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Thread: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

  1. #1
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    All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Perhaps it's just because I'm more accustomed to Germanic and Romance languages myself, but looking at the various Slavic languages, I see a lot of similarity (which is partly to be expected, since they're from the same family). Is it possible, say, for a Russian speaker to understand a Pole? Can a Pole understand a Bosnian, or a Slovakian understand a Slovenian? Who can understand whom? Just curious.

    Thanks.

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    Re: Mutual intelligibility

    I can speak only from my point of view, and that is Serbian.
    A Serbian can understand perfectly a Croatian or Bosnian, since they speak the same language, different dialects (and vice versa).

    A Serbian speaker can get the idea what a Macedonian or Bulgarian speakers talk, maybe even to understand each other in a restaurant, hotel, etc... Short conversation, yes. It's like Spanish and Catalan, or maybe Italian...

    The other Slavic languages cannot be understood by a Serbian speaker. Maybe some words, yes, some sentences (very short ones), yes, we might get the idea, but no way to have a normal conversation and a lot less than Bulgarian or Macedonian... It is like Italian and French, or Rumanian....

    This is my point of view, as I see it. Maybe other people have other opinions...
    Last edited by natasha2000; 23rd January 2006 at 9:36 PM.

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    Re: Mutual intelligibility

    Hi ! I`m glad there are people from other countries interested in Slavic Languages I`m interested in them myself, its understandable...Maybe i can help with this one...

    Yes there is possibility to understand people from another slavic language, but not completely...

    In my opinion the gropus of languages that understand best each other are:

    Bulgarian, Macedonian + Serbian, Croation, Slovenian, Bosnian
    Chech, Slovakian + Polish
    Russian, Ukranian, Belarussian

    p>S Languages separated by comas are most close to each other !
    So thats what i think...I`ll be glad someone to prove me wrong :P

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    Re: Mutual intelligibility

    Quote Originally Posted by cecoll

    Bulgarian, Macedonian + Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian
    Chech Czech, Slovakian + Polish
    Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian
    Looks plausible. But I think that Bulgarians understand the speakers of the last group pretty well.

    I can understand Slovak perfectly but the level of mutual intelligibility has been declining steadily for the last 10+ years.

    Polish becomes reasonably intelligible after some short exposure. I can read it but I often need to close my eyes and say the sentences aloud in order not to be misled by the weird (sorry ) spelling that Poles stick to.

    Surprisingly, I can understand the East Slavic branch much better than the South Slavic one, although I usually sort of know what speakers of the latter are talking about.

    Jana
    A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. Saul Bellow

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    It depends on how loosely you apply the word "understand". If you allow for a mere sixty to eighty percent of understanding (to make up numbers), then all Slavs can converse with one another, at least when they are willing. Over the years I have been collecting anecdotes about this phenomenn from my reading and from Slavs I meet. I am sure every Slav has dozens of similar anecdotes.

    If a Slav wants to avoid being understood by another Slav whose language is from a nonadjacent territory, then it is easy to manage by talking fast.

    Slavic languages fall into three major groups: East, West, and South. All variations of Slavic within a group are just dialects of one another, even Czech and Polish, although there will be stumbles during such a conversation. Russian and Ukrainian and Belarussian, the East group, are not even very different from one another. Belarussian (East) and Polish (West) are adjacent to one another, and the two virtually the identical sound inventory -- Polish has the phonology of an East group language, although otherwise it has West features. (The Belarussian sound inventory varies trivially but noticeably from those of Ukrainian and Russian.) Broadly speaking, Slavic languages within one of the three groups differ little if at all in sound inventories; they differ mildly in grammar and in the pronunciations of cognate word pairs; and they differ most of all in vocabulary. There are a few cases where grammar is more divergent than vocabulary.

    Again, I am not talking about situations where total comprehension is crucial (entering into a contract, being put on trial).

    Let me share a few of my anecdotes. Most of them involve my Czech friend, a woman who didn't even finish secondary school. (By the way, Slavs almost never study each others' languages, except for the Soviet period when Russian was compulsory.) My friend fled the Communists in 1950 at age 17, after only a year of Russian in school. Fifty years later in America, she met another old woman immigrant, this one a Russian. When the Russian woman found out my friend was a Slav, the Russian said something like, "Let's try." Whereupon the two women conversed together in Slavic, each speaking only her own "language".

    My friend had a Polish immigrant auto mechanic. My friend does not have a mind for mechanical devices, and she certainly never studied Polish, but whenever she got on the phone with Andy to discuss her engine troubles, she would jabber a mile a minute, as Czechs do. Understand, while being spoken to in Polish, not in Czech! The most extreme version of Lowland Scots and regular English are apparently more divergent than Polish and Czech.

    My friend and I watched a Ukrainian movie from the 1960's by Sergei Paradzhanov (Paradjanov), whose English title is "Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors". It is set in westernmost Ukraine in the 1500's or 1600's (in Transcarpathia, an area with a large Hungarian minority that is adjacent to today's Slovakia). My friend understood the whole movie without reading the subtitles. There was even a scene with no subtitles provided, where two people are singing, and my friend remarked, "they're singing about baby Jesus". My friend even anticipated developments in the plot as the movie went along.

    During the invasion to suppress the Prague Spring of 1968, as Soviet troops would emerge from their tanks, the Czechs would go out to engage them in debate, complaining, "Why are you invading us?" One observer wrote in her autobiography, "Czech and Russian are not so different; one can understand a simple conversation". The observer was a British woman who had married a Czech Communist during World War 2 and emigrated to Czechoslovakia at the end of the war, and lived there ever since, raising two sons. This is a person who only started to learn Czech as an adult, and she had not studied Russian.

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Quote Originally Posted by DaleC
    Slavic languages fall into three major groups: East, West, and South. All variations of Slavic within a group are just dialects of one another, even Czech and Polish, although there will be stumbles during such a conversation. Russian and Ukrainian and Belarussian, the East group, are not even very different from one another.
    I have to disagree, Dale.

    You could as well say "German and Dutch are just dialects of one another", or "Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are all just dialects of one another".

    Even if you leave aside the questionable expression "dialects of one another", those statements still don't reflect the actual state of affairs.

    "Dialect" or "language"


    Standard Russian, Belarussian and Ukranian, in spite of fairly high mutual intelligibility, have substantial differences in all layers of language which allow to recognize them as independent languages. Apart from that, every one of them has an established written standard and a literature of its own - and possesses the status of an official language in respective countries.


    (The same applies, for example, to Czech and Polish).
    Last edited by cyanista; 25th January 2006 at 8:39 PM. Reason: sorry! :embarassed:

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Quote Originally Posted by cyanista
    I have to disagree, Dale.

    You could as well say "German and Dutch are just dialects of one another", or "Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are all just dialects of one another".


    (The same applies, for example, to Czech and Polish).
    I concur. Being a part of the same language family does not constitute being dialects. Political circumstances may contribute to the convergence or divergence of languages (specifically, new vocabulary is likely to be uniform if speakers of both languages have access to books and media in the other languages) but for instance Czech and Slovak remained distinct languages after 70 years of coexistence in the same state.

    Jana
    A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. Saul Bellow

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    As a Czech with a fair bit of exposure to Slovak (above-average for my generation, or so I am told), a bit of Polish (especially insults ) and Russian and marginally other Slavic languages such as Croatian, Bulgarian, Sorbian (mostly Upper), etc., I can confirm that there is a reasonably large basic vocabulary which is shared among most or all Slavic languages, as well as similarities in grammar, syntax and morphology, which enable very simple conversations about everyday topics to take place.

    An important point in my opinion is that knowledge of multiple Slavic langugages can enable one to comprehend another language better, e.g. Polish has some features distinctly similar to Czech, other features which correspond more with Slovak, and still others which are found in Russian, so e.g. a Czech who also knows some Slovak and Russian can understand Polish better than a strictly monolingual Czech speaker because he can extrapolate by comparing Polish with all the languages he knows.

    Of course, it's not all fun and games. Two Slavic speakers can't just walk up to each other and converse, unless their respective dialects are really close; it still takes time to get to know the other one's language, most notably the numerous vowel and consonant shifts that occured so and so in one language, differently in another, and not at all in another (the metathesis of liquids, etc. etc.) and learning how to phrase things (Czechs can reportedly comprehend Polish better than the other way around because Polish normally uses words and grammar which are archaic in Czech or borrowings from German which many Czechs use in everyday life but not in polite/official speech and writing, and which are therefore understood but not normally used by Czechs). Each language has its own specialized terminology in every field, and "false friends" lurk at every turn ("Pan szuka mieszkanie?" - "Ne, pán mešká..." ).

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    For Slavs, perhaps, the most important reality is the magnitudes of the divergences among the various Slavic languages. For some non-Slavs, the most -- well, not necessarily important reality -- but the most entertaining and interesting reality, is the magnitude of the similarities among them, considering how different they indeed are; that almost any two Slavs can understand at least half -- and usually well beyond half -- of what each other is saying; they can have long and meaningful conversations.

    What excuse can a Slav have to deny it? This fact has to be a thrill for any Slav (any Slav who enjoys foreign travel, who enjoys the challenges of the unfamiliar and the esthetics of the exotic). When a Slav travels anywhere in the Slavic world, they can start talking and achieve some measure of genuine communication. The very mix of failure and success makes it a thrill and an amusement!

    It is not noteworthy that (most varieties of) American English are virtually 100 percent intelligible to (most varieties of) British English. AE and BE are so similar, after all.

    Quote Originally Posted by cyanista
    I have to disagree, Dale.

    You could as well say "German and Dutch are just dialects of one another", or "Italian, Spanish and Portuguese are all just dialects of one another".
    -- Spanish and Portuguese *do* almost constitute a common language (but *not* either one together with Italian), and Dutch and Low German as spoken in Germany *do* almost constitute a common language. (And in fact, the rural populations of NW Germany and adjacent NE Netherlands *do* share a common dialect -- and *not* just because Germans "moved the border" some centuries ago.)

    Even if you leave aside the questionable expression "dialects of one another", those statements still don't reflect the actual state of affairs.
    -- I concede that the expression is not valid, but I insist that (when properly rephrased ), it reflects the actual states of affairs between certain pairs of Slavic variants.

    "Dialect" or "language"


    Standard Russian, Belarussian and Ukranian, in spite of fairly high mutual intelligibility, have substantial differences in all layers of language which allow to recognize them as independent languages. Apart from that, every one of them has an established written standard and a literature of its own - and possesses the status of an official language in respective countries.
    -- In this sort of discussion, it is regularly pointed out that there are multiple definitions of "language", that some of them are politicized, and that setting the threshold for deeming "there are two languages" is inevitably an arbitrary decision. I never see the proponents of the politicized definitions acknowledge any of this.

    (The same applies, for example, to Czech and Polish). -- I consider Czech and Polish distinct languages. But not very distinct.
    Cyanista, thanks for getting me to tighten up my lazy manner of expression.

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    If we had short recorded everyday conversations in all Slavic languages we could see how much we really understand.

    I know I have to concentrate hard to recognize basic words and sentences in normal conversations in most other Slavic languages, but maybe that's just me. I can only understand Croatian and Serbian quite well. And even there I come across words I have no idea what they mean.

    So for me, other Slavic languages don't seem to be all that similar to Slovene. I seriously doubt I could have long and meaningful conversations. Perhaps short talks about everday things.

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Quote Originally Posted by skye
    I know I have to concentrate hard to recognize basic words and sentences in normal conversations in most other Slavic languages, but maybe that's just me. I can only understand Croatian and Serbian quite well. And even there I come across words I have no idea what they mean.
    -- But the interesting thing is that if you do concentrate, and the other person cooperates, you'll get something out of it. Unlike if you went to China.

    So for me, other Slavic languages don't seem to be all that similar to Slovene. I seriously doubt I could have long and meaningful conversations. Perhaps short talks about everday things.
    Here's another anecdote. There was an American retiree. Although he was born and raised in America, he grew up speaking Polish at home because his parents were immigrants from Poland. In his retirement, in the 1970s and 1980s, he made several trips through all the Soviet bloc countries plus Yugoslavia on his bicycle. He wrote a book. In all the Slavic countries, he conversed at length with people. He reported that people confided in him about politics and private affairs because he could speak to them in Polish. They confided in him even more if they thought he was a Polish citizen. He got in trouble with customs agents when trying to enter Bulgaria "because I was able to talk to them just well enough to get myself in trouble". (Bulgarian is certainly the most divergent Slavic language.)

    I will accept that some people's brains are better than other people's brains at understanding strange dialects. I myself cannot understand fellow Americans speaking English when they mumble or when there is a lot of noise. I also seem to have more trouble understanding African-Americans than other white people. African-American virtually all have strong accents. I understand most of them perfectly if they grew up in "the North", but I do not understand the ones from the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. In a technical sense, they do not speak the same language as I do. So I accept that my Czech friend and the Polish-American tourist have a stronger talent that other Slavs.

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Quote Originally Posted by DaleC
    (Bulgarian is certainly the most divergent Slavic language.)
    I would just like to add that I partially agree with that statement, cause our vacabulary`s been influenced by many different cultures, having in mind the cross-road situation of the country, especially the many Turkish words that we use.

    Here`s something that i qouted from the Wikipedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulgarian_language:

    "Bulgarian demonstrates several linguistic innovations that set it apart from other Slavic languages, such as the elimination of noun declesion, the development of a suffixed definite article (possibly inherited from the Bulgar language), the lack of a verb infinitive, and the retention and further development of the proto-Slavic verb system. There are various verb forms to express nonwitnessed, retold, and doubtful action.

    The "nonwitnessed action" verb forms, pertaining to a mood known as renarrative mood, have been attributed to Turkish influences by most Bulgarian linguists. Morphohologically, they are obviously related to the perfect tenses, which are known in Bulgarian linguistic tradition as "preliminary" (предварителни) tenses."

    Hmm... I`ve never thought of all that peculiarities of our language...Now that I read it, it seems a reasonable explanation of the fact that we tend to understand the other Slavic nations, more they do understand us

    Cvetan

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Quote Originally Posted by DaleC
    Here's another anecdote. There was an American retiree. Although he was born and raised in America, he grew up speaking Polish at home because his parents were immigrants from Poland. In his retirement, in the 1970s and 1980s, he made several trips through all the Soviet bloc countries plus Yugoslavia on his bicycle. He wrote a book. In all the Slavic countries, he conversed at length with people. He reported that people confided in him about politics and private affairs because he could speak to them in Polish. They confided in him even more if they thought he was a Polish citizen. He got in trouble with customs agents when trying to enter Bulgaria "because I was able to talk to them just well enough to get myself in trouble". (Bulgarian is certainly the most divergent Slavic language.)

    I will accept that some people's brains are better than other people's brains at understanding strange dialects. I myself cannot understand fellow Americans speaking English when they mumble or when there is a lot of noise. I also seem to have more trouble understanding African-Americans than other white people. African-American virtually all have strong accents. I understand most of them perfectly if they grew up in "the North", but I do not understand the ones from the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. In a technical sense, they do not speak the same language as I do. So I accept that my Czech friend and the Polish-American tourist have a stronger talent that other Slavs.
    Well, maybe I am one of them, since I must admit, I really do not understand Russians, nor Czechs nor Polish people... As I have already said, I, as a native Serbian, I can only get the idea what a Bulgarian or Macedonian or maybe(!) Slovenian speaker say...

    Just another thing, DaleC. I also would like to add (even though this is not the subject of this post, but I have to reply to something what you said): Spanish and Portugese are NOT so similar as they seem to be, and surely they are NOT "practicaly the same dialect", as you have said. Yes, they are similar, but they are two different languages, for sure. As a person who speaks fluently Spanish I would say that for a Spanish speaking person certainly Portugese is not easier to understand than for example, Italian or Catalan. But i repeat, when a conversation goes further than "Hello, how're you doing? Nice weather. Would you like to drink or eat?" understanding each other becomes a far more difficult.
    So I think it is a pretty same in Slavic languages...

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Conversation is one thing, reading is another...
    If your mother tongue is a Slavic language, and especially if you know other Slavic languages, I think you can read texts in most Slavic languages with reasonable success (apart from the fact that you sometimes need to know the Cyrillic alphabet).
    I can't pretend I would understand a conversation in Serbian; however, when I read e.g. lyrics of some Kusturica's songs (those in Serbian), I understand a lot.
    Now, the thing Tekeli-li wrote about "false friends" is true, and sometimes amusing... With a Polish friend of mine, we used to keep a list of funny words that exist both in Czech and Polish (but with different meanings) and there was a whole bunch of them.
    I also have to say that I really like DaleC's anecdotes, even though many happen to disagree with his conclusions.

    Roman

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Deuparth gwaith yw ei ddechrau.

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    I'll try to make a scale of understanding other Slavic languages in their WRITTEN form. I am a native Slovene speaker, I speak also Croatian, Serbian and Russian to a certain extent and I have a basic knowledge of Czech. So, from my point of view, starting from the most understandable, I'd say:

    CROATIAN
    SERBIAN
    SLOVAK
    CZECH
    MACEDONIAN
    BULGARIAN
    RUSSIAN
    SORBIAN
    UKRAINIAN
    BELORUSSIAN
    POLISH

    Being also a native Italian speaker, I can make the following comparison: Portuguese may be compared to a certain extent to Polish. Both are highly palatized languages, that's why they are more difficult to understand when spoken.

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Quote Originally Posted by Primorec
    CROATIAN
    SERBIAN
    SLOVAK
    CZECH
    MACEDONIAN
    BULGARIAN
    RUSSIAN
    SORBIAN
    UKRAINIAN
    BELORUSSIAN
    POLISH
    My native language is Croatian and this would be my scale of understanding:

    1. SERBIAN
    2. MACEDONIAN
    3. SLOVENE
    4. BULGARIAN
    5. SLOVAK
    6. RUSSIAN
    7. CZECH
    8. POLISH
    9. UKRAINIAN
    10. BELARUSSIAN

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Now I thought of something else. My 12-year cousin who doesn't watch Croatian tv and doesn't get to hear or read a lot of Croatian in her daily life, says that she can't understand it. I watched quite a lot of Croatian tv as a kid since it was the only other channel we could see besides Slovenian tv, and I never had many problems understanding it, except for some words every now and then.

    You can also observe this in Slovenian forums as well. Someone posts a joke in Croatian or Serbian and then a teenager asks for translation, because he can't understand the joke. Another "older" member of this (Slovenian) forum once wrote that he should read the joke again slowly word by word and eventually he'll realize that he can understand almost everything.

    So I don't know how mutually intelligible South Slavic languages really are? Maybe it's just a matter of being exposed to the language long enough to pick up some rules and stuff?
    Last edited by skye; 4th February 2006 at 9:55 AM.

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Quote Originally Posted by GoranBcn
    My native language is Croatian and this would be my scale of understanding:

    1. SERBIAN
    2. MACEDONIAN
    3. SLOVENE
    4. BULGARIAN
    5. SLOVAK
    6. RUSSIAN
    7. CZECH
    8. POLISH
    9. UKRAINIAN
    10. BELARUSSIAN
    I am native os Serbian, and my scale of Slavic languages is as follows:
    1. CROATIAN
    2. MACEDONIAN
    3. SLOVENIAN
    4. RUSSIAN
    5. BULGARIAN
    6. SLOVAK
    7. CZECH
    8. POLISH
    9. UKRAINIAN
    10. BELARUSSIAN

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    Re: All Slavic languages: Mutual intelligibility

    Wow, amazing, I didn't know the Slavic languages were so closely related!

    They are definitely closer together than the dialects of Chinese. For there is zero intelligibility between, say, Shanghainese and Cantonese. Even basic verbs, pronouns, and aspect markers in Chinese dialects can have unrelated etymologies and usages.

    Here's a Flash soundboard that compares Shanghainese and Mandarin:
    www dot sinosplice dot com slash chinese slash dialects

    Click the "A" on the right to see the transliterated pronunciation (selected by default), and click the Chinese character beside the "A" to see the differences between written Shanghainese and written Mandarin (on which Standard Chinese is based)

    Are Russian and Ukrainian this far apart?
    How about Russian and Czech?
    Or Russian and Bulgarian-Macedonian?

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