Some Scientific Intelligibility Studies

I put separate language <90

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 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.


Fig. A. An understanding of the spoken languageNorwegians understand 88 Danes understand 69 Norwegian and Swedish have 68 Norwegian and Danish have 71 Norwegian has combined 69 Swedish and Norwegian have 68 Swedish and Danish have 33 Swedish has 48 Danish has 33 Danish has 68 Danish has 50 Fig. B. An understanding of the written language Norwegians understand 89 Swedes understand 86 Danes understand 89 Norwegian and Swedish have 87.5 Norwegian and Danish have 91.5 Swedish and Danish have 69 Norwegian and Swedish have 89 Norwegian and Danish have 93 Norwegian has combined 91.5 Swedish and Norwegian have 86 Swedish and Danish have 69 Swedish has 77.5 Danish has 69 Danish has 89 Danish has 79


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

This research takes a lot of time, and I do not get paid anything for it. If you think this website is valuable to you, please consider a a contribution to support more of this valuable research.

Please follow and like us:
Tweet 20

8 thoughts on “Some Scientific Intelligibility Studies”

  1. 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

    1. 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. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)