Literal meaningRegional speech

The Fangyan[a] is a Chinese dictionary compiled in the early 1st century CE by the poet and philosopher Yang Xiong (53 BCE – 18 CE).[b] It was the first Chinese dictionary to include significant regional vocabulary, and is considered the "most significant lexicographic work" of its era.[5] His dictionary's preface explains how he spent 27 years amassing and collating the dictionary. Yang collected regionalisms from many sources, particularly the 'light carriage' (輶軒 yóuxuān) surveys made during the Zhou and Qin dynasties, where imperial emissaries were sent into the countryside annually to record folk songs and idioms from across China, reaching as far north as Korea.[5]


Major Han-era dialect groups as inferred from the Fangyan

The Fangyan originally contained some 9,000 characters in 15 chapters, but two chapters have since been lost.

Definitions typically list regional synonyms. For example, the entry for hu ( 'tiger') is as follows:


Tiger: in the regions of Chen-Wei Song-Chu [Central China], some call it lifu; in the regions of Jiang-Huai Nan-Chu [Southern China], they call it li'er, and some call it wutu. From the Pass, east- and west-ward [Eastern and Western China], some call it also bodu.[6]

Comparative linguists have used dialect data from the Fangyan in reconstructing the pronunciation of Eastern Han Chinese (1st century CE), which is an important diachronic stage between Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. In the above example, Paul Serruys reconstructs 'tiger' as Old Chinese *blxâg. Serruys also applied the techniques of modern dialectology to the distribution of regional words, identifying dialect areas and their relationships.


Victor Mair proposed that 方言 be translated as topolect, while dialect should be translated into Chinese as 通言 tōngyán.[7] Based on this, topolect has been used to characterize other speech varieties where an identification as either language or dialect would be controversial. Examples include Scots and the various regional varieties of Arabic and Romani. 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 a significant number of 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 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".

See also


  1. ^ The full title is 輶軒使者絕代語釋別國方言 ('Local expressions of other countries in times immemorial explained by the Light-Carriage Messenger').
  2. ^ Translations include 'regional words',[1] 'regional expressions',[2] 'dictionary of local expressions',[3] and 'regional spoken words'.[4]
    In modern usage, the term fangyan is customarily translated as English dialect, but linguists have proposed direct neologisms of regionalect (John DeFrancis) and topolect (Victor H. Mair).



  1. ^ Knechtges, David R.; Chang, Taiping, eds. (2014). Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature. A Reference Guide. Vol. 3. Leiden: Brill. p. 1935. ISBN 978-9-004-27185-2.
  2. ^ Yao, Xinzhong, ed. (2015). The Encyclopedia of Confucianism. Routledge. p. 472. ISBN 978-0-700-71199-4.
  3. ^ Needham, Joseph; Ronan, Colin A., eds. (1978). The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge University Press. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-521-23582-2.
  4. ^ O'Neill, Timothy Michael (2016). Ideography and Chinese Language Theory: A History. Berlin: de Gruyter. p. 206. ISBN 978-3-110-45714-8.
  5. ^ a b Creamer 1992, p. 113.
  6. ^ Serruys 1967, p. 256.
  7. ^ Mair, Victor (2016-11-21). "Language vs. script". Language Log. Retrieved 2020-10-12.

Works cited

Further reading