Mutual Intelligibility: Indo-Aryan

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English - American
I have recently wanted to learn an Indian language, preferably a North Indian one, and I was slightly conflicted as to which one I should learn.
The reason for this was the overwhelmingly long list of languages and dialects present.
I have looked through multiple threads on this forum and found interesting answers that seem to be in disagreement with each other, some saying that these languages under the Indo-European > Indo-Aryan language family are intelligible enough to be considered dialects (of course, I know of the case with Hindi and Urdu, but some were saying that Hindi and Punjabi were very much intelligible as well), so none of them seemed to give the concrete answer I wanted. Most seemed to make it clear that Hindi was the language to learn as it is wisely used as a lingua franca and many were exposed to it.
However, my question seems to be, how truly mutually intelligible are these languages if one were to have zero exposure to the other language? Would they truly be closely related enough to be considered 'dialects'?
These are some languages of interest as reference:
  • Hindi
  • Gujarati
  • Punjabi
  • Marathi
  • Oriya
  • Bengali
Using percentages for mutual intelligibility level, or personal experiences would be helpful too. Thank you :)
  • mundiya

    Senior Member
    Hindi, English, Punjabi
    Some words are the same or similar enough that they would be understood across many Indic languages, but in general the languages you listed are not mutually intelligible unless one has had some exposure. Each language you listed has different dialects too, and perhaps that is where the confusion comes from.
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    Senior Member
    English - England
    There is no measure of mutual intelligibility. Native speakers can be unreliable, not because they deliberately mislead, but because they fail to take into account their exposure to the language they are being asked about and because different people with the same background can have varying degrees of understanding. It may also be the case that on first encountering the language the level of understanding is low, but that it may not take long to get into it.

    I think it is important not to associate mutual intelligibility too closely with what may be designated dialects or to assume it is absent between what may be designated languages. From what I have read about Indic languages it seems that they form one vast dialect continuum and that the languages listed in post 1 are social constructs. In particular I understand that Punjabi merges with Hindi so that designating one dialect Hindi and the other Punjabi is, from a purely linguistic point of view, somewhat arbitrary. Given the huge number of speakers and very large area over which they are spoken, I would be very surprised if all the dialects designated as Hindi were mutually intelligible to the same extent.

    I think which language you choose to learn has to depend on why you want to learn it.


    Senior Member
    Bengali (India)
    Some personal observations on mutual intelligibility. Even with a good comprehension of Bengali and Hindi, and a working knowledge of Gujarati, Marathi speech is essentially fully unintelligible to me. I can figure out a bit more on reading, but it is mostly guesswork relying mostly on the shared Sanskrit loanwords, though it is not always safe, as different Indian languages may use the same Sanskrit loanword in different meanings (not unlike English actual, French actuel). Sindhi is essentially fully opaque to me. Before I got exposed to it, Punjabi used to be quite opaque to me as well, but in India it tends to be spoken mixed with Hindi in the media which are more accessible to non-Punjabis (e.g. Bollywood songs), giving the impression of more intelligibility than what is actual. As a matter of fact, even though I now understand "Bollywood Punjabi", when "good" native speakers speak among themselves, I am still largely lost.

    As Hulalessar explained, there exists a huge dialect continuum from the Indus valley to the Brahmaputra valley (It's similar in length to the road distance between the Southern tip of Italy and Portugal), including the whole Ganges valley, and beyond. Structurally, I think, the Eastern languages, represented by 3 main standard languages - Assamese, Bengali and Oriya - are similar to each other but rather different from the other major standard languages (e.g. Hindi, Marathi, etc.) in this continuum. The difference lies in grammar as well as phonetics/phonology. But even within either of these groups, every standard language (and non-standard variety as well) has enough of its own structural quirks. Comparing Bengali and Hindi (especially the formal learned variant of each), I think, they share more vocabulary than English and German - provided that the subject can see through the phonological differences (e.g. that Bengali "biddan" is same as Hindi "vidvān" - "learned person". It is not always trivial when listening, but less of a challenge when reading, provided the subject can read both the scripts, because the Eastern languages tend to use an etymological spelling which is largely aligned to the other Indian languages.), but they differ more or to the same extent in grammar as English and German. Also, in everyday language, the shared vocabulary probably wouldn't exceed the level of English and German. This is, of course, purely my subjective opinion.

    Also, there are many "false friends" (i.e. words that sound similar but mean different things) among the various Indo-Aryan languages - both in the borrowed vocabulary (whether Sanskritic or Persian), as well as the native. One interesting series between Bengali and Hindi:

    H. leT- = B. so- (to lie down)
    H. so- = B. ghuma- (to sleep)
    H. ghum- = B. ghur- (to move about, revolve)
    H. ghur- = B. taka- (to stare)
    H. tāk- (also) = to stare
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