A more updated version of this paper with working hyperlinks can be found on Academia.edu here.
There is much nonsense said about the mutual intelligibility of the various languages in the Slavic family. It’s often said that all Slavic languages are mutually intelligible with each other. This is simply not the case.
Method: It is important to note that the percentages are in general only for oral intelligibility and only in the case of a situation of a pure inherent intelligibility test. An inherent pure inherent intelligibility test would involve a a speaker of Slavic lect A listening to a tape or video of a speaker of Slavic Lect A.
Written intelligibility is often very different from oral intelligibility in that in a number of cases, it tends to be higher, often much higher, than oral intelligibility. Written intelligibility was only calculated for a number of language pairs. Most pairs have no figure for written intelligibility.
A number of native speakers of various Slavic lects were interviewed about mutual intelligibility, language/dialect confusion, the state of their language, its history and so on. In addition, a Net search was done of forums where speakers of Slavic languages were discussing how much of other Slavic languages they understand. These figures were tallied up for each pair of languages to be tabulated and were then all averaged together. Hence the figures are averages taken from statements by native speakers of the languages in question.
Complaints have been made that many of these percentages were simply wild guesses with no science behind them. This is not the case, as all figures were derived from estimates by native speakers themselves, often a number of estimates averaged together.
True science would involve scientific intelligibility testing of Slavic language pairs. The problem is that most linguists are not interested in scientific intelligibility testing of language pairs.
Serbo-Croatian (Shtokavian) has 55% intelligibility of Macedonian (varies from 25-90%), 27% of Slovenian, 25% of Slovak, 20% of Ukrainian, 13% of oral Bulgarian and 25% of written Bulgarian, 10% of oral Russian and 22% of written Russian, 10% of Czech, and 5% of Polish.
Chakavian has 82% intelligibility of Kajkavian.
Kajkavian has 82% intelligibility of Chakavian.
Bulgarian has 80% intelligibility of Macedonian, 41% of Russian, and 5% of Polish and Czech.
Macedonian has 65% oral and written intelligibility of Bulgarian.
Czech has 94% intelligibility of Slovak, 12% of Polish, and 5% of Russian and Bulgarian.
Polish has 22% intelligibility of Silesian, 12% of Czech, 6% of Russian, and 5% of Bulgarian.
Russian has 85% intelligibility of Rusyn, 74% of oral Belorussian and 85% of written Belorussian, 60% of Balachka, 50% of oral Ukrainian and 85% of written Ukrainian, 36% of oral Bulgarian and 80% of written Bulgarian, 38% of Polish, 30% of Slovak and oral Montenegrin and 50% of written Montenegrin, 12% of oral Serbo-Croatian, 25% of written Serbo-Croatian, and 10% of Czech.
Belarussian has 80% intelligibility of Ukrainian and 55% of Polish.
Ukrainian has 82% intelligibility of Belarusian and Rusyn and 55% of Polish.
Slovak has 91% intelligibility of Czech.
Eastern Slovak has 82% intelligibility of Rusyn and 72% of Ukrainian.
Saris Slovak has 85% intelligibility of Polish.
Reactions: So far there have been few reactions to the paper. However, a Croatian linguist has helped me write part of the Croatian section, and he felt that at least that part of the paper was accurate. A Serbian native speaker felt that the percentages for South Slavic seemed to be accurate.
A professor of Slavic Linguistics at a university in Bulgaria reviewed the paper and felt that the percentages were accurate. He was a member of a group of linguists who met periodically to discuss the field. He printed out the paper and showed it to his colleagues at the next meeting, and they spent some time discussing it.
Now onto the discussion.
There is much nonsense floating around about Serbo-Croatian or Shtokavian. The main Shtokavian dialects of Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Bosnian are mutually intelligible.
However, the Croatian macrolanguage has strange lects that Standard Croatian (Štokavian) cannot understand.
For instance, Čakavian Croatian is not intelligible with Standard Croatian. It consists of at least four major dialects, Ekavian Chakavian, spoken on the Istrian Peninsula, Ikavian Chakavian, spoken in southwestern Istria, the islands of Brač, Hvar, Vis, Korčula, and Šolta, the Pelješac Peninsula, the Dalmatian coast at Zadar, the outskirts of Split and inland at Gacka, Middle Chakavian, which is Ikavian-Ekavian transitional, and Ijekavian Chakavian, spoken at the far southern end of the Chakavian language area on Lastovo Island, Janjina on the Pelješac Peninsula, and Bigova in the far south near the border with Montenegro.
Ekavian Chakavian has two branches – Buzet and Northern Chakavian. Buzet is actually transitional between Slovenian and Kajkavian. It was formerly thought to be a Slovenian dialect, but some now think it is more properly a Kajkavian dialect. There are some dialects around Buzet that seem to be the remains of old Kajkavian-Chakavian transitional dialects (Jembrigh 2014).
Ikavian Chakavian has two branches – Southwestern Istrian and Southern Chakavian. The latter is heavily mixed with Shtokavian.
Some reports say there is difficult intelligibility between Ekavian Chakavian in the north and Ikavian Chakavian in the far south, but speakers of Labin Ekavian in the far north say they can understand the Southeastern Istrian speech of the southern islands very well (Jembrigh 2014).
Čakavian differs from the other nearby Slavic lects spoken in the country due to the presence of many Italian words.
Chakavian actually has a written heritage, but it was mostly written down long ago. Writing in Chakavian started very early in the Middle Ages and began to slow down in the 1500’s when writing in Kajkavian began to rise. However, Chakavian magazines are published even today (Jembrigh 2014).
Although Chakavian is clearly a separate language from Shtokavian Croatian, in Croatia it is said that there is only one Croatian language, and that is Shtokavian Croatian. The idea is that the Kajkavian and Chakavian languages simply do not exist, though obviously they are both separate languages. Recently a Croatian linguist forwarded a proposal to formally recognize Chakavian as a separate language, but the famous Croatian Slavicist Radoslav Katičić argued with him about this and rejected the proposal on political, not linguistic grounds. This debate occurred only in Croatian linguistic circles, and the public knows nothing about it (Jembrigh 2014).
Kajkavian Croatian, spoken in northwest Croatia and similar to Slovenian, is not intelligible with Standard Croatian.
Kajkavian is fairly uniform across its speech area, whereas Chakavian is more diverse (Jembrigh 2014).
In the 1500’s, Kajkavian began to be developed in a standard literary form. From the 1500’s to 1900, a large corpus of Kajkavian literature was written. Kajkavian was removed from public use after 1900, hence writing in the standard Kajkavian literary language was curtailed. Nevertheless, writing continues in various Kajkavian dialects which still retain some connection to the old literary language, although some of the lexicon and grammar are going out (Jembrigh 2014).
Most Croatian linguists recognized Kajkavian as a separate language. However, any suggestions that Kajkavian is a separate language are censored on Croatian TV (Jembrigh 2014).
Nevertheless, the ISO has recently accepted a proposal from the Kajkavian Renaissance Association to list the Kajkavian literary language written from the 1500’s-1900 as a recognized language with an ISO code of kjv. The literary language itself is no longer written, but works written in it are still used in public for instance in dramas and church masses (Jembrigh 2014). This is heartening, although Kajkavian as an existing spoken lect also needs to be recognized as a living language instead of a dialect of “Croatian,” whatever that word means.
Furthermore, there is a dialect continuum between Kajkavian and Chakavian as there is between Kajkavian and Slovenian, and lects with a dialect continuum between them are always separate languages. There is an old Kajkavian-Chakavian dialect continuum of which little remains, although some of the old Kajkavian-Chakavian transitional dialects are still spoken (Jembrigh 2014).
Kajkavian differs from the other Slavic lects spoken in Croatia in that is has many Hungarian and German loans (Jembrigh 2014). Kajkavian is probably closer to Slovenian than it is to Chakavian.
Nevertheless, although intelligibility with Slovenian is high, Kajkavian lacks full intelligibility with Slovenian. Yet there is a dialect continuum between Slovenian and Kajkavian. Kajkavian, especially the Zagorje Kajkavian dialect around Zagreb, is close to the Stajerska dialect of Slovene. However, leaving aside Kajkavian speakers, Croatians have poor intelligibility of Slovenian.
Chakavian and Kajkavian have high, but not full mutual intelligibility. Intelligibility between the two is estimated at 82%.
Molise Croatian is a Croatian language spoken in a few towns in Italy, such as Acquaviva Collecroce and two other towns. A different dialect is spoken in each town. Despite a lot of commonality between the dialects, the differences between them are significant. A koine is currently under development. The Croatians left Croatia and came to Italy from 1400-1500. The base of Molise Croatian was Shtokavian with an Ikavian accent and a heavy Chakavian base similar to what is now spoken as Southern Kajkavian Ikavian on the islands of Croatia. Molise Croatian is not intelligible with Standard Croatian.
Burgenland Croatian, spoken in Austria, is intelligible to Croatian speakers in Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, but it has poor intelligibility with the Croatian spoken in Croatia.
Therefore, for the moment, there are five separate Croatian languages: Shtokavian Croatian, Kajkavian Croatian, Chakavian Croatian, Molise Croatian, and Burgenland Croatian.
Serbian is a macrolanguage made up to two languages: Shtokavian Serbian and Torlak or Gorlak Serbian.
Shtokavian is simply the same Serbo-Croatian language that is also spoken in Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia. It forms a single tongue and is not several separate languages as many insist. The claim for separate languages is based more on politics than on linguistic science.
Torlak Serbian is spoken in the south and southwest of Serbia and is transitional to Macedonian. It is not intelligible with Shtokavian, although this is controversial.
Torlakians are often said to speak Bulgarian, but this is not exactly the case. More properly, their speech is best seen as closer to Macedonian than to Bulgarian or Serbo-Croatian. The Serbo-Croatian vocabulary in both Macedonian and Torlakian is very similar, stemming from the political changes of 1912; whereas these words have changed more in Bulgarian.
The Torlakian spoken in the southeast is different. It is not really either Bulgarian or Serbo-Croatian, but instead it is best said that they are speaking a mixed Bulgarian-Serbo-Croatian language. In the towns of Pirot and Vranje, it cannot be said that they speak Serbo-Croatian; instead they speak this Bulgarian-Serbo-Croatian mixed speech.
It’s also said that Serbo-Croatian can understand Bulgarian and Macedonian, but this is not true. However, the Torlak Serbians can understand Macedonian well, as this is a Serbo-Croatian dialect transitional to both languages.
Intelligibility in the Slavic languages of the Balkans is much exaggerated.
Slovenian speakers find it hard to understand most of the other Yugoslav lects except for Kajkavian Croatian. Serbo-Croatian intelligibility of Slovenian is 25-30%.
A lect called Čičarija Slovenian is spoken on the Istrian Peninsula in Slovenia just north of Croatia. This is a Chakavian-Slovenian transitional lect that is hard to categorize, but it is usually considered to be a Slovenian dialect.
Bulgarian and Macedonian can understand each other to a great degree (65-80%) but not completely. However, the Ser-Drama-Lagadin-Nevrokop dialect in northeastern Greece and southern Bulgaria and the Maleševo-Pirin dialect in eastern Macedonia and western Bulgaria are transitional between Bulgarian and Macedonian. The Aegean Macedonian dialects mostly spoken in Greece, such as the Lerinsko-Kostursko and Solunsko-Vodenska dialects, sound more Bulgarian than Macedonian.
Russian has a decent intelligibility with Bulgarian, possibly on the order of 50%, but Bulgarian intelligibility of Russian seems lower. Nevertheless, Bulgarian-Russian intelligibility seems much exaggerated. Some Russians and Bulgarians say they understand almost nothing of the other language. Nevertheless, most Bulgarians over the age of 30-35 understand Russian well since studying Russian was mandatory under Communism.
However, Bulgarian-Russian written intelligibility is much higher. Bulgarian and Russian are close because the Ottoman rulers of Bulgaria would not allow printing in Bulgaria. Hence, many religious books were imported from Russia, and these books influenced Bulgarian. Russian influence only ended in 1878.
Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian have 10-15% oral intelligibility, however, there are Bulgarian dialects that are transitional with Torlak Serbian. Written intelligibility is higher at 25%. Macedonian and Bulgarian would be much closer together except that in recent years, Macedonian has been heavily influenced by Serbo-Croatian, and Bulgarian has been heavily influenced by Russian.
This difference is because Bulgarian is not spoken the same way it is written like Serbo-Croatian is. However, Bulgarians claim to be able to understand Serbo-Croatian better than the other way around. There is a group of Bulgarians living in Serbia in the areas of Bosilegrad and Dimitrovgrad who speak a Bulgarian-Serbian transitional dialect, and Serbs are able to understand these Bulgarians well.
Serbo-Croatian has variable intelligibility of Macedonian, averaging ~55%, while Nis Serbians have ~90% intelligibility with Macedonian. Part of the problem between Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian is that so many of the basic words – be, do, this, that, where – are different, however, much of the rest of the vocabulary is the same. Serbo-Croatian speakers can often learn to understand Macedonian well after some exposure.
Most Macedonians already are able to speak Serbo-Croatian well. This gives rise to claims of Macedonians being able to understand Serbo-Croatian very well, however, much of this may be due to bilingual learning. In fact, many Macedonians are switching away from the Macedonian language towards Serbo-Croatian.
The Macedonian spoken near the Serbian border is heavily influenced by Serbo-Croatian and is quite a bit different from the Macedonian spoken towards the center of Macedonia. One way to look at Macedonian is that it is a Serbo-Croatian-Bulgarian transitional lect. The intelligibility of Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian is highly controversial, and intelligibility studies are in order. Croats say Macedonian is a complete mystery to them.
Czech and Polish are incomprehensible to Serbo-Croatian speakers (Czech 10%, Polish 5%), but Serbo-Croatian has some limited comprehension of Slovak, on the order of 25%.
Serbo-Croatian and Russian have 10-15% intelligibility, if that, yet written intelligibility is higher at 25%.
Serbo-Croatian has only 20% intelligibility of Ukrainian.
Slovenians have a very hard time understanding Poles and Czechs and vice versa.
It’s often said that Czechs and Poles can understand each other, but this is not so. Much of the claimed intelligibility is simply bilingual learning. Czechs claim only 10-15% intelligibility of Polish.
The intelligibility of Polish and Russian is very low, on the order of 5-10%. Polish is not intelligible with Kashubian, a language related to Polish spoken in the north of Poland. Kashubian itself is a macrolanguage made up of two different languages, South Kashubian and North Kashubian, as the two have difficult intelligibility.
Silesian or Upper Silesian is also a separate language spoken in Poland, often thought to be halfway between Polish and Czech. It may have been split from Polish for up to 800 years, where it underwent heavy German influence. Polish lacks full intelligibility of Silesian, although this is controversial (see below). Some Poles say they find Silesian harder to understand than Belorussian or Slovak, which implies intelligibility of 20-25%.
The more German the Silesian dialect is, the harder it is for Poles to understand. In recent years, many of the German words are falling out of use and being replaced by Polish words, especially by young people. Poles who know German and Old Polish can understand Silesian quite well due to the Germanisms and the presence of many older Polish words, but Poles who speak only Polish have a hard time with Silesian.
Many Poles insist that Silesian is a Polish dialect, but this is based more on politics than reality. In fact, people in the north of Poland regard Silesian as incomprehensible. 40% of Silesian vocabulary is different from Polish, mostly Germanisms. The German influence is more prominent in the west; Polish influence is greater in the east. Many Silesian speakers now speak a watered down version of Silesian which is more properly seen as a Polish dialect with some Silesian words. Pure Silesian appears to be a dying language.
Silesian itself appears to be a macrolanguage as it is more than one language since as Opole Silesian speakers cannot understand Katowice Silesian, so Opole Silesian and Katowice Silesian are two different languages.
Cieszyn Silesian or Ponaszymu is a language closely related to Silesian spoken in Czechoslovakia in the far northeast of the country near the Polish and Slovak borders. It differs from the rest of Silesian in that it has undergone heavy Czech influence. Some say it is a part of Czech, but more likely it is a part of Polish like Silesian.
People observing conversation between Cieszyn Silesian and Upper Silesian report that they have a hard time understanding each other. Cieszyn Silesian speakers strongly reject the notion that they speak the same language as Upper Silesians. Ponaszymu also has many Germanisms which have been falling out of use lately, replaced by their Czech equivalents. Ponaszymu appears to lack full intelligibility with Czech. In fact, some say the intelligibility between the two is near zero.
Lach is a Czech-Polish transitional lect with a close relationship with Cieszyn Silesian. However, it appears to be a separate language, as Lach is not even intelligible within itself. Instead Eastern Lach and Western Lach have difficult intelligibility and are separate languages, so Lach itself is a macrolanguage. Lach is not fully intelligible with Czech; indeed, the differences between Lach and Czech are greater than the differences between Silesian and Polish, despite the fact that Lach has been heavily leveling into Moravian Czech for the last 100 years.
Czechs say Lach is a part of Czech, and Poles say Lach is a part of Polish. The standard view among linguists seems to be that Lach is a part of Czech. However, another view is that Lach is indeed Lechitic, albeit with strong Czech influence.
It is often said that Ukrainian and Russian are intelligible with each other or even that they are the same language (a view perpetuated by Russian nationalists). It is not true at all that Ukrainian and Russian are mutually intelligible, as Russian only has 50% intelligibility of Ukrainian. For example, all Russian shows get subtitles on Ukrainian TV. Yet some say that the subtitles are simply put on as a political move due to Ukraine’s puristic language policy. Ukrainian and Russian only have 60% lexical similarity. Polish and Ukrainian have higher lexical similarity at 72%, and Ukrainian intelligibility of Polish is ~50%+.
However, there are dialects in between Ukrainian and Russian such as the Eastern Polissian and Slobozhan dialects of Ukrainian that are intelligible with both languages. Complicating the picture is the fact that many Ukrainians are bilingual and speak Russian also. Ukrainians can understand Russian much better than the other way around. Nevertheless Ukrainian intelligibility of Russian is hard to calculate because presently there are few Ukrainians in Ukraine who do not speak Russian. Most of the Ukrainian speakers who do not speak Russian are in Canada at the moment.
In addition, the Slobozhan dialects of Ukrainian and Russian such as (Slobozhan Ukrainian and Slobozhan Russian) spoken in Kantemirov (Voronezhskaya Oblast, Russia), and Kuban Russian or Balachka spoken in the Kuban area right over the eastern border of Ukraine are very close to each other. Slobozhan Russian can also be called Kuban Russian or Balachka.
It is best seen as a Ukrainian dialect spoken in Russia – specifically, it is markedly similar to the Poltavian dialect of Ukrainian spoken in Poltava in Central Ukraine. Although the standard view is that Balachka is a Ukrainian dialect, some linguists say that it is actually a separate language closely related to Ukrainian. An academic paper has been published making the case for a separate Balachka language. In addition, Balachka language associations believe it is a separate language. Intelligibility between Balachka and Ukrainian is not known. Russian only has 60% intelligibility of Balachka.
However, Balachka is dying out and is now spoken only by a few old people. Most people in the region speak Russian with a few Ukrainian words.
Slobozhan Russian is very close to Ukrainian, closer to Ukrainian than it is to Russian, and Slobozhan Ukrainian is very close to Russian, closer to Russian than to Ukrainian. Slobozhan Ukrainian speakers in this region find it easier to understand their Russian neighbors than the Upper Dnistrian Ukrainian spoken in the far west in the countryside around Lviv. Upper Dnistrian is influenced by German and Polish.
The Russian language in the Ukraine has been declining recently mostly because since independence, the authorities have striven to make the new Ukrainian as far away from Russian as possible by adopting the Kharkiv Standard adopted in 1927 and jettisoning the 1932 Standard which brought Ukrainian more in line with Russian. For instance, in 1932, Ukrainian g was eliminated from the alphabet in order to make Ukrainian h correspond perfectly with Russian g. After 1991, the g returned to Ukrainian. Hence, Russians understand the colloquial Ukrainian spoken in the countryside pretty well, but they understand the modern standard heard on TV much less. This is because colloquial Ukrainian is closer to the Ukrainian spoken in the Soviet era which had huge Russian influence.
The intelligibility of Belarussian with both Ukrainian and Russian is a source of controversy. On the one hand, Belarussian has some dialects that are intelligible with some dialects of both Russian and Ukrainian. For instance, West Palesian is a transitional Belarussian dialect to Ukrainian. Some say that West Palesian is actually a separate language, but the majority of Belarussian linguists say it is a dialect of Belarussian (Mezentseva 2014). Belarussian and Ukrainian have 85% similar vocabulary.
Russian has high intelligibility of Belarussian, on the order of 75%. Belarussian is nonetheless a separate language from both Ukrainian and Russian.
From some reason, the Hutsul, Lemko, and Boiko dialects of the Rusyn language are much more comprehensible to Russians than Standard Ukrainian is. Intelligibility may be 85%.
The Lemko dialect of Rusyn has only marginal intelligibility with Ukrainian. Lemko is spoken heavily in Poland, and it differs from Standard Rusyn in that it has a lot of Polish vocabulary, whereas Standard Rusyn has more influences from Hungarian and Romanian.
The Rusyn language is composed of 50% Slovak roots and 50% Ukrainian roots, so some difficult intelligibility with Ukrainian might be expected. It has also been described as a transitional dialect between Polish and Slovak. Eastern Slovak has ~80% intelligibility of Rusyn.
Pannonian Rusyn is spoken by a group of Rusyns who migrated to northwestern Serbia (the Bachka region in Vojvodina province) and Eastern Croatia from Eastern Slovakia and Western Ukraine 250 years ago. Pannonian Rusyn is actually a part of Slovak, and Rusyn proper is really a part of Ukrainian. Pannonian Rusyn lacks full intelligibility of Rusyn proper. Not only that, but it is not even fully intelligible with the Eastern Slovak that it resembles most.
The intelligibility of Czech and Slovak is much exaggerated. It is true that Western Slovak dialects can understand Czech well, but Central Slovak, Eastern Slovak and Extraslovakian Slovak dialects cannot.
It is also said that West Slovak (Bratislava) cannot understand East Slovak, so Slovak may actually two different languages, but this is controversial. Western Slovak speakers say Eastern Slovak sounds idiotic and ridiculous, and some words are different, but other than that, they can basically understand it. Other Western Slovak speakers (Bratislava) say that Eastern Slovak (Kosice) is hard to understand. Bratislava speakers say that Kosice speech sounds half Slovak and half Ukrainian and uses many odd and unfamiliar words. Intelligibility testing between East and West Slovak would seem to be in order.
Much of the claimed intelligibility between Czech and Slovak was simply bilingual learning. Since the breakup, young Czechs and Slovaks understand each other worse since they have less contact with each other. In the former Czechoslovakia, everything was 50-50 bilingual – media, literature, etc. Since then, Slovak has been disappearing from the Czech Republic, so the younger people don’t understand Slovak so well.
Intelligibility problems are mostly on the Czech end because they don’t bother to learn Slovak while many Slovaks learn Czech. There is as much Czech literature and media as Slovak literature and media in Slovakia, and many Slovaks study at Czech universities. When there, they have to pass a language test. Czechs hardly ever study at Slovak universities.
Czechs see Slovaks as country bumpkins – backwards and folksy but optimistic, outgoing and friendly. Czechs are more urbane. The written languages differ much more than the spoken ones.
The languages really split about 1,000 years ago, but written Slovak was based on written Czech, and there was a lot of interlingual communication. A Moravian Czech speaker (Eastern Czech) and a Bratislavan Slovak (Western Slovak) speaker understand each other very well. They are essentially speaking the same language.
However, in recent years, there has also been quite a bit of bilingual learning. Young Czechs and Slovaks talk to each other a lot via the Internet. There are also some TV shows that show Czech and Slovak contestants untranslated (like in Sweden where Norwegian comics perform untranslated), and most people seem to understand these shows.
All foreign movies in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are translated into Czech, not Slovak.
Far Northeastern Slovak (Saris Slovak) near the Polish border is close to Polish and Ukrainian. Intelligibility data for Saris Slovak and Ukrainian is not known. Saris Slovak has high but not complete intelligibility of Polish, possibly 85%. Eastern Slovak may have 72% intelligibility of Ukrainian.
Southern Slovak on the Hungarian border has a harder time understanding Polish because they do not hear it much. This implies that some of the high intelligibility between Slovak and Polish may be due to bilingual learning on the part of Slovaks.
Russian has low intelligibility with Czech and Slovak, maybe 30%.
Jembrigh, Mario. Croatian linguist. December 2014. Personal communication.
Mezentseva, Inna. English professor. Vitebsk State University. Vitebsk, Belarus. December 2014. Personal communication.
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78 thoughts on “Mutual Intelligibility of Languages in the Slavic Family”
The reason that these languages seem to be mutually intelligible is because almost all Ukrainians are bilingual anyway, and capable of switching between the two at will. On the other hand, it can be difficult for Russians to understand Ukrainian (though it is easy for them to learn it).
The reason there are subtitles on Russian-language shows in Ukraine is because of Ukraine’s puristic state language policies. Subtitles are absurd when 99% of the audience can already understand what’s going on. But that’s politics for you.
Mutual intelligibility mostly applies to the educated, standardized forms of these languages, not to the various sub-standard dialects. And yes, comprehension has suffered since Czechoslovakia broke up, due to lack of exposure.
Thx for this comment!
As a Polish native speaker I used to be sure that Czech and Polish are mutually intelligible until I met Czech couple. I understood perfectly him, but not her. He said he is frequent visitor in Poland and therefore he speaks Polish. What I took as Czech speaking Czech language, which I perfectly understand, was actually Czech who tries to speaks Polish. His wife had never been to Poland and her language was completely foreign to me.
Apart lack of understandability there are phrases that could be ill understood with famous Polish “I am looking for the broom”…
Regarding Polish and Russian there are many words with opposite meaning. Like rano i utro or kanapa dywan kawior.
I am born and raised in Western Ukraine in a Russophone family. I also have formal training in several Slavic languages, which make most of them, except some of the Balkan ones, pretty much comprehensibe to me. So I asked my Russian wife to listen to some of them (mostly local news on Youtube). The results:
Belarussian – almost completely comprehensible, except a few words.
Ukrainian – much less comprehensible. This has, however, more to do with the new Ukrainian norm.
Hutsul, Lemko, Boiko speech (small Ukrainian/Rusyn dialects) – stangely enough, more comprehensible than standard Ukrainian. She didn’t have any problem following.
Polish – only a few words.
Slovak – somewhat more than Polish, but still very little.
Czech – completely and utterly incomprehensible.
Bulgarian – more comprehensible than standard Ukrainian.
Then she asked me to go do something useful, so this is all I can contribute with.
Regarding Russian/Ukrainian mutual intelligebility: most people who lived in Ukraine during the Soviet era and return there today say that modern Ukrainian differs greatly from the one spoken during Soviet times. During the last 20 years, Ukraine has tried to make the language norm as far from Russian as possible for nationalistic reasons. As a result, I, who spoke fluent Ukrainian when I moved from Ukraine 18 years ago, have problems following modern speech on TV. Colloquial Ukrainian spoken in most of the country is pretty much comprehensible to Russians.
Is there any way you could give me percentage figures for these observations of your wife’s?
I could try. Is there any particular method to determine this?
No there is not. You would be amazed at how good people’s estimates of this sort of thing are though. I have had people give me personal estimates like 40%, 85%, 60-65%, 70%,10-15%, less than 1%, etc. How do they arrive at these estimates? No idea, but if they are fairly intelligent as she sounds like she is, you might be shocked at how she might be able to rattle off some estimated figures like that.
About Boyko/Hutsul dialects which according to you are more understandable to Russian person than Ukrainian language… I will disagree with you. I work with Russians (dro. Russia) in Canada, and they barely can understand standard Ukrainian. If I tell them few sentences (phrases) in Boyko dialect, then Russians won’t be able to understand at all.
Not sure where did you get more similarity between Boyko dialects and Russian language?
Thank you very much for this. Do you speak Boyko or Hutsul? Do you speak Ukrainian. How much of Ukrainian can these Russians in Canada understand?
That information is in error. I have a newer version of the paper that I can give in which I changed some of the things you are complaining about.
Also how much of Rusyn do Russians understand on a % basis? 0%? 5%? 10%? More?
I tested this on my wife by showing her news clips on Youtube. Both me and her had a much easier time following the Rusyn dialects than standard Ukrainian (although they were by no means completely comprehensible). It was a long time ago though, so I’ll try to convince her (and maybe a couple more Russians) to try this again tonight.
Give me a figure in % for the Rusyn if you would. Yes and if you could more than one listener, it would be great. The more the better.
Nice article, but I think there is a difference between spoken mutual intelligibility and different languages. I’d like to know about written mutual intelligibility, because, about spoken mutual intelligibility, there are people from portugal that cannot understand brazilians and vice-versa, though they speak the same language. Also, danes and swedes have a hard time understanding each other, but they can read the other’s language quite well. The unintelligibility is only due to the manner of speaking and not because of lexical and/or grammatical differences. They exist, but not in such a degree to render them unintelligible.
How come you have not done a post about 9/11 before Robert?
You can’t honestly believe that 19 hijackers from Saudi Arabia armed only with boxcutters where able to attack US biggest most powerful landmarks given all the hard factual evidence not including things like thermite or if a missile hit the Pentagon or other junk like that.
let me guess, British bankers/Zionists/Rosthchild family/British oil companies/British special forces/Mossad was behind it?
My take on it is right here.
I will also say that it is a fact that a British intelligence linked terrorist Anas al-Liby recruited by MI6 to kill Gadaffi in 96 was involved in the African Embassy bombings.
He is currently listed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.
According to former Pakistani President Musharraf Omar Sheikh who wired $100,000 to Mohammed Atta was recruited during the 90’s by British intelligence.
“President Musharraf of Pakistan says that the CIA has secretly paid his government millions of dollars for handing over hundreds of al-Qaeda suspects to America….. The revelation comes from General Musharraf’s memoir, In the Line of Fire, which begins serialisation in The Times today and will further embarrass the White House at a time when relations between the US and Pakistan are already strained….. Pakistani intelligence chiefs are concerned that General Musharraf may jeopardise their relationship with British intelligence agencies after claiming that a convicted terrorist was once an MI6 informer. The President outlines the role played by a former London public schoolboy, Omar Sheikh, in the kidnap and murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, in February 2002. General Musharraf says that Sheikh, who orchestrated the abduction, was recruited by MI6 while he was studying at the London School of Economics and sent to the Balkans to take part in jihad operations there. He alleges that Sheikh later double-crossed British intelligence. ‘At some point he probably became a rogue or double agent,’ General Musharraf says.”
‘America paid us to hand over al-Qaeda suspects’
London Times, 25 September 2006
So you believe the 9/11 narrative?
Woof woof! JohnUK. Go back to your kennel.
I think Robert has done articles on 9/11 conspiracy theories and their level of crediblity, yeah. Why not look ’em up on his site. I’ve not read ’em myself. Robert does look at these stories. Personally I’m a Taoist in relation to 9/11, the middle way, you know? I dismiss some of the wilder conspiracy stuff out of hand.
Clearly it WAS the Illuminati at work…I guess the planes were flown by shapeshifting lizards, too…oh, come to think of it, isn’t George Bush Junior a lizard, too! It all adds up, man. I’m The Lizard King, I Can Do Anything! (Jim Morrison)
Yes because governments don’t conspire do they except for the Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq war, drug trafficking, coups, supporting the same Islamic terrorism which is even mentioned in main stream press during the 90’s with links to the 9/11 hijackers which we are now supposably fighting a phoney “war on terror” against.
So if you believe the fantastic conspiracy theory that 19 hijackers some have been discovered to be still alive were able to hijack 4 commercial planes for hours uninterrupted armed only with boxcutters and crash them into US largest and with the Pentagon most well guarded which has its own missile defence and radar system buildings on US?
Perhaps you would care to explain why the FBI has NOT charged Osama Bin Ladin with 9/11 but with the African Embassy bombings.
Check out his page on the FBI 10 most wanted website.
”Usama Bin Laden is wanted in connection with the August 7, 1998, bombings of the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. These attacks killed over 200 people. In addition, Bin Laden is a suspect in other terrorist attacks throughout the world.”
Or maybe you are just a gatekeeper.
The real reason that Slavs can’t even understand each other: not enough vowels in their tongues! (j/k)
Good post, OP. It’s true that Slavic languages are not intelligible in the ‘taking-the-first-person-from-the-street-and-making-them-listen-to-a-random-conversation’ way, that is, an average Slavic speaker with an untrained ear and little to no exposure to other Slavic languages will have difficulty understanding other Slavic languages. That barrier, however, is not too difficult to overcome. As soon as one gets even a very moderate amount of exposure, comprehension improves, even between such geographically distant languages as Polish and Serbian – I remember staying in Montenegro and a Pole buying bread and a Montenegrin could still communicate with each other speaking at a slow-enough pace.
Other factors that one has to keep in mind is recent (and not so recent, too) history and its linguistic implications on speakers – for instance, Slovaks older that about 20 don’t have much trouble understanding Czech because Czech was pretty ‘intrusive’ if not ‘dominant’ in official and intercommunal use in Czechoslovakia until its collapse. Thus, this exposure gives them an edge when trying to understand Czech. Similar things are also valid for Ukraine and Belarus, both of which were parts of the Soviet Union, where Russian was the dominant official language. So dominant, in fact, that parts of Ukraine and Belarus were significantly russified in a matter of a generation, even if not completely. 99% of people in Ukraine are bilinguals who essentially speak and learn both Russian and Ukrainian from birth (although depending on the region, one’s prevailence over the other varies). I’m pretty sure things are identical in Belarus, if not worse – afaik knowledge of Belarusian there is not too widespread in the first place.
In essence, such kinds of bilingualism also improve understanding of other, ‘unrelated’ Slavic languages, since two Slavic languages fill in the comprehension gaps. When I was first exposed to spoken BCS, the most significant issue was their prosody, because the vocabulary and the grammar presented very little difficulty for me as a Ukrainian/Russian bilingual. Needless to say, Polish is very familiar too, except its phonology, getting the gist of which is just a matter of some time.
If I had to name a Slavic language worst for intelligibility, it would absolutely and positively have to be Bulgarian – its phonetics are completely foreign (to the extent that sometimes in the back of my mind I think that it sounds ‘barbarian’ and ‘Turkish’), as is its grammar (the vocabulary, however, is not, being probably 90% similar to Russian, making written Bulgarian pretty easy). Macedonian is a little easier, since it’s more a transitional dialect between Bulgarian and Serbian. Spoken Slovenian is a surprise too – its phonology has a significant German influence.
slavic mutual newspaper
I was born in Canada to a Serbian family and speak Serbian so I am a good control as I was never formally educated in Serbian and it’s grammar. It is not true that Shtokavian which I speak is not mutually intelligible with Torlakian of southern Serbia. I have no problems understanding the Torlakian dialect. I also have no problems understanding standard Croatian or the Kajkavian and Cakavian Croatian dialects and Bosnian and Montenegrin to me are the same language and completely understandable. The differences to me are like New England English versus English in the deep South versus Australian.
I can understand about 50% 75% of Bulgarian and Macedonian enough to get buy and carry on a conversation. Slovenian while it sounds slavic to me is not intelligible at all save for a few words here and there.
Czech and Slovak are more intelligible to me then Slovenian with Slovak more so then Czech. I have to really focus and try hard to understand them but with patience I can get buy.
Polish and Russian while Slavic sounding to my ear and is maybe 5%-15% intelligible . You can pick out the common words like Voda (water), Hleb (bread), zima (cold) and so forth but it is tough to get the jist of what they are saying with out more immersion. But being that they are Slavic with the same or similar grammar and structure you pick up different slavic languages and their style very quick
I think the OP exagerated a bit. From his own words it is possible to conclude that mutual inteligibility between czech and slovak is very high, and I’ve heard from young czechs that they still can understand slovak with no effort. But, as the goal of the OP was to debunk the myth that says every slavic speaker can understand each other, he is quite right on that. And I’m glad he didn’t felt in the nonsense babble of serbians, croats and bosnians that try too hard to show their differences, due to political/religious reasons. I’ve yet to see a speaker of BCS that recognizes the obvious: these three languages are just the same.
Only Croatians try so hard to press differences.
Serbians and Bosnians not so such. Serbs until recently where still self titled Yugoslavs.
Not true about Czech / Slovak inteligibility. There is just a little problem to understand east Slovaks for Czechs from naywhere. Yes, there are some words, which has Ukraine origins, but trust me that its not so hard to understand. And, as it was already sad, all Slovaks understand czeh better than czech slovaks thanks to hostory and politics. It is true that Czech is more urban and less folk and many Slovaks study in Czech republic. But the language isn´t problem. Only problem is “ř” which is in Czech but not in slovak. Its specific czech and many foreiner has problem spelling it. I´m Czech 🙂
I am a native Macedonian and I totally don’t agree with you. Macedonain and Serbo-Croatian being 25% inteligible is simply not true. Maybe it is true for two persons from the opposite end of the dialect continium (Hrvatsko Zagorje and Strumica), that have never been out of their villages and try to communicate on their respective native dialects. But even they will know the literary norm of their own language which will ease up the communication.
The truth is that a person can often understand other dialects, except his native one. People who live in border regions have an advantage of speaking two languages and can easily comprehand other ones as well. Speakers of the Torlak dialect (any Torlak dialect) understand Serbo-Croation, Macedonian and Bulgarian with no problem, and can comprehand Slovenian as much as 80-90% within a few weeks of exposure.
I got that figure from a Serb. He gave me the 25% figure. Exposure doesn’t count. When we do intelligiblity studies, we look for virgin ears or people who have not heard the other language much or at all. Everything else we chalk up to bilingual learning as we call it and we do not think it is accurate. If the Torlaks can understand those languages it is because they have been hearing them!
I am really sorry, but if you are speaking about science, you cannot just say. A Serb gave me this information. And the 25% is very low. What is the basis on which your Serbian friend said that? How can you mesure intelligibility by using one single person. Serbia is large and you should also ask Serbians in other regions. Also, the question is: -did this Serb speak other Slavic languages? Was he educated? Was he from Belgrade or Novi Sad or Nis? I am afraid you are not right because if you take Serbian dialects till Nis, then they are very mutually intelligible with Macedonian! Please listen and watch the movie “Zona Zamfirova”. If you take your 25 (supposedly from Novi Sad) and 90 from Nis, then we come to about 60 percent (from Serbian side). On the other side, i.e. Macedonian side, the situation is more complicated (i will explain later).
Personally, I must admit that Serbs from areas above Nis (cf. Belic) maybe do not understand Macedonian so well as Macedonian the Serbian language do (because of the according to you “Bilingual learning” . Serbs did not have the same language contact with the Macedonian language as Macedonians with Serbocroatian did. I have read a book from Fraenkel/Kramer I believe or something similar, which said (according to some empiry) that Macedonians were easily switching to Serbian in comparison to Slovenes who stuck to their language in the time of Yugoslavia. A Serbian friend of mine was estaunished to see how some Macedonian celebrities speak Serbian on the TV without accent. It shows that Macedonians indeed grew up to certain extent as bilingual Macedonian-Serbian.
It is quite true that Macedonian speakers (even today) are switching to Serbian (although there is a resistence among some speakers of Macdonian) on informal situations. For me personally, Serbian is very interesting, because it sounds like Macedonian, but a bit different because of the declensions. The syntax is though very very similar! If we consider that syntax/lexics is the heart of language, than Serbian and Macedonian are the same language.
(I will come to Bulgarian too)
I think (as a native Serbian speaker from south eastern Belgrade) the main difference between Serbian and Macedonian is that Macedonian doesn’t have cases and have definite articles as well. For example the word “najgolemata” (the biggest) written in Serbian latin means “najveća” in Serbian, but I somehow know what “golem/golema” means, but when I hear this ta (definite article) in the end of the word, that sounds Macedonian to me more than “golema”, prefix “naj” (makes superlative form) is the same in Serbian. Or when I heard the word “pobrzajte” (hurry up (plural)) it was very interesting to me. “Pobrzajte” in Serbian means (požurite) but I understand it because “brzo” means fast and prefix “po” also exists in Serbian, and the imperative form is the same.
My parents (and naturally me when I was child) make a lot of mistakes in the word cases and it means that they are (for the speakers from more west Serbian and also Croatian region) the lower social group, that they are not educated enough or that they are unread, and why don’t Macedonians in their native language too, especially in ex Yugoslavia. We in Serbia even had some comic movies that was making fun of south Serbian dialects (that are more related to Bulgarian and Macedonian) with very mocking or even rude comments for someone who make mistakes in the word cases. Many people know cases well but simply don’t want to speak them correctly in conversation with someone who doesn’t speak them correctly because that makes them feel like they want to judge other people who doesn’t use cases correctly or that makes them more educated, even more smart, than someone who doesn’t use it, and that makes both sides uncomfortable.
One more thing is that Serbian has, for example, two versions of the future case, with “da” (that) and verb in some person form, 1st in this case: “ja ću da radim (I will work)” and “ja ću raditi” where “raditi” (to work) is an infinitive. “Ja ću da radim” is more common to Serbian speakers but “ja ću raditi” is officially more correct. “Ja ću raditi”, for me, sounds more Croatian and Bosnian or at least archaic, and Serbians from Bosnia and Croatia also speaks in that way. Probably, “ja ću da radim” for Bosnians and Croatians sounds very Serbian. “Ja ću da radim” is a form more related to Macedonian and south eastern dialects of Serbo-Croatian. Serbians often say “radiću” and it’s very similar to Croatian raditi ću or radit’ ću, but sometimes Serbians say “ja ću da radim” or even “ću da radim” without “ja” (I), because “ću” is first singular form of the verb “hteti” and “ja” is needless, but it’s very rare and common for southern Serbian dialects and also very very irregular in official Serbian, but that is very similar to official Macedonian.
I also recognize a Macedonian who speaks Serbian by the vowel e, and their sound of č (ч) is much softer than Serbian one, something between Serbian č and ć or even as same as ć. I think this is very difficult for Macedonians to distinguish this two consonants and pronounce them correctly.
For me, Serbian and Macedonian are as different as Serbian and Slovene, they sounds somehow the same, but I don’t understand them correctly.
“Zona Zamfirova” is the movie in a Serbian dialect, but I don’t understand it as same as I don’t understand Macedonian or even more so, that is more like Bulgarian with the hard vowels. That movie doesn’t have subtitle in Serbia but I think it’s a big mistake. I’ve watched that movie on a croatian television with the croatian subtitle and understood that movie much much better, though Croatian also has a little differences. I think that nowadays people from Niš also don’t understand that Serbian enough. I simply didn’t know what for example word “iskati” (to seek) means when I first watched that movie, I was 14, I understand it from the context like I can understand Macedonian. Maybe it’s a lack of vocabulary, but I haven’t heard that word from someone personally yet. That word have special meaning and I think that Serbian needs that word, but if I tell that word seriously while I speak, everybody will laugh at me. This is simply reality in Serbia today.
Also cyrillic in Macedonian is almost as same as Serbian, but many Croats don’t know or don’t want to know cyrillic, and that makes Macedonian more different to them than to Serbs. Bulgarian is similar to Macedonian but with more different cyrillic. Serbs can read both cyrillic and latin without any problem even if that two scripts are mixed in a word or sentence.
Sorry for my English, I’m still learning it…especially right word order. In Serbian word order is not that important like it is in English.
Thank you. This comment is fantastic! Your English is pretty much ok.
Un- or fortunately, you are right about the thesis about Macedonian and Bulgarian. The thesis that Bulgarian and Macedonian are the same language is not real in the practice. I have friends from Bulgaria and I can tell you that they have problems by understanding some things. For me having learnt some Slavic languages and watching Bulgarian TV was not very difficult. Some simple words as Zboruva “talk” were not understood by a Bulgarian and I was obliged to use the word “govori” so that I adapted my Macedonian to get understood, although we seldom say govori. It is very strange when some words are not understood, although the communication is possible. For Macedonian without knowledge of other Slavic languages is also difficult to understand all the words which come from Russian and which are not current in Macedonian.
In its written form Bulgarian is even more different than in its spoken form. I am communicating very often with speakers of the other Slavic languages, so I did an experiment and I tried to write something in Bulgarian for one first time. The person did not understand everything what I wrote. It was for me a bit strange, because Bulgarian science still supports the thesis that Macedonian is Bulgarian.
Bulgarian lexics does not seem to be familiar to Macedonians, what shows that Macedonian has been for too much time separated from the contact with Bulgarian which made Bulgarian unknown for Macedonian ear. I believe
Macedonian syntax and lexics are more similar to Serbian, even though structures of the language such as articles (no declensions) function as in Bulgarian.
If one takes the transitional dialects which make a triangle between Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, one can say that it is also one language.
Interesting article but I think there are some minor and some major mistakes and misunderstandigs. In my opinion Czech and Slovak mutual intelligibility is not heavily exaggerated but actually very underrated(or some opposite word of exagerated, sorry for my poor english). Standard Czech and standard Slovak is almost totally intelligible (I would say about 90%) only very few words are of different origin. Older people who rembember federation understand everything. They sometimes say that youngsters do not but that is just a myth. There is one factor they don´t know about – the internet. Young czechs and slovaks communicate on internet on daily basis and they understand each other just perfectly. Also there have been some czecho-slovak shows in TV lately like Czecho-Slovak Idol or Talent with judges and competitors from both countries and I have never heard of anyone who would complain about not understanding. Even little kids who watch the show understand.
About the mistakes
In Czech rep. Slovaks don’t have to pass any language exams (the other foreigner do have to). The Czech law even states that Slovak language can be used in schools and in official documents.
About Slovak being two different unintelligible languages – I highly doubt so. It is just a dialect in east Slovakia that westernd Slovaks (and Czechs) find harder to understand but it is not like they would not understand a word. Every major language has some dialects… Also both sides are able to use standard Slovak.
Sorry for so much criticism it is just my Czech/Moravian opinion on the subject. Also sorry for my English.
Salute from Czech republic
I am a native Spanish speaker but my girlfriend is Macedonian. I always aske her about whether she understands Bulgarian and Serbian and she claims Serbian is way closer to her language rather than Bulgarian. However, she is from Skopje, close to the Serbian border and which have had much more influence from Serbian. I have also friends from Central Macedonia (Prilep, Bitola) and I can tell how different they speak from the Skopjian dialect. For instance, “he” and “she” in Standard Macedonia is “toj” and “taa” respectively, very close to Bulgarian “toy” and “tya”. However, my girlfriend never ever says these words and rather uses “on” and “ona” just like in Serbian. To my opinion, Macedonian and Bulgarian would be today much closer if Macedonian had not been heavily influenced by Serbian and Bulgarian not influenced so much by Russian. I myself who have learned some Macedonian, pick up much more words from spoken Serbo-Croatian than spoken Bulgarian.
I would say that Macedonian is about 25% intelligible to a Serbian speaker that was never exposed to Macedonian. You can pick up the gist of that’s being said in any sentence.
In this case, another criteria I would also consider is how hard or easy it is for a Serb to start understanding Macedonian. In my experience, it’s quite easy. The reason Macedonian appears not very intelligible to a Serbian speaker is because many basic words (be, do, this, that, where, etc) are completely different, however most of the rest of the vocabulary is similar or the same. Once you pick up those basic 50 words, understanding Macedonian becomes super easy – that was my experience with Macedonian friends (the few of them who don’t speak Serbian). So they speak Macedonian to me and I speak Serbian to them, and we understand each other perfectly.
Therefore I would go with 25%.
I speak štokavski croatian (and can read and understand serbian (both cyrillic and latin) and can adapt my croatian to be more serbian grammatically and with vocabulary) and just recently I had a conversation where I spoke croatian and the other person spoke polish. It is not that hard. Many of our word roots are the same. Also, I can only understand a small bit of Russian, and Ukrainian is even more far off for me(the pronunciation is easier but understanding is harder) and I can understand quite a bit of bulgarian(especially when written). I don’t know about Macedonian (haven’t ever heard or read it) but it seems to be like in the middle between Serbian and Bulgarian (just like frisian is in the middle of dutch and english). I can barely understand czech (slovak I haven’t tried) and, as similar as it is to croatian, I can only understand a little slovenian. It is more like the other slavic languages (v instead of u, z instead of s, itd, less vowels, and no distinction between č and ć). It seems polish and bulgarian are the easiest for me to understand (save for bosnian, serbian, and crnogorski). I cannot understand that much of kajkavski nor čakavski, but I can understand more čakavski than I can kajkavski. Kajkavski it seems has changed less than čakavski. Čakavski has considerably more italian influence, due to many of the people there speaking italian (vicinity to italy) and the presence of istriot language and the former presence of dalmatian language.
Interesting when one considers that Ukrainians do not even consider Rusyn a real language. Yet, it is closer to Russian that standard Ukrainian. I am not saying this to slam Ukrainians, but just an observation.
It doesn’t make sense, does it?
As a native Serbian speaker from Bosnia who has interacted with most Slavic languages , here’s my breakdown of level of mutual intelligibility with other Slavic tongues: its not based on bilingual learning.
Croatian (Stokavski): 98%
Macedonian: 50-60 %
Bulgarian: 15% spoken , 30-40% written
Russian: 15% spoken, 25% written
Polish is the most incomprehensible Slavic language for other Slavs, both spoken and written. Spoken Bulgarian is very difficult to understand for other Slavs due to phonology and unique syllable stress. Even the most common, most simple words sound alien in spoken Bulgarian, ‘VODA(WATER) is pronounced ,VO’DA .
Thank you so much Adrian!
You’re welcome Robert, for a non-slavic speaker, you have a pretty good grasp of these linguistic niceties. The only big one i disagree with your breakdown is serbian/croatian vs bulgarian. I can read and understand a lot of Bulgarian in written form, its basically old slavic , many such words are simply obsolete or archaic in modern serbian, but i do get the gist of any written article. Problem is the spoken form, as Bulgarians don’t speak as it is written, which is the case with serbian or croatian.
there’s a macedonian TV program called ” Vo Centar”, hosted by a macedoanian journalist who goes around the Balkans and interviews prominent names in politics etc. He conducts his interviews in Macedonian, and as you can watch , his guests, be they bulgarians, serbs, bosnians, croats have no trouble understanding his questions. Of course, the interviews are subtitled in Macedonian, but even an untrained ear and eye can see how similar these languages are. Much like Nordic languages.
Here’s his interview with Bosnian figures, and Bosnian is part of B/H/S landscape
While discussing mutual intelligibility, the author often calls upon “bilingual learning”; for example, Czech and Slovak are considered highly intelligible because of the strong cross-cultural overlap.
There is a big problem with this. If we follow this line of reasoning, it would be correct to conclude that English is highly intelligible to Serbian speakers because most Serbs speak English.
Could you please explain what you mean by “language” and “intelligibility” and hopefully remedy this failure of the original text?
It is not a failure. I use Ethnologue’s list of languages and dialects, but extend it a bit. I use Wikipedia as a reference for new languages that Wikipedia misses, like the 4 Croatian languages. Less than 90% mutual intelligibility = separate languages. Slovak-Czech MI tests out at 82% in studies, which seems about right. For true MI testing, we want “virgin ears,” and it has to be both ways. How many English speakers know Serbo-Croatian? 0%. Test only Serbs who know almost no English (they exist in older generation). You get 0%. True MI testing does try to find “virgin ears” that have heard little of the other language and speak little or none of it.
Intelligibility is more than 90% = dialect, less than 90% = language. There are numerous intelligibility tests out there that work very well, or you can just ask native speakers to give you a %, and most of the honest ones will tell you; in fact, they will often differentiate between “oh that is our language,” “they speak the same language as us,” for dialects and then “no, that is not our language, that is different,” and “they do not speak our language” for separate languages. When you find out it is a separate language, you ask for %, and they often tell you! They say, ~60%, ~65%, etc. They give you strict % figures, and it is pretty amazing. Or they will say, “Well, that is about 70% our language.” If it is a dialect, they will say, “That is really still our language. That is ~90% our language.”
This stuff is not all that controversial. Most native speakers agree on MI. Only nationalists and fanatics disagree. In Linguistics, this MI stuff is noncontroversial. It is rather controversial outside Linguistics, as you run into nationalists and other fools who emotionally distort things.
I see your point, and I agree: there must be a difference in method when determining linguistic intelligibility based on different populations. I confess to not being a linguist, and therefore didn’t see past the problematic sentence
> Intelligibility problems are mostly on the Czech end, because they don’t bother to learn Slovak, while many Slovaks learn Czech.
However, you do say later in the text that
> Much of the claimed intelligibility was simply bilingual learning.
I just didn’t realize that when you talked about learning the other language you were actually referring to the errors inherent in doing a non-“virgin ears” MI study, and not conflating language learning with mutual intelligibility. Thanks for clearing this up!
Yes of course. You are a smart guy. What sort of Slav nation are you a part of my friend?
I’m of the Yugoslav variety by rearing, and a Serb by select bits of culture, by most of my native language and by all of where my tax money goes. In other respects I am happy to say I manage to keep my identity clear of any overt nationalist definitions 🙂
Nice to meet you, Robert; I’ll make sure to read more of your articles now!
That is good to know. That is a particularly ugly version of nationalism brewing in your vicinity. Glad to hear you are steering clear of it. It’s a nasty drug, and I hear it’s addicting.
some things in this article are heavily exaggerated. a person with “Virgin ears” from any where in the Czech republic and west and central Slovakia will understand each other fairly well. but the two languages are more different than some people think. I am a good control for this because I am an American but my father is Slovak(my mother is half Slovak but American) and I can understand about 50 % of Slovak and I do have a hard time with Czech but once I get past their hacek r I can understand quite a bit. A Slovak from Bratislava can and does understand eastern Slovak dialects, he might have to tune his ear a bit, but I know because Ive talked to many members of my family about this and other Slovaks and they all say it sounds really stupid and a few words are different but they definantly understand. A western Slovak can even understand most of Ruthenians hen they are speaking. I can understand quite a bit of basic polish when it is spoken on the street, but their pronunciation is so weird its hard to notice sometimes. My father once read an article in polish and he said he understood almost everything, but when its spoken he said about 60%. He said if he was there for about a week he could understand probably everything. I also worked in a resteraunt with lots of west and south slavs there and I have to say that Serbian and crotian has a lot of ilarities with Slovak. Actually the way it is spoken sometimes sounds more like Slovak to me than Czech or polish does, however past really basic speech it is pretty hard to understand. However Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian are not like Czech and Slovak. They are essentially the same language and even somebody with virgin ears can understand anybody almost perfectly, as long as he has half a brain. Ukrainians seems closer to Slovak than Russian but some words in Russian are almost exactly the same in Slovak but in Ukranian they are completely different. I have the hardest time to understand anything of Bulgarian, it sounds really fast and choppy but similar to Russian sometimes. I kind of like it though 🙂
Scientific intelligibility studies of Czech and Slovak have shown ~82% – quite high but still low enough for them to be closely related separate languages and not dialects of one language. IOW, I think there are two languages – Czech and Slovak and I do not agree that they are the same language with two dialects. Thanks for the information about Eastern Slovak – I will incorporate it.
As a native Russian speaker, I noticed that my understanding of Polish went from 20% to 70% in a matter of hours when watching a film in Polish with subtitles. I think it was mostly due to a learning few high frequency Polish words that are difficult for a Russian native speaker to understand. As far as grammars are concerned (declension and conjugation), they are so similar that there is almost no effort in understanding that this noun is, for example, in dative plural, and that verb is imperfective past. I must admit that knowing English, German and French also helped me since Polish readily uses borrowings from these languages where Russian prefers Slavic words.
Slovak students do not have to pass a language test at Czech universities. At least not in general – if so, it might depend on the school. Usually, they can even write their theses in Slovak.
Thank you so much for this.
Main difference between čakavian, kajkavian and štokavian is in vocabulary. Čakavian is full of romanisms, kajkavian of germanisms and štokavian of turkish and other orientalisms. But čakavian being archaic it has old slavic package. So I understand Kajkavians and Slovenes except for a germanic package. I also understand more of other Slavic languages then neoštokavian speakers do. For example we chakavians use a lot of words used in Polish, Ukrainian, Slovak etc but in standard Croatian those words are described as archaisms and instead words used in štokavian come from Turkish.
Hello, can you tell me, how much Kajkavian can your average Chakavian speaker understand in percentage? 70%? 60%? 50%
Same question, how much Chakavian can your average Shtokavian speaker understand in percentage?
How much Slovene can your average Chakavian speaker understand?
Sorry I can`t give you percentage. But I can tell you this. Northern (Istrian and Kvarner) čakavian is closer to kajkavian and Slovene then Southern čakavian is ( I understand 95%+ nč). But still Slovene and Dalmatian čakavian speaker can talk if they stick to old slavic part of their respective languages. Funny thing when Slovene tourists come to Dalmatian islands they start to speak awkward Serbo Croatian they learned long ago in yugo schools because they fear of not being understood. And when islanders respond back in čakavian they are puzzled: What? You also have these words? We speak them too. Now štokavian and čakavian. It depends which dialect. What if čakavian person is from dalmatian coastal village which is now half štokavised and štokavian speaker is from Dalmatian city which still has some elements of čakavian, ikavian yat and is full of romanisms? Then conversation is intelligible 100%. but what if person is from island and speaks “heavy” čakavian and štokavian speaker is “real” štokavian like from Slavonia (North Eastern Croatia). Then štokavian person reaction would be: What? OMG! What language is this? I thought this is Croatia! But they are unaware of the fact that islander have a lot of latin but also old Croatian (Slavic) words instead of Turkish which are used by supossedly “more Croatian” štokavian speaker. Other then that difference is in grammar and accent. In čakavian they are once more old slavic. Accent is on last or penultimate syllable. Also čakavian has some elements of its own. Like a shits to o. And o shifts to u. Because of all of this, Štokavian speaker has a hard time understanding fast talking Čakavian speakers. But they would learn it quickly if they cared.
So you are a speaker of Southern Chakavian, right?
wovel a shifts to o not shits hahhaha sorry
I speak both Southern čakavian and neoštokavian.
Hello can I use your comments in a paper I am writing?
Yes you can. I will tell you also this:
Mi povidamo Horvatski jazik – means We speak croatian language in Čakavian. Mi pričamo Hrvatski jezik in neoštokavian. But islanders more often say Mi povidamo na našu or domaću. We speak in our own, or we speak locally. Some islanders go even further than that and don`t consider themselves ethnic Croats.
Can you give me your name here or can you email me with your name, unless that is you in your email address there. My email is on the Contact page. Email me and give me your name please and I will use you in the paper. I will also send you a copy so you can look over the Serbo-Croatian part and tell me if there are any errors.
It`s my name in the email
My mother is a native Croatian speaker and she told me that serbian and croatian have very good intelligibility but however the grammar is very different.Comparing those two languages would be like comparing czech and slovakian. Have every heard of Dubrovnik dialect? It uses shtokavian dialect but simultaniously italianized vocabulary,and it is very hard to be understood while speaking to a common Croatian speaker.Would that also be considered a separate language? What about USA’s dialects. I was born in Upper State and I can barely understand some southern speakers.Do you think the politics in USA is also preventing the formation of new languages ?
Is it Chakavian?
Hello Mr Lindsay,
I’ve been following this page and kept coming to it for the past months, actually more than a year (and have noticed some updates). Very interesting.
Maybe I could offer you somehow help? My family comes from Kaikavian (50%), Chakavian (25%) and Shtokavian (25%) areas, but at home, especially last years, we prefer to use only Kaikavian-Chakavian.
I’ve done tests with my friends shtokavians-only (or monolingual Croats regarding the situation here) and it was very interesting.
I also run a YouTube channel where I try to put the differences within the Croatia’s borders online since many who’ve seen them were surprised (or shocked). For Kai-Cha it was less shocking as many words were taught by their parents (or they remembered them from childhood, before the school system forces you to use only the Std Cro). For majority of the Shtokavian speakers that’s just another language: different grammar, vocabulary, pronunciations, even sounds (Kai has at least 9 vowels while Shto Croatian only 5 for example). Just search for ‘alternative Croatian’ or ‘kaikavian lessons’ and you will find me, along witht he contact information.
I hope you will like it and will be useful for your researches!
PS More than half of Slovenian seems to be closely related to Kaikavian and Chakavian Croatian (and probably Old Shtokavian which is almost extinct). Even the basic words are almost the same. Yet it’s totally foreign to many in Croatia. How to explain that? Speaking of myself, after calculating everything, I can understand to specific degree Slovene, somewhat Slovak/Russian, Serbo-Croatian std without problems and also Macedonians. Also “what is a dialect and what is a language?” becomes confusing for me since I can say a sentence in Kai/Cha that’s almost the same in Slovene but different in BSCM standards. Yet we speak of Kai/Cha as of Serbo-Croatian dialects, while Slovenian is totally foreign. Crazy!
This is great. Thanks so much for this post.
Greg, Kaikavian is dialect of Slovenian language. Don’t let the past politics fool you. I speak Slovenian and Croats think that I can speak Kaikavian. I also met Croats from Zagreb that never learn Slovenian or live in Slovenia and I thought they are native Slovenian speakers because they can speak Slovenian perfectly.
And Shtokavian is dialect of Serbian language.
As a native of Niš, I can say that the Serbo-Croatian—Macedonian figures might be roughly on-point. I’m a speaker of Torlakian Serbian — characteristically closer to Macedonian than Standard Serbian, having three (nom/acc/voc) cases and using a fusional instead of an analytic past tense — and, with regards to a certain comment made two years ago on here, can, without issue, understand Zona Zamfirova, a movie about life in Ottoman Niš, without any subtitles. Much of the language has changed — lots of Turkish loans have been dropped, plenty of standard Serbian terminology has made its way in — but I’ve had less of a communication issue in Kumanovo (north-eastern Macedonia) than Belgrade (capital of Serbia) back when I was but a young lad.
Niš Torlak has six vowels — the standard /a e i o u/ and a reduced schwa /ə/ that’s found where a strong yer once used to be, as in <pəs> ‘dog’ and <təga> ‘sadness’ (this vowel has merged with /a/ in Serbian, but the two yers were kept as separate reflexes /e o/ (merging with those full vowels) in Macedonian) with phonemic and morpho-lexical stress that has plenty of grammatically conditioned shifts.
It features phonemic vowel length that came about as a coalescence of a vowel with a following /v/ (usually one /v x j/ in Serbian, the distribution is opaque and unpredictable) or the contraction of the sequence /ij/ into /i:/ — this feature is shared with plenty of Macedonian dialects, as far as I remember — but has traditional, ‘harder’ Serbian alveopalatals and palatals, having [tʃ dʒ tɕ dʑ] for Macedonian [tʃʲ dʒʲ c(ç) ɟ(ʝ)] (treating these as allophones as they seem to be the same four phonemes). Niš Torlak vowel reflexes are otherwise in line with standard Serbian and Northwestern Macedonian, deriving nuclear /u e i e u r/ from /ǫ ę y *ě *l *r/; some Torlak dialects towards Kosovo or Bulgaria instead have [əl ~ l] for /l/ (giving [v(ə)l(:)k] where Serbian normally has [vû:k]) but none in my vicinity. Nobody I’ve ever talked to that lived in Serbia had anything other than [u] for /ǫ/.
As for mutual intelligibility, learned exposure aside, I’ve never had much of a fun time in any area of western or northern Serbia that wasn’t Belgrade; my lack of a pitch accent system (where Serbian has four ‘accents’, Niš has independent accent and length that seldom coincide with the norm); I cannot for the life of me make sense of Šumadija or Vojvodina Serbian (these are considered the normative core of Serbian) without resorting to asking the other party to slow down and having myself talk slower.
Much of my vocabulary simply isn’t present in their lects, even when I try and align myself to speak more in line with the norm. I’d guess mutual intelligibility there is somewhere on the level of 75~80%, which is pretty pathetic. Macedonian I can understand better, and I’m going to say that my comprehension of it used to lie somewhere between 90 and 95%, and I’m going to cite 98% for my present knowledge — there’s a lot of technical vocabulary that takes a while to grasp, and a few words that I can’t make sense of no matter how hard I try, but most of the differences are more marginal than between standard Serbian and Macedonian:
— the copula is mostly the same (səm/si/e/smo/ste/su vs. sum/si/e/sme/ste/se)
— ‘do’ is the same verb (prâim/prâiš/prâi/prâimo/prâite/prâe vs. pravam/praviš/pravi/pravime/pravite/pravaat; as opposed to Serbian “raditi”)
— the interrogatives are much more similar (kəda vs. koga ‘when’; kədé~kudé vs. kade ‘where’; što~kakvó (second form is more characteristic of Bulgarian) vs. što ‘what’; koj/koja/koe/koi vs. koj/koja/koe/koi ‘who/which/that’ (interr. & relat.)) between Niš Torlak and Macedonian than between either of those two and Serbian
— Niš Torlak uses a definite suffix, -ta/-to/-ti/-te/-ta (fem.sg/neu.sg/masc.pl/fem.pl/neu.pl), but less frequently than Macedonian does, and only in the nominative; it doesn’t have a distance contrast as it does in standard Macedonian — but it isn’t even present in Serbian to begin with
— demonstratives (tək~ovdé vs. tuka~ovde, tamo vs. tamu) and some elementary adverbs (səg vs. sega ‘now’; jutre vs. utre ‘tomorrow’; dənə́s(ke) ~ deneska ‘today’, fčera vs. včera ‘yesterday’) are fairly similar; Niš Torlak uses multiple sets of demonstratives as its 3rd person pronouns (toj/ta/to/ti/te/ta, onój/oná/onó/oní/oné/oná, ovój/ová/ovó/oví/ové/ová, in descending order of frequency) as opposed to Serbian’s almost exclusive use of ‘on/ona/ono/oni/one/ona’ and standard Macedonian’s use of ‘toj/taa/toa/tie’
— possession is indicated most frequently using dative pronouns, unlike Serbian’s tendency to use possessive pronouns in greater frequency
— plenty of prepositions are used in a similar, if not identical, manner; to name an example, “na” is used in both Macedonian and Niš Torlak as a replacement for the Serbian genitive, in addition to its standard use as ‘on(to)’
— the use of the accusative is nearly identical in Niš Torlak and Kumanovo Macedonian (cannot say the same for standard Macedonian as it has no accusative to begin with) and is, in general, more of an oblique case than anything else
As an addendum, I’d like to make it known that my own grandmother, who hails from a village some twenty kilometers southwest of Niš, got lost in Belgrade once but has no problem getting around Skopje.
I’m gonna estimate 40% for Bulgarian, can’t really say what the difference between written and spoken Bulgarian would be for me. With this, off I go to sleep.
I think that Russian has at least 89% with Belorussian, because I understand all speech in Belorusian
Congratulations on a brilliant article! Some comments on Ukrainian:
The post-1991 reforms of the Ukrainian language were not an introduction of Polish or Western Ukrainian as some Russian nationalists (and non-nationalists, who believe them) claim, but rather a return to a standard adopted in Kharkiv in 1927. In 1933, reforms were forced that streamlined Ukrainian more in line with the Russian language. Just one example: the letter “g” was eliminated in order to make the Ukrainian “h” correspond exactly with Russian “g”. Post 1991, “g” has returned. This is also true of vocabulary and other aspects.
Western Ukraine, at least urban Western Ukraine, no longer speaks the Galician dialect but rather standard Ukrainian. The old Dniestrian/Galician speech is largely confined to rural areas. I’ve almost never heard it in Lviv, except by visiting villagers or old people. People from Lviv and larger cities and towns in western Ukraine have a slight clipped accent but they speak standard Ukrainian.
I grew up as a Ukrainian speaker in North America. Due to no prior exposure to Russian, I could not understand that language, other than a few words and expressions here and there. It was probably in the same ballpark as Polish for me. Having lived in Moscow and being married to a Russian, I now speak Russian well enough to be mistaken for a Russian-speaking tourist from Poland or Lithuania when in Moscow. Kids speak both languages, as well as English, fluently.
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?
Hello, 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.” 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. 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. 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.
“Czech has 82% intelligibility of Slovak (varies from 70-95%), 12% of Polish and 5% of Russian and Bulgarian.”
I think that this article is full of dubious numbers, but this is not necessarily the author’s fault. You must namely take into consideration that the mutual understanding depends on many things – if you are LISTENING or READING, WHAT are people talking about, HOW FAST they are speaking, and even WHO is speaking.
I can illustrate it on the video posted above – “Vojnata vo Bosna”. I must confess that as a Czech, I understand only little, what the Macedonian reporter is saying, and when I was listening to the first guy from Bosnia (Izetbegović), I was often lost, understanding only slightly more, maybe 20-30%. But then the second older guy from Bosnia (Filipović) appeared on the screen – and wow! I would be able to translate what he says! How is it possible – if they speak the same language?
The answer is that Izetbegović is speaking too fast, he is often basically mumbling, and due to the different stress, I cannot identify, where the words start and end. In fact, I cannot often identify any words at all. In contrast, Filipović is talking slowly, and although some words have a different stress than in Czech, I can identify them pretty well and hence listening to this guy is basically like reading a written text in Serbo-Croatian.
And the same problem emerges in other situations. There can be huge differences between spoken/written forms of a Slavic language, because the written form may have a very similar vocabulary, phonology and grammar, but due to a different, strong stress, you won’t understand almost anything.
A prima example of this is Russian – where the 5% intelligibility could be pretty accurate in the case of a regular communication, because Russians have a very strong intonation, and they simply don’t pronounce vowels properly. Basically, you only hear a series of consonants with hardly recognizable vowels. In fact, I would probably have a hard time to understand a Czech speaking with such an intonation. But in the case of written Russian, you could elevate this number up to 70-80% quite easily.
One of the most bizarre cases is that of Bulgarian, where the level of mutual intelligibility with spoken Czech is very low (close to zero), due to a completely different grammar. But reading a Bulgarian text is surprisingly easy, because the phonology and vocabulary are very similar. I can’t say that I would understand every word, but it is usually not difficult to guess some missing gaps from the context, so I could read professional books in Bulgarian in the past.
Those 12% in Polish are very dubious as well. Look at this Polish girl:
She introduces her and her two friends from the Czech republic and Spain, Because she speaks very clearly and slowly, I understand everything between 0:25-0:32, but then she starts a fast flood of words and between 0:32-0:36 I basically hear only ščřščžšs…. Then she talks about the cards in the bags, I again understand everything, but at 0:47, another stream of unintelligible sounds is starting. I do hope that you understand the point.
Thank you very much for this. The problem is that native speakers can understand other speakers of their own language. I can understand anyone who speaks English, even those who speak it as foreigners might say too fast. Generally, when foreigners say speakers of a certain language speak too fast, speakers of that language can hear that fast speech just fine. Regular speech is generally quite fast. Slow, deliberate speech is not typical.
You really need to go look at the new version of the paper. It has been massively updated with a lot of new research from controlled scientific intelligibility studies.
Czech-Polish is not at 12% anymore, a new study has found it is 32%.
Can you give me a figure for how much of a Bulgarian text you can understand?
There are new scientific figures for Czech-Slovak, Czech-Serbo-Croatian and Czech-Bulgarian. Czech-Slovak is now 91%, Czech-Serbo-Croatian is 18%, Czech-Macedonian is 17% and Czech=-Bulgarian is 13%.
I also conclude that in terms of straight linguistic science anyway, Czech and Slovak are simply one language called Czechoslovakian. Czech and Slovak are simply dialects of this one tongue.
You are probably talking about the study “Mutual intelligibility between West and South Slavic languages”?
I can give you an example of how I can read Bulgarian:
BULGARIAN (transferred to the Latin script): “Бalgarskijat ezik e indoevropejski ezik ot grupata na južnoslavjanskite ezici. Toj e oficialnijat ezik na Republika Balgarija i edin iz 23-te oficialni ezika na Evropejskija sajuz. Balgarskijat ezik e pluricentričen ezik – ima njakolko knižovni normi. Nared s osnovnata, izpolzovana v Balgarija, saščestvuvat ošče makedonska norma, kojato saščo izpolzva kirilica, i banatska norma, kojata izpolzva latinica.”
CZECH: “Bulharský jazyk je indoevropský jazyk ze skupiny jihoslovanských jazyků. Je to oficiální jazyk v Bulharské republice a jeden z 23 oficiálních jazyků v Evropské unii. Bulharský jazyk je plurocentrický jazyk – má několik knižních norem. Vedle hlavní, používané v Bulharsku, existuje ještě makedonská norma, která také (?) používá cyrilici, a banátská norma, která používá latinku.”
ENGLISH: “Bulgarian language is an Indo-European language from the group of South-Slavic languages. It is an official language of the Bulgarian republic and one of 23 official languages of the European Union. Bulgarian is a pluricentric language – it has several literary norms. Together with the basic norm used in Bulgaria, there also exists a Macedonian norm, which (saščo=also?) uses the Cyrlic script, and a Banat norm, which uses the Latin script.”
The translation is not very problematic. The key problem of Bulgarian is the different gramar – the lack of declination and the use of postpositive articles. You cannot simply separate the articles from the words during a regular conversation. “Balgarski” is “balgarskijat”, “grupa” is “grupata”, “oficialni” is “oficijalnijat” etc. Basically, when you are listening to Bulgarians, you only hear an incomprehensible row of “ta-jat-to-ta-jat-ta-to-ta”. But when you see it, you are shocked that you can read it.
I admit that my prehistoric learning of Russian (1985-1990) made it easier for me to guess the meaning of words “izpolzovana” a “saščestvuvat” (which have the same meaning in Russian), but I think that I could guess it even from the context. The only (still rather minor) problem that I had with this text was the part “Nared s osnovnata, izpolzovana v Balgarija” (“Together with the basic norm used in Bulgaria”), because I could not understand “”Nared s osnovnata”. But the end of the sentence clarified these words. By the way, “osnovnata” (osnovna-ta) is related to the Czech word “osnova” (basis, outline).
So I understood all but one word (също), and Google Translator indeed confirms that my guess was right and it means “also”. So I understood 100% 🙂 But I admit that it was a relatively very easy text. In other cases, I had to rely on the context. I can randomly pick up another paragraph from that Wikipedia page, and it would be harder:
BULGARIAN: “Balgarskijat ezik e naj-rannijat pismeno dokumentiran slavjanski ezik. Istoričeskoto mu razvitie se charakterizira s četiri glavni perioda. Sledva da se otbeleži, če tova delene e uslovno i imenata ne otrazjavat različni ezici, a samo periodi v razvitieto na balgarskija ezik, za koito se otkrivat charakterni belezi.”
I can easily translate the first two sentences: “Bulgarian is the oldest documented Slavic language. Its historical development consists of four main periods.” But then it is difficult. I can grasp only something in the sense that these four periods have different names and that they don’t designate different languages (delene e uslovno i imenata ne otrazjavat različni ezici), but only periods of the development of Bulgarian (samo periodi v razvitieto na balgarskija ezik), with typical changes or features (za koito se otkrivat charakterni belezi). I have no idea, what “Sledva da se otbeleži, če tova…” means.
I put it to Google translator and I got this:
“The Bulgarian language is the earliest written record Slavic language. The historical development is characterized by four main periods. It should be noted that this division is conditional (actually: arbitrary) (and) names do not reflect the different languages, but only periods in the development of the Bulgarian language, which (have) detectable traits.”
So here you have a case, when I could not understand everything, but I could grasp the meaning (at least). Reading a Bulgarian text is not like reading an ordinary book in Czech, it would cost my brain much more kilojoules (but maybe mainly due to the monotonous Cyrilic script), but it is possible. After all, you can look at the study that I listed above and check the results of “the written translation task” (translation of 50 individual words), which illustrates the similarity of lexicons: Czechs best understand Slovak words (96,52%), then Polish (64,29%), then Bulgarian (57,00%), Croatian (55,38%) and Slovene (49,73%). Pretty accurate I think. The distance of Slovene may seem unlikely, but I think that it is still rather optimistic, because Czech and Slovene are quite distant, despite geographical closeness. But other results that included Czech and Bulgarian were very poor. It’s mainly in the weird Bulgarian grammar!
I’m Slovenian, my mother tongue is Slovenian, however I have also learnt Serbo-Croatian from a very early age. Being fluent in Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian gives you access to understanding more of other Slavic languages.
Here are the estimates about inteligebility with other Slavic languages from a person that’s fluent in Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian:
Slovak 50 % spoken, 70 % written
Macedonian 40 % spoken, 60 % written
Bolgarian 30 % spoken, 50 % written
Czech 20 % spoken, 40 % written
Russian 20 % spoken, 30 % written
Ukrainian 15 % spoken, 25 % written
Polish 5 % spoken, 20 % written
I would like to add an interesting fact – Slovenian has very harsh dialects due to the historic separation of different regions. A Slovenian person that has never lived in the east of the country understands only about 60 – 70 % of the dialect (Prekmurski dialect). It has many Hungarian words, archaic Slavic words and words of an unknown origin (at least to me).
Cheers brothers and sisters!
You are wrong about Slovenian and Croatian languages. There was a lot of past Yugoslav politics that hid the truth. Croatian language doesn’t exists. Croatian-Shtokavian is only a dialect of Serbian language. Kajkavian is a dialect of Slovenian language. Bosnian and Montenegrin are also just dialects of Serbian language.
Most people in Slovenia learn Serbian language so it is hard to estimate the real mutual intelligibility between Slovenian and Serbian language.
Slovenian language might be closer to the Macedonian/Bulgarian than to the Serbian language. When I visited Bulgaria I tried to communicate in Serbian language with the Bulgars. They understand almost nothing. So I tried with my native Slovenian language and I was surprised how well Bulgars understand Slovenian language. Later I found out that Slovenian and Bulgarian/Macedonian are all south Slavic languages while Serbian language is actually a western Slavic language like Slovak/Czech/Polish.
Slovenians, Macedonians and Bulgars used to be one nation called Sklaveni and they were living in the south Hungary. Around year 550 Slovenians went west and Macedonians/Bulgars went south. Serbs/Croats used to live in the south Poland and they moved south to the current location.
I met Croats from Zagreb and they speak Slovenian perfectly. I was surprised that they never live in Slovenia and they never learn Slovenian. They are native Kajkavian speakers and this is another proof that Kajkavian is actually Slovenian. Some people in Croatia asked me if I speak Kajkavian when I spoke Slovenian with my friends.
It is time to stop believing to the politically motivated propaganda about our languages and start telling the truth.
Is the “virgin” Intelligibility important? Let’s say a young Czech goes to Slovakia without prior exposure to Slovak. His level of understanding might be 90%, or 82%, 85%. In the evening of the first day it reaches 93%, in a week 95%, all “unsupervised”, almost effortlessly, just by being there, watching, listening, talking and asking for an explanation here and there.
The fact that such process works is almost a definition of “mutual intelligibility” for me.
That’s why in the Czechoslovak army the rule was: speak your own language, understand both. In the army, fairly precise understanding of the meaning of the commands is required — and it worked, without any formal language training. I guess this would not have worked for Macedonian and Slovene in the Yugoslav army.
I am a native Czech speaker, I understand Slovak (a lot of exposure, many visits, many colleagues) and Russian (studied at school, many visits) in all three languages I am close 100% understanding of news, yet for Polish, Ukrainian and Croat I would rate my understanding at 15-20%, with no significant improvement just from “being in the country” (I have spent in total about 20 weeks in Croatia, 4 in Ukraine, 3 in Poland).