mutual intelligibility

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mutual intelligibility
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{{Short description|Ability of speakers of two language varieties to understand the other}}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.Linguistic distance is the name for the concept of calculating a measurement for how different languages are from one another. The higher the linguistic distance, the lower the mutual intelligibility.


{{unreferenced section|date=February 2010}}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 WEB,weblink Listening instruction and patient safety: Exploring medical English as a lingua franca (MELF) for nursing education, Gregory, Tweedie, Robert, Johnson, 6 January 2018, . Advanced speakers of a second language typically aim for intelligibility, especially in situations where they work in their second language and the necessity of being understood is high WEB,weblink Listening instruction and patient safety: Exploring medical English as a lingua franca (MELF) for nursing education, Gregory, Tweedie, Robert, Johnson, 6 January 2018, .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

Some linguists use mutual intelligibility as a primary criterion for determining whether two speech varieties represent the same or different languages.BOOK, Gröschel, Bernhard, Bernhard Gröschel, 2009, German, Das Serbokroatische zwischen Linguistik und Politik: mit einer Bibliographie zum postjugoslavischen Sprachenstreit, Serbo-Croatian Between Linguistics and Politics: With a Bibliography of the Post-Yugoslav Language Dispute, Lincom Studies in Slavic Linguistics ; vol 34, Munich, Lincom Europa, 132–136, 978-3-929075-79-3, 428012015, 2009473660, 15295665W, Some linguistsSee e.g. P.H. Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, OUP 2007, p. 103. 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; 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. Another similar example would be varieties of Arabic. 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.BOOK
, Chambers, J.K., Jack Chambers (linguist)
, Trudgill, Peter, Peter Trudgill
, Dialectology
, Cambridge University Press, 2nd, 1998
, 978-0-521-59646-6
, 3–4
, There is also significant intelligibility between Thai languages of different regions of Thailand.To deal with the conflict in cases such as Arabic, 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

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 less 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.Northern Germanic languages 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. While Norway was under Danish rule, the Bokmål written standard of Norwegian developed from Dano-Norwegian, a koiné language 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.JOURNAL,weblink The Contribution of Linguistic Factors to the Intelligibility of Closely Related Languages, Charlotte, Gooskens, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 28, 6, 2007, 2010-05-19, 10.2167/jmmd511.0, 445,, As a consequence, spoken mutual intelligibility is not reciprocal.Similarly, in the German speaking area 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 mutually intelligible languages

Below is an incomplete list of fully and partially mutually intelligible varieties sometimes considered languages.

Written and spoken forms

Spoken forms mainly

Written forms mainly

  • 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. Another study showed that while Dutch speakers could correctly translate 71% of German cognates, they could only translate 26,6% of non-cognates correctly, suggesting a widely fluctuating intelligibility.[INTELLIGIBILITY OF STANDARD GERMAN AND LOW GERMAN TO
SPEAKERS OF DUTCH, C. Gooskens.weblink] In terms of orthography, 22% of the vocabulary of Dutch and German is identical or near identical (including most commonly used vocabulary). The Levenshtein distance between written Dutch and German is 50.4% as opposed to 61.7% between English and Dutch.Gooskens & Heeringa (2004) The spoken languages are much more difficult to understand for both. Studies show Dutch speakers have slightly less difficulty in understanding German speakers than vice versa. It remains unclear whether this asymmetry has to do with prior knowledge of the language (Dutch people are more exposed to German than vice versa), better knowledge of another related language (English) or any other non-linguistic reasons.WEB,weblink Gooskens et al., Cross-Border Intelligibility on the Intelligibility of Low German among Speakers of Danish and Dutch, WEB,weblink Mutual intelligibility of Dutch-German cognates by humans and computers, 12 November 2010, Vincent J. van Heuven, Charlotte Gooskens, Renée van Bezooijen,

List of mutually intelligible varieties

Dialects or registers of one language sometimes considered separate languages

  • Akan: Twi and Fante.WEB, Chuka Obiorah, Twi Language - Akan's Popular Dialect,weblink Buzz Ghana, 6 May 2019,
  • Assyrian Neo-Aramaic: Chaldean Neo-Aramaic,WEB,weblink Remarks on the Historical Background of the Modern Assyrian Language, Geoffrey Khan, University of Cambridge, Lishana Deni,Maclean, Arthur John (1895). Grammar of the dialects of vernacular Syriac: as spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan, north-west Persia, and the Plain of Mosul: with notices of the vernacular of the Jews of Azerbaijan and of Zakhu near Mosul. Cambridge University Press, London. Hértevin,Jastrow, Otto (1990). Personal and Demonstrative pronouns in Central Neo-Aramaic. In Wolfhart Heinrichs (ed.), Studies in Neo-Aramaic, pp. 89–103. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press. {{ISBN|1-55540-430-8}}. Bohtan Neo-Aramaic,Fox, Samuel. 2002. "A Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Bohtan", in W. Arnold and H. Bobzin, "Sprich doch mit deinen Knechten aramäisch, wir verstehen es!" 60 Beiträge zur Semitistik Festschrift für Otto Jastrow zum 60. Geburtstag, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 165–180. and SenayaTakashina, Yoshiyuki.1990. "Some Remarks on Modern Aramaic of Hertevin." Journal of Asian and African Studies 40: 85–132Greenfield, Jonas. 1978. "The Dialects of Early Aramaic". Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Colloquium on Aramaic Studies 37: 93–99'' – 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 share the vast majority of their vocabulary, and hence highly mutually intelligible. They are considered separate languages only for political reasons."Dictamen de l'Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua sobre els principis i criteris per a la defensa de la denominació i l'entitat del valencià" {{webarchive|url= |date=2008-12-17 }}. Report from Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua about denomination and identity of Valencian.
  • Hindustani: Hindi and UrduJOURNAL, Gumperz, John J., Language Problems in the Rural Development of North India, The Journal of Asian Studies, 16, 2, February 1957, 251–259, 10.2307/2941382, 2941382, – 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 (the normative register regulated by Indonesia)BOOK, Learner English: a teacher's guide to interference and other problems, 279, Swan, Michael, 2001, Cambridge University Press, 978-0-521-77939-5,weblink and Malaysian (the normative register used in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore). Both varieties are based on the same material basis and hence are generally mutually intelligible, despite the numerous lexical differences.BOOK,weblink The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar, Adelaar, K. Alexander, Himmelmann, Nikolaus, 2013-03-07, Routledge, 9781136755095, en, Certain linguistic sources also treat the two standards on equal standing as varieties of the same Malay language.An example of equal treatment of Malaysian and Indonesian: the Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu database from the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka has a "Istilah MABBIM" section dedicated to documenting Malaysian, Indonesian and Bruneian official terminologies: see example
  • Serbo-Croatian: Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian – the national varieties are structurally the same language, all constituting normative varieties of the Shtokavian dialect, and hence mutually intelligible,BOOK, Kordić, Snježana, Snježana Kordić, 2010, Serbo-Croatian, Jezik i nacionalizam, Language and Nationalism,weblink live, Rotulus Universitas, Zagreb, Durieux, 101–108, 978-953-188-311-5, 2011520778, 729837512, 15270636W, {{CROSBI, 475567, |archivedate=1 June 2012 |archiveurl= |accessdate=3 August 2014}} spoken and written (if the Latin alphabet is used).BOOK, Å ipka, Danko, Danko Sipka, 2019, Lexical layers of identity: words, meaning, and culture in the Slavic languages, New York, Cambridge University Press, 166, 10.1017/9781108685795, 978-953-313-086-6, 2018048005, 1061308790, lexical differences between the ethnic variants are extremely limited, even when compared with those between closely related Slavic languages (such as standard Czech and Slovak, Bulgarian and Macedonian), and grammatical differences are even less pronounced. More importantly, complete understanding between the ethnic variants of the standard language makes translation and second language teaching impossible, BOOK, Kordić, Snježana, Snježana Kordić, Krause, Marion, Sappok, Christian, Slavistische Linguistik 2002: Referate des XXVIII. Konstanzer Slavistischen Arbeitstreffens, Bochum 10.-12. September 2002, Slavistishe Beiträge ; vol. 434, Otto Sagner, 110–114, German, Pro und kontra: "Serbokroatisch" heute, Pro and contra: "Serbo-Croatian" nowadays,weblink Munich, 2004, 978-3-87690-885-4, 56198470, 3434516, {{CROSBI, 430499, |archiveurl=|url-status=live|archivedate=1 June 2012|url= }} (ÖNB). For political reasons, they are sometimes considered distinct languages.BOOK, Language and identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and its disintegration, 14, Greenberg, Robert David, 2004, Oxford University Press, 978-0-19-925815-4,weblink
    • The non-standard vernacular dialects of Serbo-Croatian (Kajkavian, Chakavian and Torlakian) are considered by some linguists to be separate, albeit closely related languages to Shtokavian Serbo-Croatian, rather than Serbo-Croatian dialects, as Shtokavian has its own set of subdialects. Their mutual intelligibility varies greatly, both between the dialects themselves as well as with other languages. Kajkavian has higher mutual intelligibility with Slovene than the national varieties of Shtokavian, while Chakavian has a low mutual intelligibility with either, in part due to large number of loanwords from Venetian. Torlakian (considered a subdialect of Serbian Old Shtokavian by some) has a significant level of mutual intelligibility with Macedonian and Bulgarian.BOOK,weblink Българският език през ХХ век, Василка, Радева, 15 July 2018, Pensoft Publishers, Google Books, 9789546421135, All South Slavic languages in effect form a large dialect continuum of gradually mutually intelligible varieties depending on distance between the areas where they are spoken.
  • Tagalog: Filipinoweblink" title=""> – 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.WEB, Moldovan (limba moldovenească / лимба молдовеняскэ),
weblink Moldovan does, however, have more foreign loanwords from Russian and Ukrainian due to historical East Slavic influence on the region but not to the extent where those would affect mutual intelligibility.

Dialect continua


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:David Dalby, 1999/2000, The Linguasphere register of the world’s languages and speech communities. Observatoire Linguistique, Linguasphere Press. Volume 2, p. 390-410 (zone 51). Oxford.weblink

See also

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Further reading

  • BOOK, Dialect intelligibility testing, Eugene H., Casad, Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1974, 978-0-88312-040-8,weblink
  • BOOK, Experimental methods for measuring intelligibility of closely related language varieties, Charlotte, Gooskens, 195–213,weblink The Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics, Robert, Bayley, Richard, Cameron, Ceil, Lucas, Ceil Lucas, Oxford University Press, 2013, 978-0-19-974408-4,
  • JOURNAL, Mutual intelligibility between closely related languages in Europe, Charlotte, Gooskens, Vincent J., van Heuven, Jelena, Golubović, Anja, Schüppert, Femke, Swarte, Stefanie, Voigt, International Journal of Multilingualism, 15, 2, 169–193, 2017, 10.1080/14790718.2017.1350185,weblink
  • JOURNAL, Dialects as Optimal Communication Networks, Joseph E., Grimes, Language, 50, 2, 1974, 260–269, 412437,

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