8

Are different varieties of German (e.g. Bavarian and Low German) closer to each other than different Slav languages (e.g. Russian and Polish)?

The lexical distance map from https://elms.wordpress.com/2008/03/04/lexical-distance-among-languages-of-europe/ The lexical distance map seems relevant here, but doesn't cover different varieties of German. I'm also not sure this map is accurate.

  • 4
    @YellowSky I'm a native Polish speaker, I don't speak Russian, and I don't agree that “a Russian and a Pole each speaking his own language can always come to understanding each other”. Even Polish and Slovak/Czech aren't mutually intelligible, and these languages are clearly closer to each other than Polish and Russian. If it's easier to speak an unrelated third language (e.g. English), it means that the languages aren't mutually intelligible. And I always end up speaking English with my Russian/Ukrainian/Czech/Slovak friends. – michau Feb 8 '17 at 12:41
  • 1
  • 1
    @YellowSky It so happens that the Khmer word for “police” seems to be a borrowed from English, so it's very likely that I would be understood if I just said “police” to a Khmer speaker. – michau Feb 8 '17 at 13:10
  • 2
    @OP, I think you'll have to clarify 'closeness'. Do you mean phylogenetic distance? French and English are by no means 'close' genetically, but there's a plenty of shared vocabulary. – WavesWashSands Feb 8 '17 at 14:11
  • 1
    @WavesWashSands whatever data exists. If a hypothetical speaker of language A, who's never been exposed to other languages, can understand much of language B, I'd call that close (Hypothetical speakers don't exist, especially on linguistics.SE, as I tried to point out, so personal anecdotes are not very interesting) – MaxB Feb 8 '17 at 20:16
2

Are different varieties of German (e.g. Bavarian and Low German) closer to each other than different Slav languages (e.g. Russian and Polish)?

Yes,

Are the most distant German dialects/languages closer to each other than Russian to Polish? Yes, all German dialect/languages are closer to each other than the difference between those two.

No,

Are the most distant German dialect/language e.g. Plattdüütsch to Boarisch closer to each other than Croatian to Serbian? No, Serbian and Croatian are closer to each other than Plattdüütsch to Boarish.

and Maybe

Is Plattdüütsch to Boarisch closer to each other than Czech to Slovak? Maybe, you would have to research it to tell.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Why do you use German names for German varieties, and English ones for Slav languages? It's inconsistent. Also, you need to cite your sources (be it personal experience or something else). – MaxB Feb 10 '17 at 13:04
  • 1
    @MaxB Well do you accept lexical distance as a way of determining how close two languages are together? I mean you rightly picked out that Bulgarian with it's strong liturgical connection with Russia, ending up with a closer written language than Ukrainian to Russian. That skews how close a spoken language is to another. For example, in English you have the spelling knot and knife with a silent k. Compare that to the German Knoten and Swedish Kniv, both of the those ks are not silent. Lexically this example skews English closer to Swedish and German. – Alternative Transport Feb 10 '17 at 14:37
  • If a simple substitution cipher changes the distance, that metric is deeply flawed. – MaxB Feb 10 '17 at 14:52
  • Anyway, your answer sucks less than the other two, so I'll accept it. – MaxB Feb 10 '17 at 14:54
  • It is, ideally you would compare a large IPA-word list in different languages. And Levenshtein is also blunt, it would be more refined to have cheaper and more expensive changes. E.g. d → t would be cheaper than d → g. Edit: I wrote about lexical distance here and put some effort into understanding how Tishchenko put together his data. – Alternative Transport Feb 10 '17 at 14:56
2

You later edited in your question that you're not interested in whether speakers of the varieties can understand each other, but unfortunately that's exactly the definition that is predominantly used to draw the line between a language and a dialect, so I'll stick to my anwer as I had it before and leave it to other answerers to provide different approaches, like statistical analysis of lexical similarity.

That the German varieties are mostly considered dialects while the Slavic languages are languages already implies that the former are significantly closer to each other.

Even if two Germans from different regions speak speak a very strong dialect (which is nowadays a marginal, mostly rural phenomenon), two Germans from different dialects would still understand each other to large extent, even more so when they try to be cooperative and both simply speak their "Dachsprache" which makes communication entirely unproblematic.
The differences lie mostly in phonetics and phonology; lexicon is sporadically different (esp. food names), but almost entirely shared; grammar is essentially the same across dialects except for some individual deviations on special constructions, which are, however, still very compatible with what is perceived as Standard German.
You can of course always make things unnecessary complicated by putting emphasis on the features that are not shared with the other dialects, but that's not what mutual intelligibility (the ability to communicate with each other) is about. I would argue that even a Bavarian and a speaker of Low German can understand each other if they want, although of course this might not be as simple as, say, between a Swabian and a Badensian.

This is not so easy for, e.g., Russian and Polish, which have lexical and grammatical similarities but are not so easily mutually intelligible even if two speakers try to make themselves easily understandable to the other. Reading is probably easier because the differences in phonetics and phonology don't manifest themselves as heavily as in speech, but you would still consider them different languages because there are too major divergences in terms of grammar and lexicon, although there is some overlap.

I find michau's comment "If it's easier to speak an unrelated third language (e.g. English), it means that the languages aren't mutually intelligible" quite a good approximation here - I've frequently heard Russians and Bulgarians, Polishs, ... talk English to each other because this was the easiest way to communicate for them, but it would be extremely unlikely that two speakers of German find their respective dialects so unintellegible they'd rather talk in English (even if they spoke English well) than in their native language to each other.

So while there is a lot of political discussion to that issue that I really don't want to go into here, considering the above I would claim that German (not Germanic!) varieties are to be considered closer to each other than are Slavic varieties.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Do you speak either Russian or Polish? )) – Yellow Sky Feb 8 '17 at 10:58
  • @Yellow Sky No, neither of them. – lemontree Feb 8 '17 at 11:05
  • 2
    Haha, so how can you know? Don't take it personally, but Russian and Polish are mutually intelligible, especially in personal communication. The Slavic languages is a special thing, call it "the Slavic Entire", a Slav can always find a way to communicate with a Slav from a different Slavic nation (naturally, unless the other one refuses to, mainly because of political reasons))). – Yellow Sky Feb 8 '17 at 12:13
  • @Yellow Sky It's the impression that I've got from what speakers of different Slavic languages told me and from what I've now and then read about grammatical features of Russian, Ukrainian etc. If you speak these languages, your opinion will be more reliable than mine, but whatever the answer will be, that doesn't make your language "special" - dialect continua exist pretty much everywhere in the world. – lemontree Feb 8 '17 at 12:30
  • 5
    "If it's easier to speak an unrelated third language (e.g. English), it means that the languages aren't mutually intelligible" I'm sorry, but this is truly very silly. The proximity of language A to language B is not determined by how well its speakers know English. Educational policies determine that. – MaxB Feb 8 '17 at 13:31
2

Speaking just about my own personal experience:

I can only understand a little Russian because of the similarities I can find from two other Slavic languages I speak: Ukrainian and Polish. As someone who has never been exposed to Russian before, I feel that I would not be able to understand Russian with just one of the other Slavic languages. Therefore, I don't feel that I can agree with the notion of Russian/Polish understanding. In fact, I feel that this might even be a cultural misconception, as I've had quite a few experiences where Russian speakers insist on speaking Russian at me, convinced that I will 'magically' understand them. I've also noticed that non-Slavic speakers believe this as well.

however, in the Czech Republic, speaking Polish will get me nowhere, but speaking Ukrainian will get me by quite well indeed. Again, I'd like to stress that is just personal experience.

| improve this answer | |
  • This is very strange, because Czech is much closer to Polish than it is to Ukrainian, according to elms.wordpress.com/2008/03/04/… (The map disagrees with some of my own expectations though, so maybe it's all messed up) – MaxB Feb 8 '17 at 20:26
  • the Elms lexical distance diagram actually does not give the distance between Czech and Polish, look at the connector lines. From Czech it shows the distance to Sorbian, Ukrainian, Slovene, Croatian and Slovakian, but not to Polish. Prof. Tishchenko put the lexical distance from Czech to Polish at 26 and from Czech to Ukrainian at 38. – Alternative Transport Feb 10 '17 at 12:06
  • @AlternativeTransport OK, but are you buying Russian being closer to Bulgarian than to Ukrainian? Bulgarian is not even in the same sub-family. His map smells of politicized pseudo-science to me. – MaxB Feb 10 '17 at 12:35
  • @MaxB yes, The lexical distance according to Tishchenko of Russian to Bulgarian is 27 and from Russian to Ukrainian is 38. Keep note, this is lexical distance and not pronunciation distance! What Tishchenko probably did was he had a № 15 Dolgopolsky List or a № 24 Yakhontov–Holman List of Bulgarian, Russian and Ukrainian and then determined the Levenshtein edit distance between all of the words, added them to a sum and determined their position in relation to each other. The spelling of Russian is closer to Bulgarian than to the spelling of Ukrainian and thus the strange result. – Alternative Transport Feb 10 '17 at 14:20
  • 1
    I was just trying to say that Polish is much closer to Czech then Ukrainian, but if you are talking to older people, who remember some Russian from school, you may be more successful with Ukrainian. But because of exposure to the language, not because of closeness. To Czechs Ukraninian and Belorussian sounds like a mixture of Russian and Polish, but quite far from Czech. – Vladimir F Feb 13 '17 at 20:14
1

I think this is a very interesting question. Even though the question is very hard to answer, I don't quite agree with the statements about the Germanic side.
If you're taking into account Low German, then you could also research the mutual intelligibility of German and Dutch because it should be very similar. (In some ways Dutch and German are more alike (raising of *ō and *ē to /uː/ and /iː/, *eu > ie > /iː/ diphthongisation of î/ij and û,ü/ui) and in some ways German and Low German (many umlauts)). The reason why Low German is sometimes seen as a German dialect is partially political. Apart from "Überdachung" (Dachsprache) by the High German standard language Low German has the same relationship to German that Dutch has. (Here you can easily see that the lexical distance map groups together varieties that shouldn't be grouped together while keeping others seperate.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_intelligibility doesn't even list partial intelligibility between German and Dutch. But for example "Russian: Belarusian and Ukrainian (both partially)"

"Speakers of languages within the same branch[of the Slavic language family] will in most cases be able to understand each other at least partially, but they are generally unable to across branches" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavic_languages)

Assuming the information is consistent and comparable that would allow us to estimate that Low German and German are more different than Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian but less so than Russian and Polish.
[Edit: They might even be more different than Belarusian/Ukrainian and Polish, because Wikipedia also mentions considerable difficulties in the mutual intelligibility of spoken Dutch and German, whilst for spoken Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian partial intelligibility is listed again.]

[Edit: And I should add that while there are no High German dialects quite as different from Standard German as Low German, you could probably make the same argument for many High German dialects.
Comparing the information on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_intelligibility again, you could estimate that Luxembourgish is as different from Standard German as Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian are. That would exemplify that even High German dialects (here Luxembourgish is only in so far different as it is standardized) are as different as Slavic languages. (In case you are confused by my usage of the term "High German", consider looking it up.) ]

[I've decided that I should post the comments I made to lemontree's answer as an individual answer, since it offers a different perspective than the other answers and since lemontree's answer already has so many comments that very few people would read them:]

Lemontree: "I would argue that even a Bavarian and a speaker of Low German can understand each other if they want, although of course this might not be as simple as, say, between a Swabian and a Badensian."

I would argue that is only true if they know Standard German or don't actually speak true Low German or Bavarian. Since the former is practically always true, you can't compare the similarity of the dialects via mutual intelligibility because the speakers know a third language that helps with the intelligibility. If we still had the situation that people only spoke their home towns' dialect in Germany, it would need a lot of exposure for them to understand each other.

Also I've often heard the statement that German and Dutch aren't mutually intelligible. If that's true then that would be proof that Bavarian and Low German aren't mutually intelligible. I have no doubt that spoken German and Dutch are more similar than Low German and Bavarian.

On the other hand, there are good reasons not to consider Low German a variety of "German" (I would even argue that the Bavarian dialect isn't a variety of "German". It is a High German dialect, sure, but it's relationship to German might be the same that Scots has to English).

Since I don't have any other source at hand: "By early modern times, the span had extended into considerable differences, ranging from Highest Alemannic in the South […] to Northern Low Saxon in the North. Although both extremes are considered German, they are not mutually intelligible. The southernmost varieties have completed the second sound shift, whereas the northern dialects remained unaffected by the consonant shift." (wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Germanic_languages#Middle_Ages) And I would say Alemannic is closer to Low German than Bavarian (/yː, øː/, no i-,u-diphthongisation).

| improve this answer | |
  • And I should add that while there are no High German dialects quite as different from Standard German as Low German, you could probably make the same argument for many High German dialects. – tobiornottobi Dec 16 '18 at 17:59
  • Comparing the information on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_intelligibility again, you could estimate that Luxembourgish is as different from Standard German as Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian are. That would exemplify that even High German dialects (here Luxembourgish is only in so far different as it is standardized) are as different as Slavic languages. [In case you are confused by my usage of the term "High German", consider looking it up.] – tobiornottobi Dec 16 '18 at 18:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.