In linguistics, mutual intelligibility is a relationship between languages or dialects in which speakers of different but related varieties can readily understand each other without prior familiarity or special effort. It is generally used as the most important criterion for distinguishing languages from dialects, although sociolinguistic factors are often also used.
Intelligibility between languages can be asymmetric, with speakers of one understanding more of the other than speakers of the other understanding the first. When it is relatively symmetric, it is characterized as "mutual". It exists in differing degrees among many related or geographically proximate languages of the world, often in the context of a dialect continuum.
For individuals to achieve moderate proficiency or understanding in a language (called L2) other than their first language (L1) typically requires considerable time and effort through study and/or practical application. However, many groups of languages are partly mutually intelligible, i.e. most speakers of one language find it relatively easy to achieve some degree of understanding in the related language(s). Often the languages are genetically related, and they are likely to be similar to each other in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, or other features.
Intelligibility among languages can vary between individuals or groups within a language population according to their knowledge of various registers and vocabulary in their own language, their exposure to additional related languages, their interest in or familiarity with other cultures, the domain of discussion, psycho-cognitive traits, the mode of language used (written vs. oral), and other factors.
Mutually intelligible languages or varieties of one language
There is no formal distinction between two distinct languages and two varieties of a single language, but linguists generally use mutual intelligibility as one of the primary factors in deciding between the two cases.
Some linguists claim that mutual intelligibility is, ideally at least, the primary criterion separating languages from dialects. On the other hand, speakers of closely related languages can often communicate with each other to some extent; thus there are varying degrees of mutual intelligibility, and often other criteria are also used. As an example, in the case of a linear dialect continuum that shades gradually between varieties, where speakers near the center can understand the varieties at both ends, but speakers at one end cannot understand the speakers at the other end, the entire chain is often considered a single language. If the central varieties then die out and only the varieties at both ends survive, they may then be reclassified as two languages, even though no actual language change has occurred.
In addition, political and social conventions often override considerations of mutual intelligibility. For example, the varieties of Chinese are often considered a single language even though there is usually no mutual intelligibility between geographically separated varieties. In contrast, there is often significant intelligibility between different Scandinavian languages, but as each of them has its own standard form, they are classified as separate languages.
To deal with the conflict in cases such as Chinese and German, the term Dachsprache (a sociolinguistic "umbrella language") is sometimes seen: Chinese and German are languages in the sociolinguistic sense even though some speakers cannot understand each other without recourse to a standard or prestige form.
Asymmetric intelligibility refers to two languages that are considered partially mutually intelligible, but where one group of speakers has more difficulty understanding the other language than the other way around. There can be various reasons for this. If, for example, one language is related to another but has simplified its grammar, the speakers of the original language may understand the simplified language, but not vice versa. For example, Dutch speakers tend to find it easier to understand Afrikaans than vice versa as a result of Afrikaans's simplified grammar, although the large number of false cognates between these languages can cause misunderstanding.
However, perhaps the most common reason for apparent asymmetric intelligibility is that speakers of one variety have more exposure to the other than vice versa. For example, speakers of Scottish English have frequent exposure to standard American English through movies and TV programs, whereas speakers of American English have little exposure to Scottish English; hence, American English speakers often find it difficult understanding Scottish English or, especially, Scots (not formal Scottish Standard English), whereas Scots tend to have few problems understanding standard American English.
Similarly, in Germany and Italy, standard German or Italian speakers have great difficulty understanding the "dialects" from regions other than their own, but virtually all "dialect" speakers learn the standard languages in school and from the media.
Due to Danish rule, the Bokmål written standard of Norwegian originates from formal Danish. Additionally, Norwegian assimilated considerable amount of Danish vocabulary as well as traditional Danish expressions. As a consequence, spoken mutual intelligibility is not reciprocal. Also, Norwegians - especially those from the south-eastern part of the country - can understand Swedish almost perfectly, while Swedes usually have trouble understanding Norwegian. This is because the modern Norwegian language is, mainly, a combination of Norse (like Swedish) and Danish. This means that, to Norwegians, Swedish is a lot like "Old Norwegian", and the vast majority of the words are intelligible; but the Swedes have trouble understanding the Danish-influenced parts of the Norwegian language.
List of partially mutually intelligible languages
Below is an incomplete list of fully and partially mutually intelligible varieties sometimes considered languages.
German: Yiddish (because German is usually written in Latin script and Yiddish usually in the Hebrew alphabet). However, Yiddish's use of many borrowed Hebrew, Polish, Hungarian, and Latin words makes it more difficult for a German speaker to understand spoken Yiddish than the converse.
The dialects of Serbo-Croatian (Kajkavian, Chakavian, Shtokavian and Torlakian) are considered by some linguists to be separate, albeit closely related languages to Serbo-Croatian, rather than its dialects. Their mutual intelligibility varies greatly, both between the dialects themselves as well as with other languages. Kajkavian has higher mutual intelligibility with Slovenian than varieties of Shtokavian while Chakavian has a low mutual intelligibility with either, in part due to large number of loanwords from Venetian language. Torlakian (considered a subdialect of Shtokavian by some) has a significant level of mutual intelligibility with Macedonian and Bulgarian.
Tagalog: Filipino – the national language of the Philippines, Filipino, is based almost entirely on the Luzon dialects of Tagalog
Romanian: Moldovan – the standard forms are structurally the same language, and hence mutually intelligible. They are considered separate languages only for political reasons.
List of mutually unintelligible varieties sometimes considered dialects
Because of the difficulty of imposing boundaries on a continuum, various counts of the Romance languages are given; in The Linguasphere register of the world’s languages and speech communities David Dalby lists 23 based on mutual intelligibility:
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C.F. Voegelin and F.M. Voegelin. 1977. Classification and Index of the World's Languages (Elsevier). Pg. 311, "In terms of immediate mutual intelligibility, the East Slavic zone is a single language."
Bernard Comrie. 1981. The Languages of the Soviet Union (Cambridge). Pg. 145–146: "The three East Slavonic languages are very close to one another, with very high rates of mutual intelligibility...The separation of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian as distinct languages is relatively recent...Many Ukrainians in fact speak a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, finding it difficult to keep the two languages apart...
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