Whether or not I am a reliable source for the question of mutual intelligibility has been questioned in a debate on Wikipedia. It’s been suggested that I am an amateur linguist – that is, I am not a real linguist. This is not true. I am in fact a real linguist. My credentials are that have an MA in Linguistics and have worked in the past as a professional linguist for an Indian tribe in a paid position.
Here is an excellent link on the question of mutual intelligibility between Spanish and Portuguese, the subject of a prior post. If you Google the question, you get all sorts of hits for the question, so it is obviously something that people are very interested in.
But here’s a guy who actually tested it out experimentally. In the test, which used Spanish speakers from South America and Portuguese speakers from Brazil, Spanish had 58% intelligibility for Portuguese speakers, and Portuguese had 50% intelligibility for Spanish speakers (Jensen 1989). This stands to reason, given popular stories about Spanish speakers being able to ask directions of Portuguese speakers but not being able to understand the response. Portuguese is harder for Spanish speakers than vice versa. Combining the two gives us a figure of 54% intelligibility between Spanish and Portuguese in real life situations in South America today (Jensen 1989).
The test attempted to factor out exposure to the other language and decided that Spanish and Portuguese have about 45% inherent intelligibility or comprehension of those speakers not previously exposed to the other language (Jensen 1989). That sounds about right.
So Spanish and Portuguese have 45% inherent intelligibility and 54% in real life situations in South America involving some bilingual learning.
Keep in mind that Spanish and Portuguese have 89% lexical similarity. Based on that, you would think that they can understand each other or that they are dialects of a single language. But lexical similarity is almost always going to be higher than intelligibility, so that 89% figure is quite misleading. For instance, Frisian and English have 61% lexical similarity, but in the Frisian video in the prior post, I could not make out a single word in five minutes. It appears that 60% lexical similarity and $1.89 will get you a Slurpee at a 7-11 but little in the way of understanding another language.
We also learn, here, that no one can understand French except the French. Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Romanians, no one can understand the darned French. This makes sense to me. I can’t understand a word of the local French-speaking tourists, and I had a semester of French. They always talk like they are holding their noses.
This is interesting in light of the fact that Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian have 89%, 75%, 75% and 75% lexical similarity with French. But all those similar words aren’t worth a hill of beans when it comes to understanding a Frenchman.
Spanish speakers have a better understanding of Italian. Italian and Spanish have 85% lexical similarity, and that is worse than the 89% for Spanish and Portuguese.
That’s for spoken communication. For written communication, French and Italian can understand each other a lot more. The same is true with Spanish and Portuguese. They can understand the other language when written much better than when spoken.
What is interesting is that everyone accepts that Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are separate languages, despite 54% intelligibility for Spanish and Portuguese.
However, in the cases of Austrian/Bavarian, Swabian (spoken around Stuttgart) and Mainfränkisch (Moselle Franconian, close to Luxembourgeois), these three languages are only 40% intelligible with Standard German. Their status as separate languages has infuriated lots of Germans who just consider them to be merely dialects of German, or “cheap slangs” of some type or other. Yet they have a better case for being separate languages than Spanish and Portuguese do.
Romanian also seems to have some understanding of both Spanish and Italian. Romanian speakers say that they moved to Italy, could immediately pick up a fair amount of the conversation, and picked up Italian very fast. Romanians have ~65% intelligibility of Italian when spoken and possibly 85-90% when written. They can understand written Catalan better than Spanish and spoken South American Spanish better than Castillian Spanish.
Vice versa, Italians living in Italy run into Romanians regularly and say that they can understand Romanian quite well. Spanish speakers say that they can understand a fair amount of Romanian, and Romanians can understand even more of their Spanish. Spanish and Italian have 71% and 77% lexical similarity with Romanian.
Catalan may be about 60-70% intelligible to a Spanish speaker, and that is with 85% lexical similarity. Oddly enough, Spanish speakers seem to understand Galician better than Portuguese speakers do. Spanish speakers can probably understand 85% of Galician. That doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it is. Standard Galician is said to be pretty Hispanicized these days.
Looking for a nice dialect continuum across Europe where you can keep on understanding people everywhere you go? Try this, starting at Portugal:
Portuguese, Mirandese, Fala, Galician, Asturian, Aragonese, Spanish, Catalan, Gascon, Occitan, Auvergnat, Provençal, Franco-Provençal, French, Gallo, Picard, Jersey, Guernsey, Walloon, Romansch, Friulian, Ladin, Lombard, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Emiliano-Romagnolo, Venetian, Italian, Neapolitan, Corsican, Sicilian, Sardinian Gallurese, Sardinian Logudorese, Sardinian Sassarese, Sardinian Campidanese, Latin, Moldovan, Romanian, Megleno-Romanian, Istro-Romanian, Macedo-Romanian.
- Jensen, John B. 1989. On the Mutual Intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese. Hispania 72: 848-852.
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