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I speak English and Bengali with similar proficiency, at least in the 'lower' registers of the languages. Since I was a small child in a bilingual home I've been struck by how, despite having different vocabularies, the two languages seemed very similar - faithful word-by-word translations could be performed on sentences without need to restructure or heavily rework their fundamentals or word order.. This contrasted later with my frequent frustration at the French and German learnt later at school, here even the concepts behind the language often seemed alien and upside-down.

I was wondering if any work has been done to compare the 'similarity' between languages and, if so, what languages most closely each other in this way. And which are most like English.

UPDATE: After reading this article at Wired.com I realise that the question I'm asking involves 'lexical distance' in addition to syntactic distance, a phrase I think I just made-up. The diagram above shows the LD between European languages - does anyone have anything similar to show LD/sd between global or Indo-European ones?

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    5arx, you may find What characteristics are unique to the English language? of interest – jwpat7 Aug 25 '12 at 20:50
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    English is deemed closer to French and German than to Bengali. So perhaps your familiarity with English and Bengali deceives you. – GEdgar Aug 25 '12 at 20:53
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    It could be that Bengali is normally analysed using terms borrowed from English grammar, whereas different methods of analysis are used for German and French. I believe Frisian is quite close to English, and Dutch is somewhat close to. – Cerberus Aug 26 '12 at 0:07
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    One of the problems this runs into is that of determining whether a variety is a dialect of English or a closely-related language. Eg Scots is for me (Australian) largely unintelligible so could be considered a separate language, but it's very close to English. – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 26 '12 at 1:20
  • Fairly closely related languages can often have different word orders. For instance many Germanic languages besides English require the finite verb to be in the second position of a sentence, but English does not. It could be that besides being related to English, Bengali also happens to have most of the same word-order characteristics. – hippietrail Jan 28 '13 at 4:39
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Check out this Indo-European language family tree image from Wikipedia:

Excerpt

and also Indo European languages and Latin influence in English.

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    +1 for revealing the (former) existence of the fascinating language Yola to me. I'd never heard of it before. – hippietrail Jan 11 '14 at 16:14
  • +1 But this is historical, not perceptual, which is what the question is about. – jlawler Nov 11 '17 at 18:18
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Apart from Scots, the closest languages to English in terms of lexical difference are probably the various English-based creoles, such as Tok Pisin, Bislama or Jamaican Patois. These have a mostly English vocabulary base, even though much of their grammar derives from from non Indo-European languages.

Unfortunately I've not found many numbers to back this up. The closest I found so far is the following diagram from A Grammar of Pichi by Kofi Yakpo, showing the lexical distance of Pichinglis (spoken in Equatorial Guinea) to a number of other languages including English.

Lexical similarity tree diagram (Copyright Kofi Yakpo 2009)

I've also seen measures of phonological distance used to cluster English dialects and creoles (see for example Clustering Dialects Automatically: A mutual information approach), but I've not seen a similar study for syntactic distance. For a description of approaches to quantifying syntactic distance between languages see for example A Vector Space Model for Syntactic Distances Between Dialects.

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I am myself a native speaker of Bengali. I also learned English at a very young age. I am really surprised at your comment,

"Since I was a small child in a bilingual home I've been struck by how, despite having different vocabularies, the two languages seemed very similar - faithful word-by-word translations could be performed on sentences without need to restructure or heavily rework their fundamentals or word order.. This contrasted later with my frequent frustration at the French and German learnt later at school, here even the concepts behind the language often seemed alien and upside-down."

In fact, Bengali and English, share many common roots in their vocabulary, going back to (the reconstructed) proto-Indo-European. This is obvious just from looking at the words for numbers, much more so for the old Sanskrit forms, as also for nose, mouth, hand, foot, etc., taking into account well known sound shifts. This commonality of root vocabulary between Bengali and English is only one example of the more general commonality in this regard between Indic (Indo-Aryan) and (most) European languages.

However, when it comes to syntax, including word order, the Indic languages (including Bengali) are very different indeed from the major European languages (of the Celtic, Latin, Germanic, Baltic, Slavic families, along with Albanian and Greek) including English.

You can see this, for example, if you translate the English sentence:

"I put the book on the table."

into Bengali:

"(Ami) boi-t'a tebil-er opor-e rakh-l-am."

where I have separated out compounds into their parts with a hyphen (-).

If you were to translate the Bengali back into English word for word, it would read:

"(I) book-the table's top-at put-did-I."

If you had instead translated the original sentence word for word into Bengali, it would have read,

"Ami rakh-l-(am) t'a-boi e t'a-tebil."

where the general Bengali positional postposition "e" stands for the specific English preposition "on", and the Bengali definite article suffix "t'a" has been used for the English definite article prefix "the", with postposition and preposition locations of course interchanged.

  • +1 I was beginning to wonder whether anybody was going to mention Bangla syntax. SOV languages are quite hard for most native English speakers to wrap their minds around, especially if encountered as adults. But they're quire standard in India. – jlawler Nov 11 '17 at 18:22
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Scots is the closest language to English, after that perhaps Norwegian. Norwegian seems slightly closer to English than either Danish or Swedish is.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    I don't have any credible sources to back it up but I thought it was general consensus that the closest [major] language to English was Dutch. – acattle Aug 26 '12 at 4:55
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    @acattle while Dutch and English are closely related, both being West Germanic languages, Scots is usually said to be the closest relative of English with Frisian the next closest, all three being in the Anglo-Frisian group. – Gaston Ümlaut Aug 26 '12 at 13:18
  • @GastonÜmlaut I was actually referring to the comment about Norwegian. – acattle Aug 26 '12 at 15:22
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    Dutch is considered a close relative but a) the question is about typological similarity rather than genetic language relations and b) Frisian is considered closer to English than Dutch. Also interesting along the "languages vs dialects" axis would be AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and various Creoles such as Tok Pisin, Bislama, etc. – hippietrail Aug 26 '12 at 17:13
  • @Ste Ríkharðsson: Bokmål or Nynorsk? – hippietrail Aug 29 '12 at 19:57
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ezglot compares a number of languages for lexical similarity, and provides some interesting statistics. For English, widely spoken languages German and French have highest similarity scores..

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    Hello and welcome to Linguistics. Please take your time to expand the answer by adding some essential points from the linked page straight into your answer. Otherwise, when the linked page is removed, the entire answer becomes useless. – bytebuster Dec 5 '14 at 17:32
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Etymologically - and more specifically than just "Indo-European", English is in a language family called "Anglo-Frisian". Anglo-Frisian languages can be further separated into "English" (English, Scots, and a couple of extinct languages) and Frisian languages. So etymologically, English's closest living relatives would be:

  • Scots
  • Extinct languages - Yola and Fingallian
  • Any of the Frisian languages (West, North, and Saterland)

BTW, my friends who speak both Dutch and English have told me that Frisian seems closer to Dutch than English, so taking their word for its value, I'd say you'll be hard pressed to find a language other than Scots that is mutually intelligible with Modern English.

As a side note, digging a bit further back into the language trees, and looking at the West Germanic languages (of which Anglo-Frisian is a subgroup), Afrikaans has some pretty cool relations to English. Wikipedia gives this as an example:

Afrikaans: En ek sê vir julle, wat soek julle hier by my? Ek soek julle nie! Nee, gaan nou weg!

English: And I say to you, what do you seek here by me? I do not seek you! No, go away now!


A fun little thing: this is a classic folk song sung in Yola. I've always liked to imagine that it's a bit what non-English speakers hear when they hear English (try starting around 2:15)!

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