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Mutual intelligibility

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Mutual intelligibility

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 intentional study or special effort. It is generally used as the most 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.


  • Intelligibility 1
  • Mutually intelligible languages or varieties of one language 2
  • Asymmetric intelligibility 3
  • List of mutually intelligible languages 4
    • Written and spoken forms 4.1
    • Spoken forms only 4.2
    • Written forms only 4.3
    • Dialects or registers of one language sometimes considered separate languages 4.4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


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.[1][2]

Some linguists[3] 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 a fair degree; 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 chain 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

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,[4] although the large number of false cognates between these languages can cause misunderstanding.

However, 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 understanding Scottish English or, especially, Scots (not formal Scottish Standard English), whereas Scots tend to have few problems understanding standard American English.

Similarly, Copenhagen, understand Danish somewhat better (see Mutual intelligibility in North Germanic languages).

In some cases it is hard to distinguish between mutual intelligibility and a basic knowledge of other language. Many Belarusian and Ukrainian speakers have extensive knowledge of Russian and use it as a second language or lingua franca, or even as a first language in public or at work. Thus they can easily understand Russian, whereas speakers of Russian often can understand Ukrainian and Belarusian only partially.

Similarly, in Germany and Italy, standard German or Italian speakers 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.

Due to Danish rule, the Bokmål standard of Norwegian and Danish are technically the same language. Additionally, people in Norway are more used to listening to speeches of diverse dialect backgrounds.[4] As a consequence, speakers of Norwegian generally understand Danish better than vice versa.[4]

List of mutually intelligible languages

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

Written and spoken forms

Spoken forms only

Written forms only

Dialects or registers of one language sometimes considered separate languages

  • Assyrian Neo-Aramaic: Chaldean Neo-Aramaic,[43] Lishana Deni,[44] Hértevin,[45] Bohtan Neo-Aramaic[46] and Senaya[47][48]—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 and religious reasons.[37]
  • Hindustani: Hindi, Urdu[49]—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
  • Malay: Indonesian,[50] Malaysian
  • Serbo-Croatian: Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian—the standard forms are structurally the same language, and hence mutually intelligible,[2] spoken and written (if the Latin alphabet is used).[51] They are considered separate languages only for political reasons.[52]
    • The dialects of Serbo-Croatian (Kajkavian, Chakavian, Shtokavian and Torlakian) are considered by some to be languages. All four standard forms above are based on Shtokavian. Their mutual intelligibility varies greatly, both between the dialects themselves as well as with other languages. Kajkavian has mutual intelligibility with Slovenian. Torlakian (considered a subdialect of Shtokavian by some) has a significant level of mutual intelligibility with Macedonian and Bulgarian.[53]
  • Tagalog: Filipino[54]—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.[55]
  • Catalan: Valencian—the standard forms are structurally the same language, and hence mutually intelligible. They are considered separate languages only for political reasons.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ See e.g. P.H. Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, OUP 2007, p. 103.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l
  5. ^
  6. ^ Tezel, Aziz (2003). Comparative Etymological Studies in the Western Neo-Syriac (Ṭūrōyo) Lexicon: with special reference to homonyms, related words and borrowings with cultural signification. Uppsala Universitet. ISBN 91-554-5555-7.
  7. ^ a b c d e
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j The Internal Classification & Migration of Turkic Languages
  9. ^ a b c d e Kasapoğlu Çengel, Hülya (2004). Ukrayna'daki Urum Türkleri ve Folkloru. Milli Folklor, 2004, Yıl. 16, S. 16, s. 59
  10. ^ a b c d e
  11. ^ 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...
  12. ^ a b Language profile Macedonian, UCLA International Institute
  13. ^ a b c d e f g
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^ a b c
  16. ^ a b c d e Dari/Persian/Tajik languages
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^ a b
  25. ^
  26. ^ a b
  27. ^ a b Kirundi Language
  28. ^
  29. ^ Macedonian language on UCLA
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ Comparação Português e Castelhano
  32. ^ Algumas observações sobre a noção de língua portuguesa
  33. ^ a b
  34. ^ a b Tokelauan language
  35. ^
  36. ^ a b c
  37. ^ a b Heinrichs, Wolfhart (ed.) (1990). Studies in Neo-Aramaic. Scholars Press: Atlanta, Georgia. ISBN 1-55540-430-8.
  38. ^ Beyer, Klaus; John F. Healey (trans.) (1986). The Aramaic Language: its distribution and subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. p. 44.
  39. ^ a b
  40. ^ a b Ausbau and Abstand languages
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^ Remarks on the Historical Background of the Modern Assyrian Language, Geoffrey Khan, University of Cambridge
  44. ^ 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.
  45. ^ 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.
  46. ^ 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.
  47. ^ Takashina, Yoshiyuki.1990. "Some Remarks on Modern Aramaic of Hertevin." Journal of Asian and African Studies 40: 85–132
  48. ^ Greenfield, Jonas. 1978. "The Dialects of Early Aramaic". Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Colloquium on Aramaic Studies 37: 93–99
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^ (ÖNB).
  52. ^
  53. ^ Българският език през ХХ век (The Bulgarian language in the 20th century)
  54. ^ [1] Archived November 14, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  55. ^

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