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
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 3:40
  • 3
    I see no reason to close this question, it has a clear answer (altho it is "no" in this case) Commented May 31, 2016 at 10:30

4 Answers 4


The proper term for what you're asking is Linguistic distance. Sometimes it is also called Lexical distance, if only lexical units have been compared/measured.

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)

Yet another version of the same diagram created by a prominent blogger contains actual numbers of linguistic distances of even a larger set of languages:

Linguistic Distances

Also, the Ukrainian version of the same diagram. Further explained here.

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.

  • 6
    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
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 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
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 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. Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 21:55
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    There are also extreme examples line verlan or satrovacki, where the base language is the same, but the initial intelligibility is low. I think it is actually true of many dialects, which work more like cryptolects. The point being, that the question "How much do you understand on day 0?" is not linearly correlated with "How many days do you need to understand x%?" Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 13:48
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    And, pardon, one more addendum: some people are just more practised at and open "stretching their ears", because they live in a dialect continuum, or a place with many foreigners etc. People with very little exposure to dialects, foreign or similar languages and need to understand them tend to block out quickly any signal that is far off. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 13:54

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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    Ethnologue is biased towards splitting rather than lumping; see how they treat Italy, for example. But then again, bias is inevitable in this kind of activity. Commented Apr 7, 2018 at 3:55

This work (H. Wettig et al., Information-theoretic modeling of etymological sound change) presents a measure of language distance based on the amount of sound changes between cognates in the languages compared.

It produces nice results, altho' it does not account for vocabulary replacement rates. (Maybe one can assume that sound changes and vocabulary replacement are proportional in a first approximation).



This is a very interesting and detailed list. Another great reference site with spoken samples is http://www.omniglot.com

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    -1: this post adds nothing to what previous answers have said. Also, we prefer answers that, besides of containing links, explain why they correctly and completely answer the original question. Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 1:49
  • The original post was from over 5 years ago. I was trying to help. Not everyone wants a detailed explanation. There was an question, and I provided a possible answer and included references. That's not good enough? My intention was for it to be brief. Its self-explanatory, yet helpful.. If you don't like it because you don't think its "lengthy" enough, remove the post. Look at omniglot.com and the list of mutually intelligible languages along with a map of a dispersion region or distribution map it is helpful. My post adds to the previous comments in that it aids the distribution map
    – JD Combs
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 14:53
  • Some of the previous posts are factual, some opinion. Again, I was only trying to be helpful, and it seems a little silly to take the time to respond in the manner you did. Its a bit rude and over-critical. Thanks for your time.
    – JD Combs
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 14:55
  • We appreciate your effort and we are looking forward to see your further posts. However, Stack Exchange is all about quality Q&A. So yes, well-elaborated answers are the keystone of the entire SE network. This is indeed because of the nature of the site, not because my answer is there. :-) Half-baked posts, on the other hand, only lead to further questions, denials, and idle chit-chatting. Please get yourself familiar with How to Answer and faq to make sure your posts get appreciated by the community. And please don't get offended by the criticism. Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 15:34
  • P.S. If your answer appears to be too long, it is easy to mitigate with a short 2-3 paragraphs-long summary written on the top of the answer and then expanding it below. Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 15:45

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