Language, topolect, dialect, idiolect

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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.

Naturally, the dividing line between one dialect and another is not sharp.  There is a blending, a gradation, a blurring between them.  The same if true of languages on a larger scale.  For example, I can understand close to a 100% of the speech of natives of Stark County, Ohio, but maybe only 75-80% of rapid speech from Vinton County in the south.

An idiolect is spoken by only one person.

Of course, I fully expect a lot of pushback against the propositions concerning language, topolect, dialect, and idiolect I have stated above.  My aim is to bring clarity to the whole mishmash of what a dialect is and is not:




See also OED, AHD, Random House, Collins dictionaries.

"Dialect" means so many radically different things, but also so many things that somewhat resemble each other, but are not really the same, that it is essentially useless for scientific purposes.

Remember, when you are utterly confused about what a "dialect" is or is not, that it is a close cognate of "dialog":  communication between two individuals.



One of my graduate students attended The Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs 2023 held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this past weekend (September 29 to October 1, 2023).  He told me that the question of topolect vs. dialect was a hot topic at the conference.  Interestingly, he said that the language and linguistics people at the conference favored "dialect" over "topolect", while the literature and humanities folk preferred "topolect" over "dialect", just the opposite of what I would have expected.


Selected readings

See also:  "Army, navy, dialect, topolect, language:  once more, not with feeling, but with reason"

A comment to:  "Linguistic diversity in Greater Tibet" (5/3/14)


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 1:28 pm

    « "dialog": communication between two individuals » — the OED would re-state that as communication between two or more invididuals.

  2. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 1:56 pm

    Let me just note that the question of a language needing "official recognition" and political unity is something that is discussed at length in Class 1 of most courses in sociolinguistics. Normally the conclusion is that beliefs of that sort are, let us say, folk linguistics (in the Preston/Niedzielski sense) rather than linguistics.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 2:15 pm

    That was one of two quite different meanings of "language" discussed in the o.p.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 2:21 pm

    "the OED would re-state that as communication between two or more invididuals (recte individuals)"

    cf. this sentence from the o.p.: "A dialect is a distinctive form / style / pronunciation / accent shared by two or more people."

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 2:30 pm

    Yes, but I was explicitly commenting on your glossing of "dialog[ue]", not "dialect".

  6. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 2:52 pm

    @ Victor Mair "That was one of two quite different meanings of 'language' discussed in the o.p."

    I would think the two meanings were (1) (unarthrous) language in the sense of language faculty" and (2) a (specific) language understood from a folk linguistic (or, if you prefer, political) point of view.

    My point was that (2) is not the usual understanding within actual linguistics. With the exception of clear Abstand situations (I dunno, English vs. Welsh), there is no good way of distinguishing between languages on purely linguistic grounds. Political etc. stuff is extralinguistic. A masterly one-section summary is given by Trudgill and Chambers in Dialectology: link.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 3:07 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    mutatis mutandis

    to avoid verbosity

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 3:08 pm

    @Jarek Weckwerth

    "My point was that (2) is not the usual understanding within actual linguistics."

    To be sure.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 3:09 pm

    How does the "topolect" category work in areas where not everyone (or even a particularly overwhelming majority) in a given topos speaks the same L1 and/or migration-patterns-plus-politics meaning plenty of incomers and their locally-born kids never learn the previously-dominant L1?* The existence of people born and raised on Taiwan who lack any fluency in Taiwanese/Hokho is a good Sinitic-world example of the latter. Will Taiwanese cease to be a topolect if the percentage of those resident in Taiwan (alone or combined with mainland Fukien) who can speak it drops below some threshold percentage?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 3:32 pm

    @J. W. Brewer:

    Good questions.

    Then it will be a dying or dead topolect.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 3:35 pm

    @Jarek Weckwerth: I think it's a mistake to think that linguistics scholarship will be somehow "purer" if it ignores all those non-linguistic factors that affect and constrain different language varieties in the actually-existing human/social world. What with language being a human/social phenomenon and all. It seems to me that what vhm's sense (2) is doing is trying to restrict the "language" descriptor to varieties that would be classified (by those who use this jargon) as Ausbau and/or Dachsprache languages. Although I think most people who use that jargon would deny that those two categories exhaust the range of things that should be called "languages."

  12. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 3:48 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer: I wasn't thinking in terms of "purity". I was just pointing out that the meanings of those terms are different among the general public and linguists, because I think it's quite a central thing to consider if you want a discussion on this specific topic (i.e. the meaning of the terms… ;)

    You can see one effect in Prof. Mair's addendum to the OP: I, for one, don't find it at all suprising that the linguistics types preferred the term "dialect" since they're thinking in terms of this pic by Preston.

  13. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 3:49 pm

    As usual, an unsuccessful link. Pfffff. The pic is here:

  14. Chas Belov said,

    October 3, 2023 @ 10:55 pm

    I see both the Wiktionary entry and (implied) the Merriam-Webster entry, refer to Cantonese as a dialect of Mandarin or Chinese. *shudder*

  15. KeithB said,

    October 4, 2023 @ 8:32 am

    Does accent fit in with topolect?

  16. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 4, 2023 @ 11:31 am

    I like the idea that a person is simultaneously speaking every dialect whose speakers can understand them. There's some dialect that's the center, but there are many many dialects that are only a bit different, and within the range of being only slightly weird. However, if you make a long enough chain of these slight differences, you get to the point where people can't figure each other out, and that forms the limit of the collection of dialects that someone is speaking.

    One thing to consider is whether code switching (speaking differently to different audiences) means that each individual has multiple idiolects or that an idiolect encompasses the handling of different situations.

  17. Philip Anderson said,

    October 4, 2023 @ 1:22 pm

    I would put accent with dialect, or just below it in the hierarchy, since a person might have a regional accent, at least in the UK, without using non-standard vocabulary or grammar.
    On the other hand, if British and American English were to be considered as topolects (‘varieties’ of English is the term I am familiar with), they are each associated with an accent; but I think the difference there is smaller than between, say, Mandarin and Cantonese.

  18. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 6, 2023 @ 2:02 am

    I read somewhere that the difference between an "accent" and a "dialect" is that the former differs (from some standard) only phonologically, while a dialect also has differences in grammar and vocabulary.

    (Not sure where this'd leave a variety that differs in one of grammar and vocabulary but not the other. Likely "and" should be construed as "and/or".)

  19. Julian said,

    October 6, 2023 @ 3:29 am

    Accents: just been listening to Rosie Collington, joint author of " The big con".
    UK accent, but I suspect not southeast.
    Unreleased Ts. Very interesting rendering of the "oo" vowels. "book" almost becomes /byk/
    Anyone know what this accent is? Thanks.
    For example, here from 1:30:

  20. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    October 6, 2023 @ 9:47 am

    @Daniel Barkalow: "However, if you make a long enough chain of these slight differences, you get to the point where people can't figure each other out". This is what I alluded to above. This kind of situation is known as a "dialect continuum". Discussed in the Wikipedia entry* linked from the OP. However, in practice, the criterion of intelligibility is traditionally used to delineate languages, not dialect.

    @Andreas Johansson: Yes, that is the standard application of the two terms. "Accent" is only about phonetics/phonology, "dialect" is differences at all levels of language structure. Again, discussed in the Wikipedia entry*.

    @Philip Anderson: Well I think "topolect" is a useful term for entities such as British and American English because they are defined geographically, not linguistically, and each is a collection of many dialects. As such, neither is associated with one accent. In England, the accent changes every 10 miles. But the difference is obviously much smaller than between Mandarin and Cantonese, since there is very good intelligibility overall. Very little of that between M and C.

    And you can very certainly speak Standard (A or B) English with another accent, either local, or foreign.

    In general I tend to think that "topolect" has the advantage of (a) not having to declare "a topolect of what" (as is usually done with "dialect"), and (b) not having to take sides in the dialect vs. language brouhaha. But the term is not used much in sociolinguistics. Probably because apart from geographically defined varieties it is essentially equivalent to the technical meaning of "dialect" (as per the second para in that Wiki entry*).

    @Julian: That absolutely is a south-eastern English accent, by all means. Just notice the very high THOUGHT and LOT vowels. BTW, the /t/s are glottalized, not unreleased.

    * The Wikipedia article is actually available from the Wiktionary link (the labels are swapped). It's very reasonable and in the second paragraph describes succinctly the typical usage in sociolinguistics. I personally wouldn't be much worried about the definitions from Merriam and Wiktionary. If you're interested in, let's say, medicine, you wouldn't go looking for detailed definitions of medical conditions in a general dictionary for laypeople. You would consult a medical dictionary, or, for that matter, Wikipedia.

  21. Taylor, Philip said,

    October 6, 2023 @ 10:15 am

    Also sounds south-east English accent to me (a native of that part of the world who has never really lived anywhere else).

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    October 6, 2023 @ 1:41 pm

    "who had not, until the last few years, really lived anywhere else" — I had completely overlooked the fact that I now live in Cornwall, south-west England. You can tell from that oversight that my heart still lies in Kent.

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