Why Use 90% As a Split Between Language and Dialect?

AP writes: A question: how is it decided that the cut-off between a language and dialect is 90% MI? Rather than 95% or 85%? Is there an agreed-upon standard?

There is no agreed-upon standard, as the whole dialect versus language and even the notions of mutual intelligibility can be fraught with much controversy in the linguistic community. However, there can be general agreement about a few things in these areas.

The difference of course is completely arbitrary, but above 90%, most speakers regard their comprehension as “full” or say things like “I understand it completely” and most people refer to the other lect as a dialect of a language as opposed to a separate tongue altogether.

Below 90%, it starts getting a lot more iffy, and down towards 80-85%, people start saying things like, “I understand most of it but not all!” and people start regarding the other tongue as possibly a separate language, although still tends to be quite a bit of controversy around whether the L2 is a separate language of a dialect of another language because the intelligiblity is so high.

Around 80% comprehension, it gets hard to talk about complex or technical things. Communication about such things is significantly impaired at this level. Also after studying Ethnologue for a very long time, I noticed that they tended to use 90% as a cutoff for language versus dialect most but not all of the time. This was most important in the huge section on Indian languages of Mexico, in which separate languages (part of a larger macrolanguage) are often spoken only a village away.

Some famous linguists who are acquaintances of mine (they have Wikipedia pages) told me that they thought that 90% was a good metric. Also I have a long article coming up as a chapter in a peer reviewed book being published out of Turkey. The main Turkologist I worked with on that chapter told me that he thought 90% was a good metric.


Filed under Dialectology, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

9 responses to “Why Use 90% As a Split Between Language and Dialect?

  1. jorge

    Well, so probably this is the reason for that Paraguayans (regular Paraguayans are Guarani speakers) only understand some words of Mbya Guarani (language of Mbya Guarani people).

    Both languages have 75% of lexical similitude according to Ethnologue’s site.

    Now that I am in this topic, I didn’t know that Spanish and Portuguese had a lexical similitude of 89%, I thought that two different languages had much less similitude. So , Mbya Guarani definitively it’s a quite different language from regular Guarani (or Paraguayan Guarani, that really was the Guarani dialect/language of Guaranis from the region that today is Asuncion, capital of the country). When I asked to Guarani speakers about this, they said that Mbya Guaranis talk a most “closed” Guarani, and I always thought that simply was a dialect.

    • How much (%) of Mbaya Guarani can Guarani speakers understand?

      Do you realize that a lot of Spanish speakers say they cannot understand Argentine Spanish? Maybe especially Porteno.

      • jorge

        I never went so “far” with this question, I only knew that they understand some words. And, for read a little about this, I know that Guarani speakers can understand a little more if Mbya Guarani speakers are talking slowly (they can understand the general topic of conversation for some words), but I can’t give you a percentage,

        And I can assure you that all Spanish speakers can understand almost all Porteño Spanish, at least that “lunfardo” is used very much. And today, even for upper-class people is difficult understand many words of underclass slang (that is different from regular “lunfardo”, that comes from 19th century).

        • Movies from Argentina using Porteno I think are typically dubbed in Mexico because Mexicans say they can’t understand them.

          How can most Spanish speakers understand Lunfardo when it is probably 50% Italian words?

      • jorge

        About Porteño Spanish, precisely I said that when Spanish speakers from another countries don’t understand it, is because lunfardo is being used too much. But, outside of lunfardo, any Spanish speaker can understand almost all Porteño Spanish. In fact, probably will be much more difficult understand Spanish from other regions of Argentina, like Cordoba, La Rioja or Santiago del Estero, because in this places (at least in capital cities of this three provinces) there are many local terms, so they use something like local slangs.

        And for many Spanish speakers is very difficult understand speech of Chile, maybe the most difficult of all Spanish language for foreigners.

  2. Another William Playfair Web

    Robert- do you know what the MI percentage from Euro-Spanish to Italian, is?
    I know someone who speaks Euro Spanish and can also basically understand Italian.

  3. This whole bit about Spanish and Italian speakers being able to understand each other is nonsense. Sure, person to person with a lot of hand-waving and gestures, but watching a TV show or understanding what the Italian speakers at the next table are speaking? No way.

    Spanish speakers in Colombia say that when Italians came as tourists to Colombia that the Colombians could not understand them very well. They gave a figure of 30-40%. Spanish speakers can only understand 50% of Portuguese for God’s sake and Portuguese is far closer to Spanish than Italian is.

    • Another William Playfair Web

      my dad claimed to be able to understand scenes in Italian in the God-Father…
      Although that was slow, and dramatic, and you already basically knew what the topic of conversation was.

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