Language Variation and Change

Research Article

One size fits all? Dialectometry in a small clan-based indigenous society

James N. Stanforda1

a1 Dartmouth College


In many societies, dialectometry has revealed strong correlations between geographic distances and dialect differences (e.g., Gooskens, 2005; Heeringa & Nerbonne, 2001; Nerbonne, 2009, 2010). But what happens when dialectometry is applied to a small, clan-based society such as the indigenous Sui people of rural southwest China? The Sui results show a strong correlation between dialect difference and geographic distance, thus supporting Nerbonne and Kleiweg's (2007) Fundamental Dialectological Postulate. A new culturally specific computation, “rice paddy distance,” also provides a strong correlation with dialect differences. However, the study finds that some dialectometry patterns of larger societies are not “compressible” into small societies such as Sui. Clan exogamy also poses challenges for dialectometry. Nonetheless, the overall results show that basic principles of dialect variation in space can be generalized cross-culturally, even across very different cultures. This paper also suggests a “lower limit” for dialectology, that is, the smallest distance where regional dialectology may be relevant, all other things being equal.


I would like to thank the Sui people who participated in this study and patiently taught me their language and culture. I would also like to thank Dennis Preston, Jerold Edmondson, Tim and Debbie Vinzani, Qiannan Teachers College for Nationalities, and the audiences at Methods in Dialectology 14, New Ways of Analyzing Variation 39 and 40, and the reviewers of this journal. Thank you also to John Nerbonne, Andy Castro, and Cathryn Yang. The John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding provided travel funding for one of the China research trips in this project. The project was also partially supported by the Dartmouth College William and Constance Burke Research Award. Natalie Schrimpf, Melanie Parnon, Melissa Queen, and Lucinda Hall assisted in calculating dialect distances. Tev'n Powers wrote the computer program to calculate “rice paddy distances.” The Sui regional maps were produced by Lucinda Hall, Evans Map Room, Dartmouth College. Jerold Edmondson provided a copy of the unpublished manuscript Shuiyu Diaocha Baogao (1956).