There are groups of languages that are mutually intelligible.

For example, as a Russian, I can partially understand what is said to me in Ukrainian, Belorussian, Bulgarian, Czech, and some other languages, though I have never learned any of those languages. I heard that Swedish people can understand Norwegian and Danish without specifically learning them.

The question is: How is it with the English language? Are there any languages that can be, at least partially (the overall meaning of the phrase spoken), understood by a person whose native language is English, provided that the person in question never learned any of these languages beforehand?

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    Probably a better fit for Linguistics.SE. – coleopterist Feb 26 '13 at 17:17
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    Some people claim (without support by scholars) that America and England speak different languages. – GEdgar Feb 26 '13 at 17:57
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    Here's Eddie Izzard buying a cow in Frisian. – Hugo Feb 26 '13 at 20:56
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    @Hugo - Frisian is supposedly the closest related language to English. For me, trying to understand it is a lot like trying to understand Middle English; the words look a lot like English, but I can't quite get there. – T.E.D. Feb 26 '13 at 21:19
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Long story short: no. Most native speakers of English who have no experience in any foreign language do not get much out of overhearing conversations in other languages.

David Ives, via the play "Universal Language," (an artificial koiné for theatrical entertainment) might argue with me on this one, but with English being the bastard child of a language that it is, most native English speakers who have no experience with any foreign languages are not able to pick up more than a vague meaning when hearing unfamiliar languages, even those within the same "language family."

You would think, for example, that conversational German would be somewhat (can't say easily) accessible to a native English speaker, but aside from conversational pleasantries afforded us all by UG, most anglophones do not understand German. Despite the heavy French influence, most anglophones do not understand French, either, unless they study it or have some other intense exposure.

What you've described is an excellent question from a linguistics standpoint. For example, I speak French, and I can understand the other Romance languages that I have not studied. It is interesting to note that native Spanish speakers often have trouble understanding conversational Portuguese, but native Portuguese speakers can work with conversational Spanish.

It does depend on your definition of "language" in relation to dialects. There are many dialects that most native English speakers can understand, and there are also quite a few that are unintelligible depending on the region. Tangier Island is a great example of a remarkable preservation of the English of the Colonies.

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    +1 My wife claims that forty minutes into Soldier of Orange she stopped reading subtitles, and I once heard a program on Frisian and could understand maybe a third; on the other hand, most US speakers have great difficulty with braid Scots and other northern dialects: these are essentially closely related 'languages' for us. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 26 '13 at 18:03
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    "Tack för det." – Hugo Feb 26 '13 at 20:43
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    The closest I can come from my experience would be in combination with another language: If you are a native English speaker and learn German, congratulations, you are now literate in Dutch. (Good luck figuring out the pronunciation, though) – AmericanUmlaut Feb 27 '13 at 8:10
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    @livresque: "It is interesting to note that native Portuguese speakers often have trouble understanding conversational Spanish, but native Spanish speakers can work with conversational Portguese." A Portuguese guy once told me, it was the other way round. – Frank Feb 27 '13 at 11:57
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    @livresque As a native Portuguese I can attest by personal experience that most of the Portuguese understand pretty much everything of the Galician language and have little to no trouble understanding Castilian/Spanish language, but native Castilian speakers have trouble understanding Portuguese. A more technical explanation I've been presented is that Portuguese Phonemes include all the Castilian Phonemes, and the inverse is not true. – Nuno Freitas Feb 27 '13 at 12:59

As near as I can tell, English is different than a lot of European languages in that scholars are much more inclusive. Where there are languages that other Germanic or Romance language speakers might call "separate languages", we would call "dialects". In other words, if two people can converse with each other in their own languages, and one is speaking English, then by definition they are both speaking English.

Not only that, but some dialects that aren't particularly mutually-intelligable are considered English. For instance, the first time I encountered full-blown AAVE, I couldn't understand a word. After years of heavy exposure I can mostly understand it now, but I can't speak it well. There's a joke about this in the movie Airplane!, where it is referred to as "Jive". I recently had the same experience when two Jamaicans started talking to each other (although they could have dropped into Patois. I'd have no way of knowing from one exposure)

I think the difference has to do with Nationalism. For example, Portugal and Spain have been separate countries for most of their existence. So as a matter of national pride, it simply wouldn't do for the Portuguese to refer to their tongue as "a dialect of Spanish", even if technically that's what it really should be. Similarly, Castilian speakers have been running Spain for a long time, and would not put up with people teaching their kids they speak some dialect called "Southern Castillian". They speak Spanish.

I submit that the same is probably going on with a lot of dialects of closely-related slavic "languages" that are associated with (actual or aspirational) national boundries. In fact, the accepted answer on How are languages and dialects distinguished from each other? over on Linguistics.SE makes this exact claim.

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    They also speak Catalan in Spain, and a great deal of that region does not exactly cotton to their children being taught Castillian. Interesting to consider the nationalism aspect. I feel like the national boundaries do less to language barriers than the passage of time and the limits time can impose. – livresque Feb 26 '13 at 20:42
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    @livresque - For language drift itself, you are quite right. For what people want to call a separate "language", it appears to matter. – T.E.D. Feb 26 '13 at 21:09
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    @T.E.D. I don't think any linguist believes Portuguese is "a dialect of Spanish". Galacian-Portuguese and Castilian (modern Spanish) have been diverging for over a thousand years, overtaking and absorbing their sister languages while diverging from each other. Mutual intelligibility aside, they have important pronunciation and vocabulary differences. – ghoppe Feb 26 '13 at 21:34
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    "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy" (attrib. Max Weinreich). – Tim Lymington Feb 26 '13 at 22:29
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    @ghoppe - I took a jaunt over to Linguistics.SE, and had no trouble whatsover finding people of that opinion. For instance, you may want to look at linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/810/… , where the accepted answer used Serbian, Croatian, and Bosinan to make my exact point and linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/1915/… , where the accepted answer defines languages in terms of mutual-unintelligability. – T.E.D. Feb 26 '13 at 22:59

The Scots language is most likely the closest to English, whether it's a distinct language or a just a dialect of English is controversial.
Here's a sample of Doric Scots: How to speak Scots Doric [youtube].

  • Yes: it is called "Scotts" but is a rather obscure language spoken in Scotland. An English speaker can read and understand spoken Scotts although it will drive Grammar/Spelling Nazi's insane – user72718 Apr 21 '14 at 22:47
  • sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scots_leid this one? – Highstaker Apr 22 '14 at 8:14
  • A large part of the scots Wikipedia pages were phony: theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/aug/26/… – jlliagre Oct 16 '20 at 8:15
  • @jlliagre Oh yeah I saw about that on Reddit's r/linguistics. Absolute insanity – Andrew Alexander Nov 24 '20 at 15:52

Many scholars have studied the inter-dialect (language?) understanding of speakers of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. At recent meeting I attended, all Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians spoke their mother tongue and were understood. Einar Haugen, the great linguist, described the situation as Semicommunication: The Language Gap in Scandinavia. Non-specialist's understanding of neighbor-languages differs among the triad, and it turns out Norwegians are better at understanding Danish and Swedish than any other dyad. This may have something to do with attitudes (Norwegians grow up with hundred of dialects -- not to speak of two standard written languages -- bokmål and nynorsk.

I understand I am supposed to avoid asking for help, but I am trying to develop a method to measure the distance between languages (or dialects).


No, not in the same sense as Spanish/Portuguese or Scandinavian languages.

You can often recognise some words in Danish/Dutch, especially if you have a northern English accent and it's fairly easy to follow the structure of a simple sentence in German (especially because most of the question words are similar)

You can make out some French vocabulary because of the same Latin origin.

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    So which is it, Danish or Dutch in Northern England? – Mitch Feb 27 '13 at 0:37
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    @Mitch; I don't think it's English. – Tim Lymington Mar 3 '13 at 17:08

Frisian and Norwegian are both fairly close to English. There are many cognates and similar grammar between them. The level of mutual intelligibility is not as high as amongst Romance or Slavic languages, though. Anecdotally, as a speaker of English and French, I understand about as much Spanish as I do Frisian—say 50–80% as well as the languages in which I’m fluent.

Still, it really depends on the situation and actual words used. Sometimes a cognate can sound unfamiliar; other times, a non-cognate can be inferred from context. And where spoken language fails, written language and gestures can help. There is more to communication than just speech.

As an aside, contact languages such as Scots have a very high level of mutual intelligibility with English. But that’s because of their contact with English, so I would discount them here.


According to the Mutual Intelligibility page on Wikipedia, Scots is the only language that is relatively mutually intelligible to English. Personally, as an Anglophone, I can concur with that.

Additionally, I find Dutch to be the easiest distinct language to understand, both written and spoken. While the grammar is different from English, there is a significant amount of vocabulary overlap and pronunciation similarity. The mutual intelligibility is partial and perhaps asymmetric, but one can often discern the meanings of the majority of the words in a sentence, and correctly infer the grammar. Quoting Wikipedia:

Dutch has a relatively close genetic relationship to the descendants of Old and Middle English (such as English and Scots), though less than the Frisian languages (such as West Frisian) have to English. Both Dutch and English belong to the West Germanic languages and both lack most or all of the High German consonant shift that characterizes the descendants of Middle High German (such as German and Yiddish). Because of their close common relationship many English words are essentially identical to their Dutch lexical counterparts, either in spelling (begin) or pronunciation (boek = book, diep = deep), or both (lip); these cognates or in other ways related words are excluded from this list.

The intelligibility is very apparent for short, grammatically simple sentences. For example:

Spreek u Engels?                                                                         (Do you speak English?)

If so,

Dit is goed nieuws!                                                                      (That is good news!)

Because, if

u bent goed in wat u doet,                                                          (you are good in what you do)

then I'll bet you can understand some Nederlands!


The question is: how is it with English language?

While not exactly another language, American English comes close to this. It can be understood generally by speakers of the English kind of English but, has a lot of differences in words, names, pronunciations and cultural references that in order to be understood, requires the listener to spend time learning about them.

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    Don’t be ridiculous. Not merely “not exactly separate languages”, they are not in any way, shape, or fashion separate languages. American English is English, just as Mexican Spanish is Spanish. These are not separate languages, despite your constant campaigning to make people agree with you about this. If you think otherwise, please compare English with French, German, or Chinese — that is what it means to be separate languages. Don’t mislead yourself into thinking that differences of dialect, accent, register, or even technical vocabulary count as separate languages: they don’t. – tchrist Feb 27 '13 at 16:16
  • I didn't state that it is a separate language. I stated that American English comes close to being so. – Tristan Feb 27 '13 at 16:20
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    And you were wholly wrong in your statement. It comes nothing whatsoever “close” to being so. Please study other languages so you learn what language is; you cannot do so from studying your own. – tchrist Feb 27 '13 at 16:23
  • It is not wise to assume anything, about me or anyone else. As I wrote in my answer, American English has a lot of differences. They are not just something that I have stated but, they can easily be seen by searching the internet for lists of them. – Tristan Feb 27 '13 at 17:08
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    So what? Lots of dialect pairs have lots of so-called differences. Doesn’t make them different languages. You simply speak a different dialect. – tchrist Feb 28 '13 at 23:48

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