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Is there a list of languages which are mutually intelligible (i.e. a speaker of A can understand language B and [perhaps] vice versa)?

And would this beg the question of whether they really are separate "languages"?

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No. There is no such list. There would be no way to tell different "dialects" or "languages" from others with the same or different names. Plus, nobody keeps track of who can understand whom (except the people concerned, of course). If you want to see something like this, perhaps The Ethnologue is the place to start. –  jlawler Dec 26 '12 at 3:40

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

The proper term for what you're asking is Linguistic distance. Also, there is an article on Wikipedia called Mutual intelligibility, and it has a nice list of mutually intelligible languages.

As noticed, there are several aspects by which linguistic distances (LD) between a certain pair of languages may differ. It may be orthography, morphology/lexicon, or phonetics.

The most intriguing fact is that linguistic distances can be measured.
Prof. K. Tyshchenko has published his method of computing LD. I would specifically recommend his work, Metatheory of Linguistics (Kyiv, 1999) (Ukrainian, Russian), but I'm terribly sorry for being unable to find this work in English.

This is how the main diagram looks like:
Linguistic Distances (image taken from here)

Also, the Ukrainian version of the same diagram contains actual numbers of linguistic distances between the same set of languages.

And would this beg the question of whether they really are separate "languages"?

An obvious answer is, there's a certain threshold in measured LD above which they can be called different languages, while below which they may be considered dialects. Also, it should be understood that considering a separate language may involve a political aspect, so the political desires may not completely correspond the linguistic reality.

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Very interesting. Apparently there is such a list, and I stand corrected. However, I wouldn't say it's widely accepted, and without details of how the "distance" is calculated, I can't comment on its veracity. It does seem to involve borrowings between unrelated but neighboring languages -- I note that Estonian is "closer" to Latvian than to Hungarian, and that Romanian appears to be equidistant between French and Albanian. My feeling, though, for whatever it's worth, is that the Romance languages aren't as mutually intelligble as the Slavic ones, since they're been split up longer. –  jlawler Dec 26 '12 at 19:43
    
Excellent... wish I could upvote more than once... the only thing I can add is that I found this key useful for deciphering some of the 2 and 3 letter abbreviations in the diagram ... loc.gov/standards/iso639-2/php/code_list.php –  BlueWhale Dec 26 '12 at 21:02
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@jlawler Of course, such calculation is very subjective: various dictionaries may be used to compute Levenshtein distances; pronunciation recording may be done in various areas of the country and involve high/low-educated respondents, minor nationalities, etc. Finally, you may assign different coefficients toward written/spoken aspects of the language, and so on. I'm sorry for my inability to find an English translation of the work referenced. If I find it, I will certainly update my post. –  bytebuster Dec 26 '12 at 21:55
    
Dammit where's Armenian? That's a pretty important Indo-European outlier. Persian is more important but then they'd have to also bring in a whole slew of languages it's related to, while Armenian has no known close relatives. –  hippietrail May 17 '13 at 1:40
    
@hippietrail It must be due to a large linguistic distance, I guess. –  bytebuster May 17 '13 at 3:47

In terms of the largest list of mutually comprehenstible languages, Ethnologue is probably your best bet in terms of the number of languages that are listed and compared. For many languages it lists other languages which share intelligibility and lexical similarity. This is discussed in more (but still possibly insufficient detail) on the website.

There was a question on quantifying mutual intelligibility a while ago, in which I pointed to Blair's lexical similarity quantification as one way of assessing mutual intelligibility based on lexical similarity.

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