What Is a Lect in Language Studies?

Dialect is the most common term to refer to the variety in language

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Lect is a term sometimes used in linguistics (especially sociolinguistics) to refer to any distinguishable variety of a language or any distinguishable variety of speech. The adjective form is lectal, and it is also called a language variety.

As Suzanne Romaine notes in "Language in Society" (OUP, 2000), "Many linguists now prefer the term variety or lect to avoid the sometimes pejorative connotations that the term 'dialect' has."

A grammar that acknowledges lectal variations is called panlectal or polylectal. The etymology is a back-formation from dialect, from the Greek for "speech".

Examples and Observations

  • "Lect: some scholars feel the need for a more open-ended term which signifies any linguistic variety, whether defined by its geographical distribution or by its use by people from different social classes, castes, ages, genders, and so on. Lect is intended to cover all such varieties (geographical dialect, sociolect, idiolect -- the language characteristic of a single individual -- and so on)."
  • "A lect may be defined as a distinctive linguistic system in that it comprises a single, unified linguistic structure. A lect is distinguished from a dialect or a register in that the latter terms each indicate an ideal grammatical model with variation, while a lect is any distinct variety therein, actually existing in practice."

    Various Lects

    No language manifests itself directly but is mediated by lects. There can be distinguished such lects of a language as a standard lect (or the so-called standard language), a colloquial lect, a sociolect, an idiolect.

    Metaphorically we could say that language, similarly to light, shines through particular lectal windows, the size and shape of which determines the quantity of light and the form of a light beam.

    Thus, one and the same language projects itself through various lects revealing different aspects.

    A Conglomerate of Overlapping Repertoires

    In actual practice, many language users have an active command of more than one sociolect and/or dialect, and actively switch between the various elements of their lectal repertoire. At the same time, the repertoire of lects of the individual speakers in a linguistic community is not the same. Different people master different dialects, sociolects, technical sublanguages, stylistic registers, and even if we consider a single lect as a linguistic system, the individuals' knowledge of the lect may diverge considerably. Just think of the standard variety of any language: speakers command the variety to different degrees, and it would probably not correspond to our intuitive understanding of what the language (or the lect) is if we were to restrict 'the language' to the least common denominator of all the individual pieces of knowledge.

    In short, homogeneity in a linguistic community is largely a fiction, and we'd better think of a linguistic community not in terms of a single repertoire of linguistic means of expression shared by all members of the community, but rather as a conglomerate of overlapping repertoires.


    Dirk Geeraerts, "Lectal Variation and Empirical Data in Cognitive Linguistics." "Cognitive Linguistics: Internal Dynamics and Interdisciplinary Interaction", ed. by Francisco José Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez and M. Sandra Peña Cervel. Mouton de Gruyter, 2005.

    Lyle Campbell, "Historical Linguistics: An Introduction", 2nd ed. MIT Press, 2004.

    Shlomo Izre'el, "The Armana Glosses." "Language and Culture in the Near East", ed. by  Shlomo Izreʿel and Rina Drory. Brill, 1995.

    Jerzy Bańczerowski, "A Formal Approach to a General Theory of Language." "Theoretical Linguistics and Grammatical Description: Papers in Honour of Hans Heinrich Lieb", ed. by Robin Sackmann with Monika Budde. John Benjamins, 1996.