I had one question about a very interesting map showing the lexical distances between different languages of Europe (https://alternativetransport.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/34/). I am studying the relations between Germanic languages, especially Nordic languages, and I had one question about this group:

It is known that the Norwegian Bokmål written form and the written form of standard Danish are very similar to each other. However, I have been told that these languages are as close to each other as different variants of one language (like American and British English), but also I've read that they are more different than that.

I found this question in this site (Worldwide map or data for linguistic distance?) which was related to the topic of this one. There, you can see one answer that gives the value of the lexical distance between Danish and Bokmål which is clearly closer than very related languages like Dutch and Afrikaans. However, I contacted the author of that answer and he told me that Danish/Bokmål are more distant than Dutch/Afrikaans

Therefore, are Bokmål and Danish closer to each other than other languages that are also similar to each other like Dutch/Afrikaans or Croatian/Serbian? Or on the contrary, Bokmål/Danish are more distant than these?

  • American and British English do not compare to any of those.
    – Lambie
    Jun 29, 2023 at 14:40
  • Are you still only talking about lexical distance? In broader terms, it’s very hard to quantify how different two languages are from each other, because it’s not clear how to weigh different differences (e.g., A and B have a lexical distance of 10 and a morphological distance of 20, while C and D have a lexical distance of 15 and a morphological distance of 10 – which pair is ‘more different’?). If the author told you Danish/Bokmål are more lexically different than Dutch/Afrikaans, then he must have been using different numbers from the one in his answer here, because they’re closer by those. Jun 29, 2023 at 16:03

1 Answer 1


The map question is apparently based on this, where the conclusions (apparently) are based on lexicostatistical computation. This probably does allow you to say compare the relatedness-numbers for Bokmål vs. Danish, Dutch/Afrikaans or Croatian/Serbian. The problem is that the map does not give a full table of numbers, and I can't find any underlying data in the original book (my non-existent Ukrainian could be a problem). One can always compute some number given some data and some criteria.

Your question could be "using data X Y Z and criteria A B C, what is the 'lexical distance' between languages in these three pairs" – I don't know, it could be computed. Alternatively, your question could be simple "which of these three language pairs are 'closer'?", in which case the answer is "Nobody knows, because there is no objective definition of language closeness. For example, English and French have a certain extra closeness that comes from the fact that England was ruled by French speakers for centuries and a lot of French got absorbed into the language. Swahili and Arabic similarly have a degree of closeness arising from contacts between coastal Swahili speakers and Arabic-speaking traders. But in the phylogenetic sense, Swahili and Arabic are completely unrelated, and English and French are only very remotely related.

You might have in mind a behavioral / communicative concept of closeness – "Can Dutch and Afrikaans speakers understand each other as well as Danish and Norwegian speakers". That requires a well-crafted experiment which has not been undertaken. Massive questions about the subject pool would have to be addressed, for example do you exclude Norwegian speakers who have frequent contact with Danish (and vice versa), and can you actually find Norwegian speakers with absolutely no contact with Danish (i.e. someone with no TV or internet connection).

  • Also, is lexical distance computed solely from standard written forms? Two (closely related) languages may have very similar orthographies, but very different pronunciations. The word "done" in Danish is gjort, pronounced [ˈk͉˭joɐ̰t]; in Norwegian it's spelt the same, but pronounced [jʊʈ]. Speakers of either language will not without prior exposure be able to recognise the word as pronounced in the other language.
    – pinnerup
    Jun 30, 2023 at 10:30
  • Presumably. After all, nobody speaks Bokmål, they write it. You'd have to untangle the original article.
    – user6726
    Jun 30, 2023 at 14:29

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