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Linguists' Definition: mutual intelligibility

``Two speech forms that are mutually intelligible are dialects of the same language."

Problems with this definition:

  1. How do we define mutual intelligibility?: sometimes speakers of form A claim to understand form B, but speakers of form B deny that they understand form A. e.g. Polish speakers deny understanding Russian, but Russian speakers claim to understand Polish. Is there any objective validity to this denial? What to do about the fact that m.i. is gradient?

  2. Popular definition: things you've heard of are languages; speech forms you've never heard of are `dialects', as in `when he was in the Peace Corps, he learned to speak the local dialect' (lingo, patois, jargon, etc.). Languages have prestige; dialects don't.

  3. There is a speech continuum, and there may be a dialect continuum, i.e. a chain of mutually intelligible `lects' where there is never any clear break in mutual intelligibility, but speakers of dialects at one end don't understand speakers of lects at the other end: Paris to Lisbon; Calcutta to Bombay; the Arabic `dialects' e.g Yemeni to Maghrebi; many (sub)dialects of Chinese.

  4. Body of literature: may unify some speech communities who are educated to read those works (e.g. English, even Chinese) but elsewhere lack of a body of literature may divide communities that can understand each other orally: Serbian and Croatian; Hindi and Urdu; Thai and Lao.

  5. Education/Literacy in one's mother tongue increases chances one will understand more lects of one's language. Is this just life experience? Is the language a `bigger tent' than the dialect?

  6. Script/writing system: Chinese writing system is not phonetic, so many speakers of mutually unintelligible lects can understand written Chinese, and consider themselves to be Chinese speakers, not just dialect speakers. Opposite with Serbian and Croatian; Hindi and Urdu; Thai and Lao.

  7. Motivation: For various political/social/historical reasons, people may loathe their neighbors and not wish to admit they have any connection with them, and don't wish to try to understand each other. But in Scandinavia, the opposite is the case: there is some mutual intelligibility, and Scandinavians, especially Danes, try very hard to make themselves understood to Swedes etc. See e.g. this site for the Nordisk-sprakrad. (Note the use of the term nettverk (for 'network'): a loan translation from English?)

  8. Religion: use of a particular lect of a language for religious purposes gives it special status: Panjabi for Sikhs, Urdu for Muslims, Hindi for Hindus, etc. Serbian and Croation.

  9. Official use: political boundaries may allow closely-related dialects to become standardized, used for religion, schools, etc. even though there is mutual intelligibility: Scandinavia. Also colonial policies of divide and conquer: USSR (divided the Central Asian Turkic speech communities into separate 'languages'); Laos/Thailand. Under colonialism, Thailand was an independent kingdom, but Laos was under French rule: there seems to be some mutual intelligibility between Lao and Thai, but the scripts are somewhat different. Note the phrase `A language is a dialect with an army'.

  10. Diglossia: People may speak a language that is severely diglossic, i.e. the written form is very different from the spoken. Many spoken dialects may be mutually unintelligible, but the literary dialect unites them, and they all learn it as the language of education. Arabic is therefore one literary language, but many spoken dialects. What is the language and what is the dialect? Is Letzebuergesch a dialect of Standard German, or its own 'language'? What about Swiss-German dialects, or Pennsylvania Dutch?

Next: Ausbau and Abstand Up: Language and Dialect Previous: Language and Dialect

Harold Schiffman
Fri Sep 6 08:02:57 EDT 1996