A dialect continuum or dialect chain is a spread of language varieties spoken across some geographical area such that neighbouring varieties differ only slightly, but the differences accumulate over distance so that widely separated varieties are not mutually intelligible.

A variety of languages are spoken as you move from Rome to Northern Italy and then west towards Portugal: Romanesco, Umbrian, Tuscan, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Provençal, Catalan, Castilian Spanish, Galician, Portuguese and several others not mentioned here. Would a certain sequence of these (or other) languages be an example of dialect continuum in Europe?

  • It's an interesting question, but I'm not sure it's about Italian language.
    – Charo
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 9:53
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    This is more about general linguistics than the Italian language in particular.
    – egreg
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 12:24
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    I think it is well known that there is a dialect continuum from Piedmontese to Catalan (the Occitan language), I am more skeptical of extending it further. Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 14:25
  • @Charo and egreg. If you feel the question doesn't fit here, you are the mods and you can always migrate it. No offense and no hard feelings.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 16:19
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    The wiki page discusses a historical dialect continuum in Western Romance: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialect_continuum#Romance_languages Focusing [...] on the local Romance lects that pre-existed the establishment of national or regional standard languages, all evidence and principles point to Romania continua as having been, and to varying extents in some areas still being, what Charles Hockett called an L-complex, i.e. an unbroken chain of local differentiation such that, in principle and with appropriate caveats, intelligibility (due to sharing of features) attenuates with distance.
    – iacobo
    Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 9:52

2 Answers 2


Yes, it can.

Just going along the mediterranean cost there is a nice chain of dialects from Roman, Tuscan, Ligurian, Provençal, Langedoc, Catalan, Southern Castillian to Portuguese. Maybe there is a break between Southern Castillian and Portuguese and you have to make a detour to the North of Spain via Madrid, Leon (Leonese), and Galicia (Galician) to have a real dialect continuum.

The issue with Southern Spain and Portugal is that the historic dialect continuum was disrupted by the Islamic invasion of Spain. During the reconquest, dialects from the north spread southward. There is still a considerable mutual intelligibility between Spanish (Castillian) and Portuguese, but I am not sure whether it is enough to count as a dialect continuum in Southern Spain. On the other hand, there is a dialect continuum between Portuguese Galician and Leonese closing the path through the north of Spain.

  • Could you expand your answer ? Otherwise you're just repeating what has been cited in the question.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 21:28
  • Galician is the closest to Portuguese. Portuguese and Spanish are still mutually intelligible, though.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 23:34
  • @Centaurus Are you saying that a average person speaking standard Spanish and an average person speaking standard Portuguese can understand each other? (with all the vague disclaimers like no formal instruction, 'mostly' understood, articulate un-rushed non-slang speech?
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 3:22
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    @Centaurus A quick google search mentions lots of asymmetry (Sp has a harder time understanding Pt). Also google is mixed about MI. Naively one would assume MI, but then I had heard they are not at all MI, but now I'm hearing they are. Unfortunately, I feel like any quantitative distance would be based on text (ease of coding/calculation) which renders almost all Romance MI.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:07
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    Native Catalan speaker - bilingual in Spanish: my experience watching tv programs in Galician is that they are nearly 100% intelligible. Portuguese a bit less, but they can be understood. Written Portuguese is even easier.
    – Pere
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 14:32

Dialect continuum does not mean necessarily a continuum where there is inter-intelligibility. It is when linguistic facts change in relation to spatial distance, in sum, the linguistic distance has to be proportional to spatial distance. When such observations are noticed, we consider that there is a dialect continuum.

There are some works concerning the Romance area. The most known are those of Hans Goebl. The field studying the dialect continuum from quantitative data is the dialectometry. Generally, a linguistic continuum is an universal fact, which is observed for any language family, so that includes the Romance too.

One linguistic fact taken aside can not follow a continuum for example a word can be found used in opposed geographical spaces and it will not be used elsewhere. But if we take completely the linguistic system into account, we observe what I have mentioned before.

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    "a word can found used in opposed geographical space" Italian and Portuguese share a few words which are not found anywhere else between Italy and Portugal. The first person singular subjective personal pronoun is the same word in Portuguese and Romanian, even though Portugal and Romenia are very far apart.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 14:17
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    You can often find common archaisms at both ends of a dialect continuum where the dialects in the middle have adopted some innovations. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 11:11
  • I presume DC can also be observed in China, Scandinavia, India and several other parts of the world.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 18:54

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