I remember this term mentioned in the context of an argument about Spanish and Portuguese: one party claimed that it is equally hard / easy for either one to understand another language, while another party insisted that Portuguese speakers are much more likely to understand Spanish speakers without training to do so.

Regardless of which party was right, what is the term that describes this ability to understand a related language without studying it (alternatively, is it a property of a language, if it can be understood by speakers of a different, but related language)? I'm sure there was a term for it, but cannot remember it.

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    mutual intelligibility vs asymmetric intelligibility. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 25 '18 at 12:36
  • @A.M.Bittlingmayer that is it, thank you very much! – wvxvw Mar 25 '18 at 14:57
  • A great deal depends on how closely related the different lects are, which in turn depends a lot on how long ago they shared a common lect as ancestor. In the case of Castilian/Portuguese, that's probably on the order of a thousand years. That's similar to the separation time of the Slavic languages, and it is a truism that intelligent literate speakers of one Slavic language will usually be able to understand most of the others (although alphabet differences can interfere with understanding written language). – jlawler Mar 25 '18 at 22:34
  • @jlawler The rates of change vary wildly. The driving factors can work in both directions. In many cases (eg German, Italian, Greek) there was an ancient split at or even before the time of expansion, and then consolidation whereby the substrate for the modern dialects was the regional languages. Imagine if Portugal were part of Spain the past few centuries, or conversely if the Prussians or Germanophone Swiss had taken a course more like the Dutch. Politics, economics, writing systems, geographic isolation, dialect levelling and, last but not least, exposure are all factors. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 26 '18 at 11:31

Just for sake of posting an answer (comments get deleted often).

The term is called Mutual intelligibility:

In linguistics, mutual intelligibility is a relationship between languages or dialects in which speakers of different but related varieties can readily understand each other without prior familiarity or special effort. […]

Intelligibility between languages can be asymmetric, with speakers of one understanding more of the other than speakers of the other understanding the first.

We even have a dedicated tag for questions about this phenomenon:

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