Why can't you understand me?

It is said that it is possible for a Spanish-speaker to ask a Portuguese speaker for directions in Spanish and be fully understood. However, when the Portuguese speaker replies in Portuguese, the Spanish speaker may be completely lost. This may seem somewhat baffling, but the reason is that the two Romance languages share a degree of mutual intelligibility, but it is not absolute.

Mutual intelligibility is defined by Wikipedia as "a relationship between languages in which speakers of different but related languages can readily understand each other without intentional study or extraordinary effort." There are levels of mutual intelligibility ranging from zero to 100%. The only language with which English enjoys a relatively high level of mutual intelligibility is Lowland Scots, which is considered to be a separate language by some linguists and merely a dialect of English by others. This is not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language which is apparently fairly mutually intelligible with Irish Gaelic. There is extremely low mutual intelligibility between English and Scottish Gaelic.

Consequently, The Lowland Scots sentence "D'ye see yon hoose ower yonder" (Do you see that house off in the distance) would be relatively intelligible to an English speaker with no previous exposure to Lowland Scots.

But the Scottish Gaelic sentence "Dè an t-ainm a tha ort?" (What is your name?) would probably mean absolutely nothing to an English speaker with no previous exposure to Scottish Gaelic.

Some language sets enjoy a very high degree of mutual intelligibility. Norwegian and Swedish are, to a large degree, mutually intelligible, as are Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. Conversely, sometimes different dialects of a particular language will lack a significant degree of mutual intelligibility.

In Mutual Intelligibility in the Romance Languages, Robert Lindsay writes:
What is interesting is that everyone accepts that Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are separate languages, despite 54% intelligibility for Spanish and Portuguese and even higher for Spanish and Italian.

However, in the cases of Austrian/Bavarian, Swabian (spoken around Stuttgart) and Mainfränkisch(Moselle Franconian, close to Luxembourgeois), these three languages are only 40% intelligible with Standard German. Their status as separate languages has infuriated lots of folks who just consider them to be dialects of German, or "cheap slangs" of some type or other. Yet they have a better case for being separate languages than Spanish, Portuguese and Italian do.
Mutual intelligibility can vary in degree with respect to the written and spoken varieties of languages. In many cases, written forms are more mutually intelligible than spoken forms as speakers of one language can recognize similar features more readily in spellings than in pronunciations. A simple example is English and Afrikaans. "My pen is in my hand." could be a sentence in English or Afrikaans, with an identical meaning and read correctly by monolingual speakers of both. However, the words are pronounced differently, which could inhibit comprehension. Furthermore, mutual intelligibility may not be equal on both sides. It is apparently easier for a Dutch speaker to understand Afrikaans than vice versa and statistically easier for a Portuguese speaker to understand Spanish than the other way around.

This brings up the point of the disparity between mutual intelligibility and lexical similarity (similarity of related words between languages). Differences in pronunciation and in the related forms themselves are largely responsible for this. An example is the Spanish word "tiempo," which is lexically similar to the French word "temps." Both mean "time" or "weather." Yet the pronunciations are so different that this could easily prevent comprehension. Lindsay writes:
We also learn, here, that no one can understand French except the French. Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Romanians, no one can understand the damned French. This makes sense to me. I can’t understand a word of the local French-speaking tourists, and I had a semester of French. The always talk like they are holding their noses. This is interesting in light of the fact that Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian have 89%, 75%, 75%, and 75% lexical similarity with French. But all those similar words aren’t worth a hill of beans when it comes to understanding a Frenchman." [no offense, of course, is meant towards the French!]
Mutual intelligibility may also decrease over time. English is very closely related to Frisian, spoken in Friesland in the Netherlands, and at one point, Old English and Old Frisian were thought to be mutually intelligible. Over the centuries, English and Frisian maintained some level of mutual intelligibility, giving rise to the sentence "Butter, bread, and green cheese is good English and good Fries," which is pronounced roughly the same and has the same meaning in both languages (in Frisian, it is "Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk"). Yet the two languages have drifted apart, with English upholding its 1000-year-old Norman French influence, and Frisian being influenced heavily by Dutch, to the extent that monolingual Frisian and English speakers probably could not understand each other today.

Lindsay addresses the subject: "Frisian and English have 61% lexical similarity, but in the Frisian video (featured in a prior post)...I could not make out a single word in five minutes. It appears that 60% lexical similarity and $1.89 will get you a Slurpee at a 7-11, but little in the way of understanding another language."

There is another pitfall with lexical similarity: false cognates. "Ano" exists in both Portuguese and Spanish, but while it means "year" in Portuguese, it means "anus" in Spanish. Similarly, a Spanish-speaking woman may be "embarazada," and an English-speaking woman may be "embarrassed." However, "embarazada" does not mean "embarrassed," but "pregnant."

Curiously, as some dialects of languages are more mutually intelligible than others (for example, some dialects of German and Dutch are more mutually intelligible than Standard German and Standard Dutch), it is thought that, by tracing a chain of mutually intelligible dialects, a "dialect continuum" may be established. In Europe, for example, Continental West Germanic, North Germanic, North Slavic, South Slavic, and Romance dialect continua are said to exist (see Wikipedia about "dialect continuum").

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


Kev said...

PhD student in Linguistics here (yes, I've got a B.A. and an M.A.)... not that it should matter all that much, but anyway:

I've seen the whole one-way Spanish-Portuguese mutual intelligibility thing you describe in person. It's pretty awesome.

One very important thing to consider with regard to asymmetrical instances of mutual intelligibility is the "prestige" or "social currency" of a given dialect or language.

Spanish carries much more prestige than Portuguese. It has more speakers in more countries, and a much more well-developed linguistic tradition (consider Nebrija's grammar, put forth in 1492--a similar Portuguese grammar wasn't put forth until much, much later).

In economic terms, Portugal is not as well off as Spain. Spanish speakers might not feel like they should have to understand Portuguese, as Spain is the country people think of first when they think of the Iberian Peninsula.

I'd wager that the Spanish-Portuguese mutual intelligibility phenomenon you're describing might not happen in South America. Brazilian Portuguese has has more speakers, better economic status, etc. than Lusitanian Portuguese does relative to the Spanish spoken in neighboring countries.

Anyway, really fun post to read! Don't forget about social factors though!

Anonymous said...

That's certainly true, and social factors can be very powerful motivators when it comes to linguistic ability. I wonder, though, whether these social factors are subconscious since the act of understanding without any prior learning is purely passive. For instance, English speakers might be able to decipher certain words in Maltese (which is Semitic but has a hefty Romance component) due to cognates without any positive or negative opinion of Maltese language, culture, or society. If a Spanish speaker in, say, Madrid doesn't understand a phrase in Portuguese, is it due to the differences in pronunciation or because the Spanish speaker subconsciously does not wish to understand? As you mentioned, this "social factor" may not come into play in Latin America, but I'm not sure if the comprehension rates of Portuguese among Spanish speakers in Latin America are any higher than those among Spanish speakers in Iberia. Would comprehension rates change over time (in accordance with the rise and fall of countries' political, economic, and cultural influence)? It would be an interesting study!

It would also be fascinating if there were cases of people whose opinion of a language/culture changed (say, due to love or close friendship involving a person who is a monolingual speaker of a closely related language) and suddenly found themselves able to understand more of another language without actively trying to learn it.

Thanks very much for reading and for posting!

Cheers, Silas

Robert Lindsay said...

Hi Kev, the referenced study actually took place in Brazil with Brazilian Portuguese speakers and Latin American Spanish speakers. The Latin Americans I have known are not all that interested in learning to speak Portuguese. However, Brazilians do seem to have some knowledge of Spanish. If you don't know Portuguese, you can speak to them in Spanish and they can sort of understand you.

I also have an MA in Linguistics, but I never tried for the PhD, though some people were telling me to. The Master's was murderous enough!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting, Robert! For the record (anecdotally), I have known native Spanish and native Portuguese speakers from Latin America who have been very interested in each other's languages and are able to understand each other to some degree (albeit limited in some cases). I've never encountered a negative attitude about either language among Latin Americans (or Europeans, for that matter).

DB said...

An interesting anecdote:
I'm a native English speaker who learned Spanish (Mexican variety) fairly fluently. I discovered a few years later by accident that if I spoke slowly to them(and they in turn to me) I could understand Italian reasonably well to the point where I could have a conversation.

As far as Portuguese goes, I was in a motel one night and I had had a few beers. I was channel surfing and came across some kind of telenovela which was Arabic themed. I listened to it for a while (with initial impression that I was listening to Arabic or Russian or some other language which was unintelligible to me) but to my surprise I found I could make out what they were saying to a reasonable extent IF I concentrated. My guess is I was listening to Brasilian Portuguese.

I haven't made the conversational experiment to see if I could understand Portuguese yet but I suspect it wouldn't be too too hard.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, and thanks for sharing. I would suspect that it would also have to do with the dialect being heard. As you have learned Mexican Spanish, it might be easier for you to understand some dialects of Italian and Portuguese than others. In the case of Italian, what is spoken in some regions is considered to deviate so much from the "standard version" that it is classified by some linguists as an independent language (e.g. (such as Venetian, Sicilian, and Neapolitan), a distinction not (yet) made among the various varieties of Portuguese and the different dialects of Spanish. Thanks for posting! Cheers-Silas

Robert Lindsay said...

Actually Terry, with Portuguese, Galician, Fala and Mirandese are all recognized as separate languages. Azorean should also be recognized.

With Spanish, Asturian, Extremaduran and Aragonese are recognized as separate languages. I feel that Canarian, Leonese and Andalucian should also be recognized.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. You're right, although Brazilian and Continental Portuguese (not to mention the African and Timorese varieties) are still categorized as Portuguese and not independent languages.

Similarly, Puerto Rican Spanish, Argentine Spanish, and Castilian Spanish (in addition to many other dialects of the language) are all still considered "Spanish."

I wrote a post several months on here about how the distinction between "dialect" and "language" is often very subjective and often motivated by politics (case in point: the dissolution of a unified, widely recognized "Serbo-Croatian" along with the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia).

Cheers, Silas

Robert Lindsay said...

Hi Terry. I forgot you were the author of this piece!

In my opinion, Brazilian and Portuguese Portuguese should be separated. Sure, the Portuguese understand the Brazilians just fine, but not really the other way around!

This is because of all of the TV broadcasts from Brazil coming over to Portugal. There is not so much in the other direction due to the population sizes of the two nations.

There is a variety called Portunhol, a mixed Spanish-Portuguese spoken around the border of Brazil and Uruguay. It's not really intelligible to either Spanish or Portuguese speakers.

The Timorese, African and other Portuguese variant are all mutually intelligible with Portuguese.

I believe that Barranquenho, Oliventino and Alentejan are separate languages. Those are Portuguese varieties. Barranquenho and Oliventino are spoken in small towns on the border of Spain and Portugal and speak archaic and strange Portuguese-Spanish mixes.

Alentejan is a highly divergent variant of Portuguese spoken in the Alentejo region. It's easily the strangest Portuguese dialect out there.

Considering how many dialects there are, Portuguese is actually a pretty uniform tongue. I believe all Brazilians can understand each other pretty much.

Robert Lindsay said...

There are some very strange varieties spoken in the Pyrenees around the Aragon and Catalan region that no one seems to know what to do with. Two of them are Benasquese and Ribagorçan.

Benasquese seems to be some mix of Aranese Gascon Occitan, Catalan and Aragonese. One thing for sure, it's definitely not a dialect of Catalan. Whether it's a divergent Aragonese dialect or a microlanguge of its own, no one really knows.

Ribagorçan is a strange lect halfway in between Catalan and Aragonese. In Catalonia, it's just a Catalan dialect, but in Aragon, it's not.

It's probably a strange Aragonese dialect, but speakers say they their language is not Aragonese. No one knows what to do with this.

There is a strange lect called Xurro or Churro that is spoken on the border of Aragon and Valencia. It looks like an Aragonese dialect that's been heavily influenced by Valencian. I don't know about intelligiblity, and it's dying out anyway.

There is a Galician Spanish that is spoken in rural Galicia, especially by older women, that can't be understood by other Spanish speakers. Nor is it Valencian. It's spoken as a native language, but it's a Spanish that has very heavy Galician influence.

There is a lect called Eonavian or Fala that is spoken on the border of Asturias and Galicia. It's looks like it's a strange Galician dialect transitional to Asturian.

There is a strange little lect called Cantabrian that is still spoken in Cantabria in the east of Asturias. Asturian speakers can't understand it. But Extemaduran speakers can. No one knows what to do with it and it's seriously dying out anyway.

Most of these microlanguages of the Iberian Peninsula are not in good shape and are pretty much dying out. They're spoken by the elderly, if at all. Castillian is taking over all domains in most regions.

It's pretty interesting really, because no one talks much about these weird Iberian Romance lects.

As you might gather, I'm very interested in the dialect-language frontier.

I've done some studies myself on this stuff on my Wordpress site. You're welcome to check them out. The findings were pretty spectacular. For instance, I split German from 20 to 160 languages and Chinese from 14 to 340 languages! They're just hypotheses, and they've made a lot of people made, but some experts have praised them as good hypotheses anyway.

There are a Hell of a lot more little microlanguages out there than most people want to admit, but the issue runs into serious roadblocks with nationalists of various stripes.

Robert Lindsay said...

Puerto Rican Spanish, Argentine Spanish, and Castilian Spanish are all just Spanish. I have problems with them, but I'm not a native speaker of Spanish.

However, I understand that Dominican Spanish, spoken in the Dominican Republic, is very hard to hear.

There is also a very localized Spanish called Rioplatanese Spanish (Porteno) spoken around Buenos Aires. They sometimes have a hard time understanding other Spanish speakers and vice versa.

There is a specialized dialect called Lunfardo that is sort of Buenos Aires tango street speech. If spoken purely, no one can understand it outside the region.

I understand that Chilean soap operas, in the hard dialect of the Chilean street, are given subtitles in the rest of Latin America. But Argentines can probably understand it.

Chilean Spanish is one of the strangest Spanishes down there, mostly due an incredibly diverse vocabulary. It's not really a separate language yet, but it might be one day.

There are varieties along the Colombian Coast that are not intelligible to other Colombians, even after hearing them for 20 years. I think we are dealing with a lot of African influence here.

There is a hard Mexico City street Spanish that is hard to understand outside of Mexico.

There is a Quechua Spanish that is hard to hear outside the Andes region. It's not a second language, they grow up speaking it natively from their parents and community, but it's heavily influenced by Quechua.

Anonymous said...

Very detailed and interesting, thank you! Your analysis proves that the dialect/language boundary is, at times, haphazard, with lexical divergence and lack of mutual intelligibility not always being the hallmarks of separate languages (and the lack thereof designating a dialect). It would be curious to learn whether the EU is somehow safeguarding these microlanguages, as it has shown some commitment to minority languages.
Outside the Romance realm, the Flemish/Dutch classification (separate languages or two forms of Netherlandish) continues to stymie some linguists. And I had one linguistics professor who considered Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish to be forms of "Scandinavian."
Thanks again for taking the time to post and for the link to your site! Best wishes, Silas