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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 understand of 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.


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. An example of a pair of genetically related languages is a creole and a parent language.

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[edit]

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[who?] 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 and of Arabic are often each considered a single language even though there is often 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 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 some speakers cannot understand each other without recourse to a standard or prestige form.

Asymmetric intelligibility[edit]

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.

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, Quebec French speakers are more easily able to understand standard metropolitan French than vice versa. Danish and Swedish normally have low mutual intelligibility,[3] but Swedes in the Öresund region (including Malmö and Helsingborg), across a strait from the Danish capital Copenhagen, understand Danish somewhat better (see North Germanic languages, "Mutual intelligibility").

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.[citation needed] 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.

Norwegian Bokmål and Standard Danish are asymmetrically intelligible. Speakers of Norwegian can understand Danish better than vice versa.[3] The reason for this may be that Norwegians are more used to listening to speakers of different dialectal backgrounds.[3]

List of mutually intelligible languages[edit]

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

Written and spoken forms[edit]

Spoken forms only[edit]

Written forms only[edit]

Dialects or registers of one language sometimes considered separate languages[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gröschel, Bernhard (2009). 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 (in German). Munich: Lincom Europa. pp. 132–136. ISBN 978-3-929075-79-3. LCCN 2009473660. OCLC 428012015. OL 15295665W. 
  2. ^ a b Kordić, Snježana (2010). Jezik i nacionalizam [Language and Nationalism]. Rotulus Universitas (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagreb: Durieux. pp. 101–108. ISBN 978-953-188-311-5. LCCN 2011520778. OCLC 729837512. OL 15270636W. Archived from the original on 8 July 2012. Retrieved 3 August 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k 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): 445. doi:10.2167/jmmd511.0. Retrieved 2010-05-19. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "Language Materials Project: Turkish". UCLA International Institute, Center for World Languages. February 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-26. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g The Internal Classification & Migration of Turkic Languages
  6. ^ a b c d e Kasapoğlu Çengel, Hülya (2004). Ukrayna'daki Urum Türkleri ve Folkloru. Milli Folklor, 2004, Yıl. 16, S. 16, s. 59
  7. ^ a b c d e Sinor, Denis (1969). Inner Asia. History-Civilization-Languages. A syllabus. Bloomington. pp. 71–96. ISBN 0-87750-081-9. 
  8. ^ 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...
  9. ^ a b Language profile Macedonian, UCLA International Institute
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Robert Lindsay. "Mutual Intelligibility of Languages in the Slavic Family". Academia.edu. Retrieved 2 March 2014. [unreliable source?]
  11. ^ 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 0-8204-7328-6. 
  12. ^ a b c Bø, I (1976). "Ungdom od nabolad. En undersøkelse av skolens og fjernsynets betydning for nabrospråksforstålen". Rogalandsforskning 4. 
  13. ^ a b Beerkens, Roos (2010). Receptive Multilingualism as a Language Mode in the Dutch-German Border Area. Waxmann Publishing Co. p. 51. ISBN 978-3-8309-2346-6. 
  14. ^ a b Katzner, Kenneth (2002). The languages of the world. Routledge. p. 105. ISBN 0-415-25003-X. 
  15. ^ Taagepera, Rein (1999). The Finno-Ugric republics and the Russian state. Routledge. p. 100. ISBN 0-415-91977-0. 
  16. ^ a b Wright, Sue (1996). Monolingualism and bilingualism: Lessons from Canada and Spain. Multilingual Matters Ltd. p. 80. ISBN 1-85359-354-0. 
  17. ^ a b Beswick, Jaine (2005). "Linguistic homogeneity in Galician and Portuguese borderland communities". Estudios de Sociolingüística 6 (1): 39–64. 
  18. ^ Bontoc at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  19. ^ "Scotland Guide - Gaelic language - How mutually intelligible are Scots and Irish Gaelic?". Siliconglen.com. 2012-06-19. Retrieved 2013-09-04. 
  20. ^ a b Kirundi Language
  21. ^ Macedonian language on UCLA
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ a b Comparação Português e Castelhano
  24. ^ a b Algumas observações sobre a noção de língua portuguesa
  25. ^ Jensen, John B. 1989. On the Mutual Intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese. Hispania 72: 848-852
  26. ^ "UCLA Language Materials Project: Language Profile". Lmp.ucla.edu. Retrieved 2013-09-04. 
  27. ^ a b Tokelauan language
  28. ^ Българският език през ХХ век (The Bulgarian language in the 20th century)
  29. ^ Sibanda, Ethelia. "Degree of mutual intelligibility between Ndebele and Zulu". Wudpecker Journal of Educational Research. Retrieved 30 September 2013. 
  30. ^ a b c Angogo, Rachel. "LANGUAGE AND POLITICS IN SOUTH AFRICA". Studies in African Linguistics Volume 9, Number 2. elanguage.net. Retrieved 30 September 2013. 
  31. ^ a b c Dari/Persian/Tajik languages
  32. ^ a b Avrum Ehrlich, Mark (2009). Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: origins, experience and culture, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-85109-873-6. 
  33. ^ a b Ausbau and Abstand languages
  34. ^ Łabowicz, Ludmiła. [nadbuhom.pl/art_2638.html/ "Gdzie "sicz", a gdzie "porohy"?! (ст. 15), Part II"] Check |url= scheme (help). Retrieved 19 July 2014. 
  35. ^ Barbour, Stephen (2000). Language and nationalism in Europe. Oxford University Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-19-925085-1. 
  36. ^ Gumperz, John J. (February 1957). "Language Problems in the Rural Development of North India". The Journal of Asian Studies 16 (2): 251–259. doi:10.2307/2941382. JSTOR 2941382. 
  37. ^ Swan, Michael (2001). Learner English: a teacher's guide to interference and other problems. Cambridge University Press. p. 279. ISBN 978-0-521-77939-5. 
  38. ^ Kordić, Snježana (2004). "Pro und kontra: "Serbokroatisch" heute" [Pro and contra: "Serbo-Croatian" nowadays]. In Krause, Marion; Sappok, Christian. Slavistische Linguistik 2002: Referate des XXVIII. Konstanzer Slavistischen Arbeitstreffens, Bochum 10.-12. September 2002. Slavistishe Beiträge ; vol. 434 (in German). Munich: Otto Sagner. pp. 110–114. ISBN 3-87690-885-X. OCLC 56198470. Archived from the original on 4 August 2012. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  39. ^ Greenberg, Robert David (2004). Language and identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and its disintegration. Oxford University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-19-925815-4. 
  40. ^ [1][dead link]

External links[edit]

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