE-IN

“Interestingly, the more traditional classifications are marred by purely sociolinguistic analyses – and quite often their accompanying political and ideological underpinnings – the more they are proven wrong when dialectometry is applied.”

(Tosco:  homepage; International Research Group on Contested Languages)

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Tianjin topolect: linguistic diversity in China (and India)

In our perennial discussions on the supposed mutual intelligibility of the countless, so-called "Chinese dialects" of the allegedly monolithic / monolingual Hànyǔ 漢語 ("Sinitic"; my colleague IA calls it "Hannic"), we seldom take into account the actuality of what these innumerable lects sound like on the ground / street.  Let's take a listen to this 4-year-old kid from Tianjin, which is close (70 miles) to Beijing, singing in the local Muttersprache, here.

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The future Sinitic languages of East Asia

Is monolingualism a normal, natural, necessary state of affairs for human beings?

Can you imagine a world in which there were only one language?  How is that even possible?

These are questions that come to mind after reading Gina Anne Tam's deeply thought provoking "Mandarin Hegemony: The Past and Future of Linguistic Hierarchies in China", pulse (4/18/24).

Tam begins with a gripping, hard-hitting scene that we at Language Log were already well aware of last fall:  "Speak Mandarin, not Cantonese, even in Macau" (10/31/23).  Here are the opening paragraphs of her article:

At a concert in Macau in the autumn of 2023, Cantopop superstar Eason Chan used an interlude to talk about his songwriting process. Suddenly, shouts from the audience interrupted his soliloquy, as a few fans demanded that he shift from speaking in his native Cantonese, the majority language in Macau, to Mandarin, the Chinese national language. Chan stopped and quickly launched into a multilingual lecture, reprimanding those who deigned to tell him what to speak. In English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai, he defended multilingualism for the freedom it grants: ‘I love speaking in whatever way and language I want’ (Huang 2023).

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That mystifying, baffling Mid-Atlantic / TransAtlantic Accent

The same as Gideon, the legendary LetThemTalkTV presenter of this edifying video, as a child I too was deeply puzzled by how some of these famous American actors sounded so British.

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Modals, idiolects, garden-path sentences, and English translations of a ninth-century Chinese poem

Here I present a digest of four scientific linguistics papers from the latter part of the month of January, 2024 to show that our field is very much alive in diverse subfields at the beginning of the new year.

"The Semantics, Sociolinguistics, and Origins of Double Modals in American English: New Insights from Social Media." Morin, Cameron et al. PLOS ONE 19, no. 1 (January 24, 2024): e0295799.

Abstract: In this paper, we analyze double modal use in American English based on a multi-billion-word corpus of geolocated posts from the social media platform Twitter. We identify and map 76 distinct double modals totaling 5,349 examples, many more types and tokens of double modals than have ever been observed. These descriptive results show that double modal structure and use in American English is far more complex than has generally been assumed. We then consider the relevance of these results to three current theoretical debates. First, we demonstrate that although there are various semantic tendencies in the types of modals that most often combine, there are no absolute constraints on double modal formation in American English. Most surprisingly, our results suggest that double modals are used productively across the US. Second, we argue that there is considerable dialect variation in double modal use in the southern US, with double modals generally being most strongly associated with African American Language, especially in the Deep South. This result challenges previous sociolinguistic research, which has often highlighted double modal use in White Southern English, especially in Appalachia. Third, we consider how these results can help us better understand the origins of double modals in America English: although it has generally been assumed that double modals were introduced by Scots-Irish settlers, we believe our results are more consistent with the hypothesis that double modals are an innovation of African American Language.

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Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse writes in Nynorsk, a minority writing system

"The Nobel literature prize goes to Norway’s Jon Fosse, who once wrote a novel in a single sentence"


While Fosse is the fourth Norwegian writer to get the Nobel literature prize, he is the first in nearly a century and the first who writes in Nynorsk, one of the two official written versions of the Norwegian language. It is used by just 10% of the country’s 5.4 million people, according to the Language Council of Norway, but completely understandable to users of the other written form, Bokmaal.

Guy Puzey, senior lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, said that Bokmaal is “the language of power, it’s the language of urban centers, of the press.” Nynorsk, by contrast, is used mainly by people in rural western Norway.

“So it’s a really big day for a minority language,” Puzey said

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Language, topolect, dialect, idiolect

An educated person will have all four levels of speech.

The more highly educated they are, the higher up the scale their language capacity will go, though they may not be familiar with some of the argot of the lower levels.

Of course, all four levels are language, but that is possible because "language" has two meanings:  a generalized, abstract sense that comprises all human speech and writing, and the officially recognized speech and writing of a nation / country / gens — a politically united group of people.

A topolect is the speech / writing of the people living in a certain place or area.  It is geographically determined.

A dialect is a distinctive form / style / pronunciation / accent shared by two or more people.  To qualify as the speaker of a particular dialect, one must possess a pattern of speech, a lect, that is intelligible to others who speak the same dialect.  As we say in Mandarin, it's a question of whether what you speak is jiǎng dé tōng 講得通 ("mutually intelligible") or jiǎng bùtōng 講不通 ("mutually unintelligible").  If what two people are speaking is jiǎng bùtōng 講不通 ("mutually unintelligible"), then they're not speaking the same dialect.

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Elk topolects

Who would have thought?

Even North America’s Elk Have Regional Dialects

Why do Pennsylvania elk sound different from Colorado elk?

By Kylie Mohr, The Atlantic Monthly (July 16, 2023)


It’s a crisp fall evening in Grand Teton National Park. A mournful, groaning call cuts through the dusky-blue light: a male elk, bugling. The sound ricochets across the grassy meadow. A minute later, another bull answers from somewhere in the shadows.

Bugles are the telltale sound of elk during mating season. Now new research has found that male elks’ bugles sound slightly different depending on where they live. Other studies have shown that whale, bat, and bird calls have dialects of sorts too, and a team led by Jennifer Clarke, a behavioral ecologist at the Center for Wildlife Studies and a professor at the University of La Verne, in California, is the first to identify such differences in any species of ungulate.

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Comparative dialectology and romanizations for North and South Korea

[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey]

Your Language Log coverage of the North Korean news item was chilling, but pretty much what we've come to expect of that outrageous regime. If ever there was a clearer contrast between the two worlds in conflict, I've never heard of it. South Korea is now such a star on the world stage and rising so fast, it must be a bitter pill for the regime in Pyongyang to swallow! 

Just a couple of things that occurred to me, though: (1) What authorities in Pyongyang do not recognize, or concede, is that though they point to the Pyongyang dialect as the basis of their standard, that very standard itself is based upon the earlier, traditional dialect of Seoul that represented the cultural and linguistic capital of the Joseon Period (–or "Choson" period, as DPRK spelling of the word would have it). 

And (2): While on the subject of spellings, it might be worthwhile to point out that the romanization the DPRK uses is based upon the McCune-Reischauer system still used by many Western academics. But the North Korean version is actually more pragmatic than Western academic usage in that the North Koreans eliminate the annoying diacritics of McR that have long exasperated so many Western romanizers–and which Seoul academics used as one of the justifications for the new Revised system they introduced in 2000–and which they so dogmatically insist on now.  

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“Et aap, Brute?” – North Indian Julius Caesar

I borrow my title from a Tweet by one Shivam that is part of a Twitter Storm sweeping over India these days.  It is playfully described in this BBC article today:

Tu v Aap: The Indian woman who sparked a Twitter battle on pronouns

By Geeta Pandey and Meryl Sebastian, BBC News, Delhi

Never mind how one says "you" in French or German, it matters much how one says "you" in different parts of India.

In India when you call someone "you", how do you address them? Do you call them a respectful "aap" or an informal "tu" or use the middle-of-the-road pronoun "tum"?

That's the question that Indian Twitter has been debating for the past few days.

It started earlier this week with a tweet from Pratibha, a 31-year-old Delhi-based woman, who said it was rude to use the informal "tu" to address a stranger.

"Never engage with Bombay [Mumbai] people in Hindi. You could be complete strangers and they'll still feel free to address you with a 'Tu'. Unacceptable behaviour," she wrote.

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