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Are there any mutually unintelligible English dialects? So far I've only been able to learn is that English is highly intelligible among its different dialects, but no actual statement that all dialect are mutually intelligible.

  • Try watching The Wire. Or anything with Brad Pitt in it. – RegDwigнt Sep 29 '14 at 21:04
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    Men and women? Parents and children? – StoneyB Sep 29 '14 at 21:06
  • There are certainly accents, and word-usage divergences, which can pose a major challenge until one learns to "listen past" the differences. I couldn't say whether all of those can be considered dialects. – keshlam Sep 29 '14 at 21:27
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    Scots English. It's mutually unintelligible to every dialect, even Scots. – Mitch Sep 29 '14 at 21:37
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    This turned up a few interesting videos: google.com/#tbm=vid&q=unintelligible+english+accents – phoog Sep 30 '14 at 5:30
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Two considerations need to be taken into account, I think. One is accent/pronunciation. The first time I saw Letter to Brezhnev, a 1985 film set in Liverpool, I repeatedly wished during the opening 20 minutes or so that the film had included subtitles because I found it so difficult to understand what the actors were saying. But after a while, I got used to the (consistent) differences in pronunciation from what I was accustomed to hearing, and I could understand most of the dialogue quite well the rest of the way.

The second consideration is vocabulary. To the extent that a dialect incorporates multiple unknown words, it is impossible to fully comprehend speech in that dialect unless you can look up the unknown words or ask the speaker what they mean.

Here is a quotation I recently encountered from James Hogg, The Three Perils of Man; or, War, Women, and Witchcraft (1822), spoken by a farmer who lives on the border of Scotland and England:

"Bessy Chisholm—Heh! Are ye therein? May Chisholm—where's your titty? Poor tafferel ruined tawpies! What are ye gaun gaindering about that gate for, as ye didna ken whilk end o' ye were uppermost?"

I would venture to guess that very few English speakers could accurately translate four of the words that appear in close proximity in that excerpt—titty, tafferel, tawpies, and gaindering—and many might also have trouble with "didna ken whilk."

An English speaker would surely recognize the wording here as being (from their perspective) "mostly English"—but if several crucial words in a small amount of space are unknown to the reader, the sentence is, for practical purposes, unintelligible. And as goes the sentence, so goes the dialect.

  • Well, don't leave us hanging! what does the thing mean? – Hellion Sep 29 '14 at 21:44
  • My translation for the final sentence: "What are you going looking around that gate for, as if you didn't know which end of you is uppermost?" (I also found a definition for tawpies, but the proper meanings of tafferel and titty elude me.) – Hellion Sep 29 '14 at 21:46
  • From John Jamieson & John Johnstone, A Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1846), tafferel can mean "thoughtless, giddy" or "ill-dressed"; and titty (in this context) is a diminutive of "sister." For a long discussion of gainder and gonder, see my answer to the EL&U question What is the origin of "have a gander"? – Sven Yargs Sep 29 '14 at 21:52
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    Despite having watched it several times now, I still find I have to watch Sweet 16 with subtitles to be able to understand anything the main character (and certain others) says. The last time I was in Scotland, I watched something or other on BBC Alba that was in Gàidhlig (Scots Gaelic), and I found that easier to understand than what Liam says in this movie in what is ostensibly English. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 29 '14 at 21:56
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    It’s also interesting to note that the syntactical/morphological parts of the quote here that make this so unfamiliar to English at the same time makes it highly familiar to speakers of Scandinavian languages. “Are ye therein?” can be etymologically translated verbatim to Danish “Er I derinde?” (I being pronounced [i], not [aɪ], so it more or less rhymes with ye), which is perfectly standard and means the exact same thing. “…[som] I kunn’t kende [=couldn’t ken] hvilken ende af jer [der] var øverst” would be dialectal and rare syntax, but perfectly standard and understandable word-wise. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 29 '14 at 22:03

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