Some Scientific Intelligibility Studies

I put separate language <90% intelligibility. <90% we have proven that it gets hard to talk about complex and more educated matters. Of course you can discuss the weather. <80% throws a substantial crimp into communication and significantly impairs it.

Iberian - Oral

Asturian - Spanish:              80%
Spanish - Portuguese:            54%
Galician - Portuguese:           85%

Italian - Oral

Venetian - Venetian*:            92%

German - Oral

German - Texas German            95%
German - Swabian:                40%
German - Badish:                 40%
German - Kolsch (Ripaurian):     40%
German - Bavarian:               40%
German - Moselle Franconian:     40%
German - Upper Saxon:            40%
German - Luxembourgish:          40%
German - Hessian:                40%
German - Low German:             40%
German - Alsatian:               40%
Pennsylvania German - Hutterite: 70%
Mennonite - Hutterite:           50%
Bavarian -  Bavarian***:         50%
Kirchröadsj -  Hommersch**       20%

Dutch - Oral

Dutch - Groningen:               90.5%

English - Oral

US English - Glascow Scots:      53%
US English - Edinburgh Scots:    32%
US English - Scots (average):    42.5%

Scandinavian - Oral

Norwegian - Danish:              71%
Norwegian - Swedish:             68%
Swedish - Danish:                33%

Scandinavian - Written

Norwegian - Danish:              91.5%
Norwegian - Swedish:             87.5%
Swedish - Danish:                69%

*Maximum distance between any two Venetian dialects.

**Ripaurian lects at opposite ends of the Ripaurian dialect chain.

** Central Austrian Bavarian vs. Viennese Bavarian.

Commentary: Clearly, Asturian and Spanish are separate languages, and so are Galician and Portuguese. These two are rather controversial, with Spanish speakers claiming Asturian as a Spanish dialect and Portuguese speakers claiming Galician as a Portuguese dialect. The much-vaunted mutual intelligibility between Spanish and Portuguese leaves much to be desired.

Spanish speakers say that Italian is much lower than Portuguese. I figure 20-30% for Italian – Spanish.

Venetian is clearly a single language.

All of the German lects listed above are separate languages except for Texas German, which is just a dialect of German.

Groningen is just barely a dialect of Dutch, but Groningen speakers want to see themselves as speakers of a separate language, so the world is going alone. Here, sociolinguistics trumps intelligibility testing.

Scots is clearly a separate language from English. There is  no debate about that anymore from a scientific point of view. It’s simply not intelligible with US English, period.

The much-discussed mutual intelligibility between the Scandinavian languages leaves much to be desired, though between Norwegian and the rest, it is higher than, say, Portuguese and Spanish. Between Danish and the rest and Swedish and the rest, it is lower than between Spanish and Portuguese. Intelligibility between Swedish and Danish is ridiculously low. It’s incredible that people discuss the mutual intelligibility of these two languages.

Swedish and Norwegian speakers get subtitles on Danish TV. If they are so intelligible, what’s with the subtitles? Scandinavian speakers often resort to English to speak to each other. If they are so intelligible, why resort to English?

Based on the data, it is completely untrue to say that Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible, though Norwegians can generally easily understand the other Scandinavian languages if they are written.

Notes

Fig. A. An understanding of the spoken languageNorwegians understand 88% of the spoken Swedish language and understand 73% of the spoken Danish language.Swedes understand 48% of the spoken Norwegian language and understand 23% of the spoken Danish language.

Danes understand 69% of the spoken Norwegian language and understand 43% of the spoken Swedish language.

Norwegian and Swedish have 68% oral intelligibility.
Norwegian and Danish have 71% oral intelligibility.
Norwegian has combined 69% oral intelligibility of Swedish and Danish.

Swedish and Norwegian have 68% oral intelligibility.
Swedish and Danish have 33% oral intelligibility.
Swedish has 48% combined oral intelligibility of Danish and Norwegian, less than for Spanish and Portuguese.

Danish has 33% oral intelligibility of Swedish.
Danish has 68% oral intelligibility of Norwegian.
Danish has 50% combined oral intelligibility of Swedish and Norwegian, less than for Spanish and Portuguese.

Fig. B. An understanding of the written language

Norwegians understand 89% of the written Swedish language and 93% of the written Danish language.

Swedes understand 86% of the written Norwegian language and 69% of the written Danish language.

Danes understand 89% of the written Norwegian language and 69% of the written Swedish language.

Norwegian and Swedish have 87.5% written intelligibility.
Norwegian and Danish have 91.5% written intelligibility.
Swedish and Danish have 69% written intelligibility.

Norwegian and Swedish have 89% written intelligibility.
Norwegian and Danish have 93% written intelligibility.
Norwegian has combined 91.5% written intelligibility of Swedish and Danish.

Swedish and Norwegian have 86% written intelligibility.
Swedish and Danish have 69% written intelligibility.
Swedish has 77.5% combined intelligibility of written Danish and Norwegian.

Danish has 69% written intelligibility of Swedish.
Danish has 89% written intelligibility of Norwegian.
Danish has 79% combined written intelligibility of Swedish and Norwegian.

References

Kilborn, Emily SJE. The Politics of Language in Europe. Case Studies in Scots, Occitan, Moldovan, & Verbose‐Croatian. European Studies. Middlebury College.

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8 Comments

Filed under Dialectology, Linguistics

8 responses to “Some Scientific Intelligibility Studies

  1. James Schipper

    Dear Robert
    I don’t dispute the scientific validity of those findings, but just as important as mutual intelligibility without any prior learning is mutual intelligibility afer a speficied time. For instance, if an average speaker of language A can understand 80% of language B without any exposure and already 90% of it after 100 hours, then we are dealing with a completely different situation from one in which several 1000 hours of exposure are necessary to attain 90% intelligibility. A Swede who goes to Denmark probably will have close to 100% intelligibility after 6 months while he would have only a small fraction of that if he went to Turkey or China.
    Regards. James

    • Frederic Heuckendorff

      I very much agree with you but I think it should be noted that most of the time the time it takes for any Scandinavian to obtain close to 100 % intelligibility with another Scandinavian language can be narrowed down to a matter of weeks in many cases depending on the amount of exposure. Furthermore, the foreigner will often change their own way of speaking quite fast. For instance a Swede going to Denmark will very quickly develop a sort of Dano-friendly Swedish in which they address Danes. This is a proof of the languages mutual intelligibility because this would simply not happen if the languages didn’t share a great degree of intelligibility. Only in very rare cases does a foreign Scandinavian in another Scandinavian country actually bother to completely change language.
      To the best of my knowledge, this is quite unique for Scandinavia. I can’t imagine a Portuguese resolving to a Spanish-friendly version of Portuguese or a German altering his language to resemble Dutch more closely.

  2. mumbaki00

    The truth is the difference between japanese groups are like that of iberian languages,such as castillian, galician-portuguese and leonese,eastern japanese(Tohoku-Kanto) and western japanese are closer to each other as Andalucian and Castillian Spanish but Kyushu ben and Satsuma Ben are as similar to Standard Japanese as spanish is different from portuguese and leonese, when some of the japanese study the romance languages of say such countries such as spain they don’t use the language/dialect debate on intelligibility nor philogists ever touched the mainland japanese dialects but there are studies on intelligibility of Japanese dialects.

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  4. Tim Weir

    If English and Scots are treated as separate languages, then they have the same relationship to each other as the Scandinavian languages are said to have ie a Scots speaker very quickly (days or a very few weeks) learns to speak an English-friendly version of Scots, and English in Scotland may start off with comprehension difficulties but these erode very quickly. I am slightly surprised that Edinburgh Scots is rated as less mutually comprehensible with English than is Glasgwegian. Within the UK the incomprehension is entirely 1-way – plenty of English say they can’t understand Scots, but I doubt that there is a single native Scot in Edinburgh who doesn’t understand RP.

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  6. Mark Forster

    I think >90% lack of mutual intelligibility is far from a good definition of a separate language, especially when applied to oral comprehension.

    There are several English dialects within England which are pretty incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t had considerable exposure to them. The best known example is Geordie. I don’t think anyone has ever claimed that it is a separate language, though it’s probably more difficult for a US English or Southern English speaker to understand than even the Edinburgh dialect.

    And what about the US/UK English divide? Americans often have trouble understanding speakers of UK English on first acquaintance. The English on the other hand have little difficulty with US English due to massive exposure to US films (sorry, movies) and other media.

    French Canadians often have difficulty understanding regional dialects in France, while the French find French Canadian incomprehensible. Definitely not a separate language though.

    I was brought up in Surrey, England to speak RP English, and had great difficulty understanding the local accent as a child.

    The question of whether a way of speaking is a separate language has more to do with politics than linguistics.

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