First, just to clarify, here I'm referring to the written forms of all these languages, not the speech (as it can hamper the intelligibility between languages such as in the case between Norwegian and Danish).

I have read from various Bulgarians that they can understand Serbian (as written in the Cyrillic alphabet) almost perfectly, up to approximately 80-90%.

However, when asking the same question of Icelanders and their Scandinavian counterparts (Norwegians, Danes and Swedes), they say that although they could get the gist of a text in each other's language (without previous exposure), they are so different now that they could not understand it in detail.

Considering this, one should expect that while Icelandic is far apart from Norwegian (Bokmål/Nynorsk), Bulgarian should be very close to Serbian.

However, considering these maps representing the lexical distance between languages (https://www.openculture.com/2017/08/a-colorful-map-visualizes-the-lexical-distances-between-europes-languages.html), it seems that Icelandic-Norwegian/Danish/Swedish and Bulgarian-Serbian are "separated" by almost the same lexical distance.

How can this be? Is Bulgarian really so similar to Serbian? Or are there enough differences to make them as different as Icelandic is to its Scandinavian cousin languages (making Serbian not so intelligible to Bulgarians as I have read from some of them)?

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    Don’t forget that nearly all Icelanders have two or three years of mandatory Danish classes at school when they’re about 13–15 years of age and are generally fluent in English. That’s the primary reason Icelanders tend to understand (written) Scandinavian languages fairly well. The reverse is not the case – without prior exposure, most Scandinavians can understand no more than perhaps 30–40% of an Icelandic text, and less than 10% of a spoken conversation in Icelandic, apart from some speakers of certain western Norwegian dialects. Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 15:35
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    There’s also the fact that lexical distance is not the only thing that inhibits mutual intelligibility. Consider a thick Glaswegian dialect and a Southern US dialect: lexically and even grammatically extremely close, and while the Scot will almost certainly understand the American perfectly, the opposite is far from certain. I don’t know how distinct Bulgarian and Serbian are, but Icelandic is phonetically very far from Danish in particular. Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 15:43
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet — Danish is mandatory for the last four years of “compulsory school” (12 to 16), and as you say Icelanders are therefore usually able to understand written Danish fairly well. Until the 1990s Danish instruction started earlier, and a larger percentage of the population had spent some time in Scandinavia, both of which helped somewhat with the understanding of the spoken language.
    – Segorian
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 21:46


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