Mutual Intelligibility

Oprah Winfrey In 'The Color Purple'


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Mutual Intelligibility is a situation in which two or more speakers of a language (or of closely related languages) can understand each other.

Mutual intelligibility is a continuum (that is, a gradient concept), marked by degrees of intelligibility, not by sharp divisions.

Example and Observations

Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication: "[W]hat allows us to refer to something called English as if it were a single, monolithic language? A standard answer to this question rests on the notion of mutual intelligibility. That is, even though native speakers of English vary in their use of the language, their various languages are similar enough in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar to permit mutual intelligibility. . . . Hence, speaking the 'same language' does not depend on two speakers speaking identical languages, but only very similar languages."

The Mutual Intelligibility Test

Hans Henrich Hoch: "[The] distinction between language and dialect is based on the notion [of] 'mutual intelligibility': Dialects of the same language should be mutually intelligible, while different languages are not. This mutual intelligibility, in turn, would then be a reflection of the similarities between different varieties of speech.
"Unfortunately, the mutual-intelligibility test does not always lead to clear-cut results. Thus Scots English may at first be quite unintelligible to speakers of the various varieties of Standard American English, and vice versa. True, given enough time (and goodwill), mutual intelligibility can be achieved without too much effort. But given an even greater amount of time (and goodwill), and a greater effort, also French might become (mutually) intelligible for the same speakers of English.

"In addition, there are cases like Norwegian and Swedish which, because they have different standard varieties and literary traditions, would be called different languages by most people, including linguists, even though the two standard languages are mutually quite intelligible. Here, cultural and sociolinguistic considerations tend to overrule the mutual intelligibility test."

One-Way Intelligibility

Richard A. Hudson: "[A]nother problem regarding the use of mutual intelligibility as a criterion [for defining a language is] that it need not be reciprocal, since A and B need not have the same degree of motivation for understanding each other, nor need they have the same amount of previous experience of each other's varieties. Typically, it is easier for non-standard speakers to understand standard speakers than the other way round, partly because the former will have had more experience of the standard variety (notably through the media) than vice versa, and partly because they may be motivated to minimise the cultural differences between themselves and the standard speakers (though this is by no means necessarily so), while standard speakers may want to emphasize some differences."

Glen Pourciau: "There's a fat man who comes in here with pills sometimes and I can't understand a word he says. I told him I've got no problem with wherever he comes from but I have to be able to understand him. He understands what I'm saying and he talks louder. I don't hear well, but it doesn't help anything for him to say whatever it is he's saying in a louder voice."

Bidialectalism and Mutual Intelligibility in The Color Purple

Celie in The Color Purple: "Darlie trying to teach me how to talk. . . . Every time I say something the way I say it, she correct me until I say it some other way. Pretty soon it feel like I can't think. My mind run up on a thought, git confuse, run back and sort of lay down. . . . Look like to me only a fool would want you to talk in a way that feel peculiar to your mind."

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Mutual Intelligibility." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Mutual Intelligibility. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Mutual Intelligibility." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).