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ezraglenn's avatar

Which languages are mutually intelligible?

Asked by ezraglenn (3454 points ) July 2nd, 2008

Mutual Intelligibiliy is a property exhibited by a set of languages when speakers of any one of them can readily understand all the others without intentional study or extraordinary effort. The list on the wikipedia page is definitely incomplete. One example is Czech and Slovak.

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35 Answers

jlm11f's avatar

I often feel a french speaker can understand the jist of what a spanish speaker is saying (or it’s like that for me anyway) and the same goes for sanskrit and hindi speakers. (though hindi developed from sanskrit, so that’s probably one reason for that)

gailcalled's avatar

danish and swedish

wildflower's avatar

Icelandic & Faroese
Danish & Norwegian
Norwegian & Swedish
To some extent;
Swedish & Danish
Danish & Faroese
Faroese & Norwegian

flameboi's avatar

spanish & portuguese (easy)
spanish & italian (can handle it)
spanish & french (kind of difficult, but possible)

AstroChuck's avatar

Spanish and Portuguese are basically the same language when written, with some different vocabulary. If you know to change an and ane to ão and a few other little things then they are basically the same. Of course, when spoken it sounds quite different.
The closest thing to English is Frisian. But it’s still quite a bit different, though.

jballou's avatar

I know a lot of Portuguese speakers who can’t speak Spanish or understand it at all, and the same with Italian. I don’t know if those are actually mutually intelligible languages.

AstroChuck's avatar

Spanish and Catalán are similar, as well. Although Catalán has been strongly influenced by French.

srmorgan's avatar

German and Yiddish.

To some extent, Russian and Polish,.

SRM

elchoopanebre's avatar

I’ve heard Romanians say they can understand Italian with little to no effort.

paulc's avatar

I’ve been told Lao & Thai are also like this.

Zaku's avatar

Norwegian & Swedish are much closer than Italian is to either Spanish or to Romanian. In those cases, some things are readily understandable, but others aren’t at all.

marinelife's avatar

Because of the similar bases, I can read Spanish signs mostly with my French, but I don’t have as much luck understanding a fluent native speaker.

wildflower's avatar

All Nordic languages come from old “Norse” (apparently Icelandic and Faroese are the closest thing to preserving that language) and are known for the incredible amount of dialects within each language (relative to population). The dialects close to either side of the Norwegian/Swedish border bring the two languages very close together.
Oddly enough, the same is not the case for the Danish/Swedish border, but they are more used to each other’s language than say someone from the north of Sweden and someone from the south west of Denmark (those folks are all fluent in German though, because of that border proximity)

lefteh's avatar

@Astrochuck: I’d say that Scots is the closest to English.

AstroChuck's avatar

I think Scots may just be a dialect of English incorperating some Celtic. Those crazy kilt wearin’ clansmen!

AstroChuck's avatar

Clansmen, not Klansmen.

Vincentt's avatar

Dutch and Flemish, obviously. That is, if you regard Flemish as a separate language, but I think it’s different enough to do so. Then again, Flemish shows often have subtitles in the Netherlands, and vice versa.

And to a certain extent Dutch and Afrikaans as well, at least, some South-African guy whose English blog I read started an Afrikaans weblog and I only had very little trouble reading it, so I suppose that makes it mutually intelligible.

Lightlyseared's avatar

English and American? Sort of

jballou's avatar

@Lightlyseared I don’t think there’s any language called “American” Do you mean British English vs. American English? Cause those aren’t 2 different languages.

Lightlyseared's avatar

No? They have different vocabulary, different spellings! There have been British movies that had to be subtitled so Americans could understand them.

jacksonRice's avatar

@lightlyseared i agree, & i think that british vs american english are decent examples of the early split from the mother tongue, ie between all the romance languages from latin. this is how it happens, right? different accents, slightly different vocabulary… also there are a ton of different kinds of spanish; if you’re from northern spain it’s quite difficult to discern what someone from argentina is saying. at least with german & yiddish (see above), the accents etc are somewhat similar, even if much of the vocabulary is different.

Vincentt's avatar

I’d say British and American English are different languages. At least, I want to use British English, but at school I had to do that consistently or it would be wrong.

jballou's avatar

They’re not two different languages, they are just two different forms/uses of the same language. Who knows, in 200 years they might be as different as French is from Spanish now, but for the time being they are more or less the same.

There are several dialects within any language, and there are several that are designated “American” and several which are designated “British” and several designated “Australian” and “Filipino” and “Canadian”, etc…. but it’s all English… for now.

srmorgan's avatar

Just a citation from the past

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” –
— George Bernard Shaw

SRM

morphail's avatar

The distinction between language and dialect is often political rather than linguistic. For instance, Norwegian and Swedish are considered different languages for political and social reasons (they are spoken in different countries, they use different spellings) but they are mutually intelligible. But there are different forms of English that are not mutually intelligible, but they are considered dialects of the same language.

KevinJr42's avatar

Japanese and Chinese are mutually intelligible to an extent when written. Many of the characters and words in Chinese were borrowed and used in Japanese. This works because the shared characters represent meaning instead of sound.

Jack79's avatar

flameboi’s answer gives us the general idea I think
There is no combination that is clearly “intelligible”. Basically you have different degrees. Even the people from the north of the US sometimes complain that they can’t understand the people from the southern states. And this is true of most countries.

Then you have bigger differences, such as Flemish and Dutch, or Czech and Slovak, which most people would consider as different languages (I’d say they’re versions of the same one).

My Polish girlfriend insists she can’t understand Czechs, but I’ve always found the two languages to be very similar, and even though there are differences in pronunciation and spelling, the roots of most words are the same. I’m sure any speaker of a Slavic language could understand another one if they tried hard enough. The same goes for Nordic languages, German or English and Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, even Italian and French. Two of my Portuguese friends insist they have no problem understanding French, even though to me the two languages are worlds apart.

I have even found it easy to understand Romanian, based on whatever Latin roots there are in English words plus my basic grasp of Czech, Polish and Russian.

And I have found Greek (which is not related to any of them) to be helpful in all of the above.

thebest32's avatar

Big List:
Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian and Bosnian
Spanish, Portuguese, Galician and Catalan
Italian and Spanish (to an extent)
Russian, Ukrainian and Belorusian (to an extent)
Dutch and German (written only)
Lao and Thai
Afrikaans and Dutch (partial, Dutch speakers can understand Afrikaans better than vice versa)
Scots and English
Czech and Slovak
Norwegian Bokmal, Danish and Swedish
Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic
Bulgarian and Macedonian
Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Bosnian speakers can learn Slovene very fast
Arabic speakers can understand some Persian due to large Arabic vocabulary
Japanese may understand some Chinese because of similar word-meanings and loanwords. Sometimes this also applys vice versa
Some Chinese dialects are share some intelligibility. I heard Mandarin speakers can understand Cantonese better than vice versa.
Turkish and Azeri
British English speakers can understand Dutch better than American English speakers
Faroese and Icelandic (written)
Faroese and Norn (Norn is now extinct)
Hindi and Urdu
English speakers might understand some “fancy” sentences in Romance languages and vice versa
Kinyarwanda and Kirundi
Malay and Indonesian
Yiddish and German

Vincentt's avatar

@thebest32 How was that list compiled? I, being Dutch, definitely cannot read German. Perhaps, having being taught German for a few years in high school, I can after studying a sentence for a few minutes partially understand it.

morphail's avatar

Japanese speakers might be able to understand some written Chinese, but spoken Chinese? I don’t think so.

British English speakers can understand Dutch better than American English speakers? Really?

Vincentt's avatar

@morphail I can very well imagine that. Though I might replace “better” with “less badly” :)

jesienne's avatar

Turkish and Greek, I mean for Cypriots

rkm's avatar

Between Turkic Languages, there is mutual intelligibilty in varying degrees.
Roughly:
Turkish-Azeri: % 80
Turkish-Turkmen: % 50
Turkish-Uighur: % 30
Turkish-Uzbek: % 30
Turkish-Kazakh % 20
Turkish-Kyrgyz: % 20
Kazakh-Kyrgyz: % 70
Kazakh-Uzbek: % 60
Kazakh-Uighur: % 40
Kazakh-Turkmen: % 30
Uzbek-Uighur: % 70

Even if there is a low degree of mutual intellibility between some Turkic Languages, they still can have a basic conversation in a daily basis, such as buying, selling, asking way, speaking about weather, asking for help, emergency situations, hospital, pharmacy, ordering a meal at a restaurant, buying ticket and so other basic daily life situations.

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