In linguistics, mutual intelligibility is a relationship between languages or dialects in which speakers of different but related varieties can readily understand each other without prior familiarity or special effort. It is sometimes used as an important criterion for distinguishing languages from dialects, although sociolinguistic factors are often also used.
Intelligibility between languages can be asymmetric, with speakers of one understanding more of the other than speakers of the other understanding the first. When it is relatively symmetric, it is characterized as "mutual". It exists in differing degrees among many related or geographically proximate languages of the world, often in the context of a dialect continuum.
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For individuals to achieve moderate proficiency or understanding in a language (called L2) other than their first language (L1) typically requires considerable time and effort through study and/or practical application. However, many groups of languages are partly mutually intelligible, i.e. most speakers of one language find it relatively easy to achieve some degree of understanding in the related language(s). Often the languages are genetically related, and they are likely to be similar to each other in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, or other features.
Intelligibility among languages can vary between individuals or groups within a language population according to their knowledge of various registers and vocabulary in their own language, their exposure to additional related languages, their interest in or familiarity with other cultures, the domain of discussion, psycho-cognitive traits, the mode of language used (written vs. oral), and other factors.
Mutually intelligible languages or varieties of one language
There is no formal distinction between two distinct languages and two varieties of a single language, but linguists generally use mutual intelligibility as one of the primary factors in deciding between the two cases.
Some linguists claim that mutual intelligibility is, ideally at least, the primary criterion separating languages from dialects. On the other hand, speakers of closely related languages can often communicate with each other to some extent; thus there are varying degrees of mutual intelligibility, and often other criteria are also used. As an example, in the case of a linear dialect continuum that shades gradually between varieties, where speakers near the center can understand the varieties at both ends, but speakers at one end cannot understand the speakers at the other end, the entire chain is often considered a single language. If the central varieties then die out and only the varieties at both ends survive, they may then be reclassified as two languages, even though no actual language change has occurred.
In addition, political and social conventions often override considerations of mutual intelligibility. For example, the varieties of Chinese are often considered a single language even though there is usually no mutual intelligibility between geographically separated varieties. In contrast, there is often significant intelligibility between different Scandinavian languages, but as each of them has its own standard form, they are classified as separate languages.
To deal with the conflict in cases such as Chinese and German, the term Dachsprache (a sociolinguistic "umbrella language") is sometimes seen: Chinese and German are languages in the sociolinguistic sense even though some speakers cannot understand each other without recourse to a standard or prestige form.
Asymmetric intelligibility refers to two languages that are considered partially mutually intelligible, but where one group of speakers has more difficulty understanding the other language than the other way around. There can be various reasons for this. If, for example, one language is related to another but has simplified its grammar, the speakers of the original language may understand the simplified language, but not vice versa. For example, Dutch speakers tend to find it easier to understand Afrikaans than vice versa as a result of Afrikaans's simplified grammar, although the large number of false friends between these languages can cause misunderstanding.
Perhaps the most common reason for apparent asymmetric intelligibility is that speakers of one variety have more exposure to the other than vice versa. For example, speakers of Scottish English have frequent exposure to standard American English through movies and TV programs, whereas speakers of American English have little exposure to Scottish English; hence, American English speakers often find it difficult to understand Scottish English or, especially, Scots (which differs significantly from Scottish Standard English), whereas Scots tend to have few problems understanding standard American English.
Northern Germanic language spoken in Scandinavia form a dialect continuum where two furthermost dialects have almost no mutual intelligibility. As such, spoken Danish and Swedish normally have low mutual intelligibility, but Swedes in the Öresund region (including Malmö and Helsingborg), across a strait from the Danish capital Copenhagen, understand Danish somewhat better, largely due to the proximity of the region to Danish-speaking areas (see Mutual intelligibility in North Germanic languages). While Norway was under Danish rule, the Bokmål written standard of Norwegian originates from Dano-Norwegian, a koiné that evolved among the urban elite in Norwegian cities during the later years of the union. Additionally, Norwegian assimilated a considerable amount of Danish vocabulary as well as traditional Danish expressions. As a consequence, spoken mutual intelligibility is not reciprocal.
Similarly, in Germany and Italy, standard German or Italian speakers may have great difficulty understanding the "dialects" from regions other than their own, but virtually all "dialect" speakers learn the standard languages in school and from the media.
List of partially mutually intelligible languages
Below is an incomplete list of fully and partially mutually intelligible varieties sometimes considered languages.
Written and spoken forms
- Afrikaans: Dutch (partially)
- Assyrian Neo-Aramaic: Turoyo (to a limited degree, asymmetrically)
- Azerbaijani: Crimean Tatar, Gagauz, Turkish and Urum (partially and asymmetrically[verification needed])
- Belarusian: Russian (partially) and Ukrainian (closely) Polish (partially)
- Bulgarian: Macedonian
- Cebuano: Hiligaynon
- Crimean Tatar: Azerbaijani, Gagauz, Turkish and Urum (partially and asymmetrically[verification needed])
- Czech: Slovak (significantly)
- Danish: Norwegian and Swedish (both partially and asymmetrically)
- Dutch: Afrikaans (in written form; in spoken form partially), West Frisian (partially)
- English: Scots (significantly)
- Estonian: Finnish (partially)
- Finnish: Estonian (partially), Karelian (high) Kven language and Meänkieli (very high)
- French : Italian (partially) , Spanish (partially), Catalan (partially)
- Gagauz: Azerbaijani, Crimean Tatar, Turkish and Urum (partially and asymmetrically[verification needed])
- Galician: Spanish (high), Portuguese (very high)
- Hiligaynon: Cebuano
- Irish: Scottish Gaelic (partially; varies greatly according to dialect. The greatest mutual intelligibility is between Ulster Irish and southern Scottish dialects.). See also: Comparison of Scottish Gaelic and Irish.
- Italian: French and Spanish (both partially)
- Macedonian: Serbo-Croatian (partially and asymmetrically)
- Maltese: Tunisian Arabic (significantly) and Sicilian (partially)
- Manchu: Xibe
- Norwegian: Danish and Swedish (partially and asymmetrically)
- Portuguese: Galician (very high) and Spanish (partially)
- Russian: Belarusian and Ukrainian (both partially)
- Slovak: Czech (significantly) Polish (partially)
- Slovenian: Serbo-Croatian (partially and asymmetrically)
- Serbo-Croatian: Slovenian (partially and asymmetrically) Macedonian (partially and asymmetrically)
- Spanish: Galician (high), Catalan (partially), Portuguese (in written form, high; in spoken form, partially), French (partially), Italian (partially)
- Swedish: Danish (partially) and Norwegian
- Tunisian Arabic: Maltese (significantly), Algerian Arabic and Libyan Arabic (both partially)
- Turkish: Azerbaijani, Crimean Tatar, Gagauz and Urum (partially and asymmetrically[verification needed])
- Ukrainian: Belarusian and Russian (both partially)
- Urum: Azerbaijani, Crimean Tatar, Gagauz and Turkish (partially and asymmetrically[verification needed])
- Xibe: Manchu
- Zulu: Ndebele (partially), Xhosa (partially), and Swazi (partially)
Spoken forms mainly
- Akha, Honi, Hani (variety of different written scripts)
- Assyrian Neo-Aramaic: Lishanid Noshan (partially) and Hulaulá (partially) (because Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is usually written in the Syriac alphabet and the latter two are usually written in the Hebrew alphabet)
- Dari: Tajik (because, currently, Tajik is usually written using Cyrillic script, while Dari is usually written in the Persian alphabet).
- Dungan: Mandarin, especially with Central Plains Mandarin (partially; Dungan is usually written in Cyrillic and Mandarin usually in Chinese characters)
- German: Yiddish (because German is usually written in Latin script and Yiddish usually in the Hebrew alphabet). However, Yiddish's use of many borrowed Hebrew, Polish, Hungarian, and Latin words makes it more difficult for a German speaker to understand spoken Yiddish than the converse.
- Isan: Lao (because Isan is usually written in the Thai alphabet while Lao is usually written in the Lao alphabet, although Isan is a set of Lao dialects)
- Lao: Thai, Southern Thai, Lanna, Shan and Lü (both partially and asymmetrically, with every language having its own script while Thai and Southern Thai use same script.)
- Persian: Tajik (because, currently, Persian is usually written in the Persian alphabet, but Tajik is usually written using the Cyrillic script)
- Polish: Ukrainian and Belarusian (both partially, because Belarusian and Ukrainian are written in Cyrillic, while Polish is written in Latin)
- Tajik: Persian and Dari (because, currently, Tajik is usually written in Cyrillic, whereas Persian and Dari are usually written in the Persian alphabet)
Written forms mainly
- Icelandic: Faroese
- Thai: Southern Thai
- German: Dutch. Standard Dutch and Standard German show a limited degree of mutual intelligibility when written. One study concluded that when concerning written language, Dutch speakers could translate 50.2% of the provided German words correctly, while the German test subjects were able to translate 41.9% of the Dutch equivalents correctly. In terms of orthography, 22% of the vocabulary of Dutch and German is identical or near identical. The Levenshtein distance between written Dutch and German is 50.4% as opposed to 61.7% between English and Dutch. The spoken languages are much more difficult to understand for both with studies showing Dutch speakers having slightly less difficulty in understanding German speakers than vice versa, though it remains unclear whether this asymmetry has to do with prior knowledge of the language (German and French being obligatory foreign languages for two years in Dutch secondary education), better knowledge of another related language (English) or any other non-linguistic reasons.
- German: Luxembourgish. The languages are closely related. Intellegibility may require the German-speaker to read the given text aloud and slowly; in that case he/she will usually understand most texts. For the contrary direction, intellegibility cannot be tested as Luxembourgians learn German at school.
List of partially mutually intelligible varieties
- Dari: Persian
- Karakalpak: Kazakh and Nogai
- Kazakh: Karakalpak, Nogai, Altay and Kyrgyz
- Kinyarwanda: Kirundi
- Kirundi: Kinyarwanda
- Kyrgyz: Kazakh and Altay and Karakalpak
- Persian: Dari
- Samoan: Tokelauan and Tuvaluan (partially)
- Tokelauan: Tuvaluan and Samoan (partially)
- Tuvaluan: Tokelauan and Samoan (partially)
Dialects or registers of one language sometimes considered separate languages
- Assyrian Neo-Aramaic: Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Lishana Deni, Hértevin, Bohtan Neo-Aramaic, and Senaya – the standard forms are structurally the same language and thus mutually intelligible to a significant degree. As such, these varieties are occasionally considered dialects of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. They are only considered separate languages for geographical, political and religious reasons.
- Catalan: Valencian – the standard forms are structurally the same language, and hence mutually intelligible. They are considered separate languages only for political reasons.
- Hindustani: Hindi and Urdu – the standard forms are separate registers of structurally the same language (called Hindustani or Hindi-Urdu), with Hindi written in Devanagari and Urdu mainly in a Perso-Arabic script, and with Hindi drawing its vocabulary mainly from Sanskrit and Urdu drawing it mainly from Persian and Arabic.
- Malay: Indonesian (standardized national register in Indonesia) and Malaysian (standardized national register in Malaysia).
- Serbo-Croatian: Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian – the standard forms are structurally the same language, based on the Shtokavian dialect, and hence mutually intelligible, spoken and written (if the Latin alphabet is used). They are considered separate languages only for political reasons.
- The dialects of Serbo-Croatian (Kajkavian, Chakavian, Shtokavian and Torlakian) are considered by some linguists to be separate, albeit closely related languages to Serbo-Croatian, rather than its dialects. Their mutual intelligibility varies greatly, both between the dialects themselves as well as with other languages. Kajkavian has higher mutual intelligibility with Slovenian than varieties of Shtokavian while Chakavian has a low mutual intelligibility with either, in part due to large number of loanwords from Venetian language. Torlakian (considered a subdialect of Shtokavian by some) has a significant level of mutual intelligibility with Macedonian and Bulgarian.
- Tagalog: Filipino – the national language of the Philippines, Filipino, is based almost entirely on the Luzon dialects of Tagalog
- Romanian: Moldovan – the standard forms are structurally the same language, and hence mutually intelligible. They are considered separate languages only for political reasons.
List of mutually unintelligible varieties sometimes considered dialects
- Elfdalian: Swedish
- Many Romance languages of Italy, such as Venetian, Neapolitan, Lombard or Sicilian, are unintelligible with Standard Italian as well as each other.
- Kashubian: Polish
- Syriac: Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Turoyo
- Ryukyuan languages: Japanese
- The four Kurdish languages (Kurmanji, Sorani, Pehlewani, and Laki) are mutually unintelligible, but are sometimes lumped together as a single "Kurdish language" for political purposes.
- The hundreds of Sinitic languages are in almost all cases mutually unintelligible, but they are often lumped together as a single "Chinese language"
- Some varieties of Arabic are mutually unintelligible or have only very limited intelligibility with each other.
- Some highly divergent varieties of Modern Greek are completely unintelligible with the standard, especially Tsakonian, or are at best only partly intelligible, such as Pontic Greek, Cappadocian Greek and Italiot Greek, and even Cypriot Greek.
- Some traditional German dialects are virtually unintelligible with Standard German (such as Swiss German, especially Walser German).
- Some varieties of Albanian such as Arvanitika and Arbëresh are virtually unintelligible with the standard (mainly due to divergent lexicon).
- Homshetsi is considered a dialect of Western Armenian, but the two are largely mutually unintelligible.
- In English, some traditional dialects in Britain are barely mutually intelligible with other forms of English, but these are now either extinct or confined to older speakers. These dialects were documented extensively in the 19th century by Alexander John Ellis, later in Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary and in the 1950s in the Survey of English Dialects. As recently as 1981, audiences at the New York Film Festival struggled to understand a film in the dialect of the English city of Sheffield, Looks and Smiles.
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Because of the difficulty of imposing boundaries on a continuum, various counts of the Romance languages are given; in The Linguasphere register of the world’s languages and speech communities David Dalby lists 23 based on mutual intelligibility:
- Iberian Romance: Portuguese, Galician, Mirandese, Astur-Leonese, Spanish, Aragonese;
- Occitano-Romance: Catalan, Occitan;
- Gallo-Romance: Langues d'oïl (including French), Franco-Provençal;
- Rhaeto-Romance: Romansh, Ladin, Friulian;
- Gallo-Italic: Piedmontese, Ligurian, Lombard, Emilian-Romagnol;
- Italo-Dalmatian: Corsican, Dalmatian (extinct), Italian, Neapolitan, Sicilian;
- Eastern Romance: Daco-Romanian, Istro-Romanian, Aromanian, Megleno-Romanian.
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