Mutual intelligibility

Mutual intelligibility

In linguistics, mutual intelligibility is recognized as a relationship between languages or dialects in which speakers of different but related languages can readily understand each other without intentional study or extraordinary effort. It is sometimes used as a criterion for distinguishing languages from dialects, though sociolinguistic factors are also important.

Intelligibility between languages can be asymmetric, with speakers of one understanding more of the other than speakers of the other understand of the first. It is when it is relatively symmetric that 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.



For individuals to achieve moderate proficiency or understanding in a language (called L2) other than their mother tongue or first language (L1) typically requires considerable time and effort through study and/or practical application. However, for those many groups of languages displaying mutual intelligibility, namely, those, usually genetically related languages, similar to each other in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, or other features, speakers of one language usually find it relatively easy to achieve some degree of understanding in the related language(s). Languages mutually intelligible but not genetically related may be creoles and parent languages.

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 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?

Although there is no formal definition of what distinguishes two distinct languages from two varieties of a single language, linguists use mutual intelligibility as one of the primary factors in deciding between the two cases. In fact, linguists often claim that mutual intelligibility is, ideally at least, the primary criterion separating languages from dialects. In practice, however, many other criteria are also taken into account. As an example, in the case of a linear dialect chain that shades gradually between varieties, where speakers near the center can understand the varieties on both ends, but speakers on one end cannot understand the speakers on the other end, the entire chain is often considered a single language. If the central varieties then die out and only the varieties on 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 interfere with considerations based on mutual intelligibility. This is the reason why the varieties of Chinese and varieties of Arabic are often considered single languages despite the fact that there is often no mutual intelligibility between geographically separated varieties. (Vice-versa, there is often significant intelligibility between different Scandinavian languages, but the existence of multiple standard forms leads to their classification as separate languages.) To deal with the conflict in cases such as Arabic, Chinese, and German, the term Dachsprache (a sociolinguistic 'umbrella' language) is sometimes seen; Arabic, Chinese, and German are languages in the sociolinguistic sense even though speakers cannot understand each other without recourse to a standard or prestige form.

Asymmetric intelligibility

Asymmetric intelligibility is a term used by linguists on two languages that are considered mutually intelligible, but one group would find it harder to understand the other. There can be various reasons for this. When one language is related to another but has simplified the grammar, the speakers of the original language may understand the simplified language, but not vice-versa. An example of this is Afrikaans (simplified) vs. Dutch (original).[citation needed]

In other cases, two languages may have very similar written forms, but be pronounced significantly differently. If the spoken form of one of the languages is more similar to the common written form, speakers of the other language may understand this language more than vice-versa. This may account for the common claim that Portuguese speakers can understand Spanish easier than the other way around,[citation needed] since certain letters that are largely written the same in both languages (e.g. ‹a e i o u r n s›) tend to have only one pronunciation in Spanish (or if there are multiple pronunciations, they are auditorily very similar), but they have multiple, often significantly different pronunciations in Portuguese depending on context and the position in a word.

However, perhaps the most common reason for asymmetric intelligibility is the situation where, of two related varieties, speakers of one variety have more exposure to the other than vice-versa. For example, speakers of Scottish English have frequent exposure to American English through movies and TV programs, while speakers of American English have little exposure to Scottish English; hence, American English speakers often find it difficult to understand Scottish English, while Scottish English speakers tend to have few problems understanding American English. This may also be the ultimate reason for the asymmetry in Spanish vs. Portuguese, since Portuguese speakers are more likely to encounter Spanish in popular songs, movies, etc. than vice-versa.[citation needed]

Norwegian Bokmål and Standard Danish have some asymmetric intelligibility, as speakers of Norwegian can understand Danish better than vice versa.[1] It is unclear what the cause of this is.

List of mutually intelligible languages

Written and spoken forms

Spoken forms only

Written forms only

In ancient times

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Gooskens, Charlotte (2007). "The Contribution of Linguistic Factors to the Intelligibility of Closely Related Languages". Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development (University of Groningen) 28 (6). Retrieved 2010-05-19. 
  2. ^ a b "Language Materials Project: Turkish". UCLA International Institute, Center for World Languages. February 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-26. 
  3. ^ a b c Alexander M. Schenker. 1993. "Proto-Slavonic," The Slavonic Languages. (Routledge). Pp. 60-121. Pg. 60: "[The] distinction between dialect and language being blurred, there can be no unanimity on this issue in all instances..."
    C.F. Voegelin and F.M. Voegelin. 1977. Classification and Index of the World's Languages (Elsevier). Pg. 311, "In terms of immediate mutual intelligibility, the East Slavic zone is a single language."
    Bernard Comrie. 1981. The Languages of the Soviet Union (Cambridge). Pg. 145-146: "The three East Slavonic languages are very close to one another, with very high rates of mutual intelligibility...The separation of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian as distinct languages is relatively recent...Many Ukrainians in fact speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, finding it difficult to keep the two languages apart...
  4. ^ a b Language profile Macedonian, UCLA International Institute
  5. ^ a b Trudgill, Peter (2004). "Glocalisation and the Ausbau sociolinguistics of modern Europe". In Duszak, Anna; Okulska, Urszula. Speaking from the Margin: Global English from a European Perspective. Polish Studies in English Language and Literature 11. Peter Lang. ISBN 0820473286. 
  6. ^ a b c Bø, I (1976). "Ungdom od nabolad. En undersøkelse av skolens og fjernsynets betydning for nabrospråksforstålen.". Rogalandsforskning 4. 
  7. ^ a b Beerkens, Roos (2010). Receptive Multilingualism as a Language Mode in the Dutch-German Border Area. Waxmann Publishing Co.. p. 51. ISBN 9783830923466. 
  8. ^ a b Katzner, Kenneth (2002). The languages of the world. Routledge. p. 105. ISBN 041525003X. 
  9. ^ Taagepera, Rein (1999). The Finno-Ugric republics and the Russian state. Routledge. p. 100. ISBN 0415919770. 
  10. ^ a b Beswick, Jaine (2005). "Linguistic homogeneity in Galician and Portuguese borderland communities". Estudios de Sociolingüística 6 (1): 39–64. 
  11. ^ a b Wright, Sue (1996). Monolingualism and bilingualism: Lessons from Canada and Spain. Multilingual Matters Ltd. p. 80. ISBN 1853593540. 
  12. ^ a b Swan, Michael (2001). Learner English: a teacher's guide to interference and other problems. Cambridge University Press. p. 279. ISBN 9780521779395. 
  13. ^ a b Kirundi Language
  14. ^ a b GAVILANES LASO, J. L. (1996) Algunas consideraciones sobre la inteligibilidad mutua hispano-portuguesa In: Actas del Congreso Internacional Luso-Español de Lengua y Cultura en la Frontera, Cáceres, Universidad de Extremadura, 175-187.
  15. ^ a b Comparação Português e Castelhano
  16. ^ a b Algumas observações sobre a noção de língua portuguesa
  17. ^ Greenberg, Robert David (2004). Language and identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and its disintegration. Oxford University Press. p. 14. ISBN 9780199258154. 
  18. ^ a b Tokelauan language
  19. ^ Българският език през ХХ век (The Bulgarian language in the 20th century)
  20. ^ a b c Dari/Persian/Tajik languages
  21. ^ a b Avrum Ehrlich, Mark (2009). Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: origins, experience and culture, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 192. ISBN 9781851098736. 
  22. ^ Gumperz, John J. (February, 1957). "Language Problems in the Rural Development of North India". The Journal of Asian Studies 16 (2): 251–259. 
  23. ^ a b Ausbau and Abstand languages
  24. ^ a b Hahn, Reinard F. (1998). "Uyghur". In Lars Johanson, Éva Csató. The Turkic Languages. Taylor & Francis. p. 379. ISBN 9780415082006. 
  25. ^ Barbour, Stephen (2000). Language and nationalism in Europe. Oxford University Press. p. 106. ISBN 9780199250851. 
  26. ^ Fortson, Benjamin W. (2004). Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 315. ISBN 1405103167. 

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