Politics Magazine

Is Romance Mutual Intelligibility Overrated?

Posted on the 18 October 2014 by Calvinthedog

Paul S. writes:

I can speak Spanish decently, though I read it better, and that wasn’t a tough read. That being said, I can read Portuguese pretty well too and can’t understand it spoken much at all.

Well try doing research in Portuguese then. I can speak a bit of Portuguese, and I have been trying to read it for some time now. Lately I am doing a lot of research, and much of it is in Spanish. I use translators a lot, but even then I have to go back to the original Spanish. I can do research ok in Spanish, but it is not real easy.

I also run across a lot of Portuguese, Galician and Asturian. Research is quite hard in all of these. I am having an extremely hard time reading Portuguese, and previously I thought I could read it fairly well. Also I have a friend in Brazil, and she used to send me mails all the time in Portuguese, and honestly, I was pretty lost reading that stuff. I think Spanish-Portuguese written intelligibility is overrated.

I cannot understand much spoken Portuguese either. I watched a clip on Youtube the other day about some city council meeting in a town on the Spanish-Portuguese border, and I could not understand a word they said.

I have a feeling that the oral intelligibility of Romance is also overrated. You hear a lot of anecdotes. Eonavians said that Western Asturians could not understand one word of Eonavian, which is a Western Asturian-Eastern Galician transitional dialect!

Castillian speakers who went to Valencia to live said that after seven years, they still could not understand one word of Valencian and Catalan spoken at normal speed. However, they could understand TV announcers in those lects very well because the announcers used Castillian intonation as opposed to Catalan/Valencian intonation.

Some people from the north of Spain say that they cannot understand a single word of the hard Andalucian spoken on the streets of the big cities.

Commenter James Schipper lived in Brazil for years and is fluid in Portuguese. However, he only understood 40% of the strange lect spoken in Hermisende, Zamora, in Spain. Linguists say that this is a Galician dialect with heavy Portuguese influence and significant Leonese influences. On some linguistic maps, it is colored as a Portuguese dialect.

He was also able to understand only 25% of Alistano Leonese.

And we haven’t even left the Iberian Peninsula yet!

A while back, in a large city in northern Italy, an old woman had become lost. They took her into the police station and she was chattering away for a few hours. They kept asking her questions but she did not understand them as she didn’t speak Standard Italian. People had all sorts of theories on where she was from. Some thought Greece, and there were many other guesses. Finally a worker came in who was familiar with the strange Western Lombard dialect from the high northern Italian mountains that she spoke. The old lady and the cops all spoke a Northern Italian dialect, and none of them could understand the old lady.

On the border of France and Italy in and around the city of Menton near Nice, a lect called Mentonasque is spoken. It is close to the old language of Nizzard spoken in Nice. This is an Occitan-Ligurian transitional dialect, a halfway between Maritime Provencal Occitan spoken in France and Ligurian spoken in Italy. Nevertheless, Mentonasque speakers say that they cannot understand a word of the Ligurian spoken in Italy. And linguists now see Mentonasque as a Ligurian dialect!

One would think that if these languages were that close, one could learn one or another of them pretty easily. To some extent this is true, but not to the extent of dialects of a single tongue or very closely related languages where you can adjust fairly easy over a period of 1 hour-3 weeks.

For instance, in Asturias, there are many Castillian speakers who have been living there for some time who simply state that they cannot understand Asturian. If they were really so close, one would think they would have picked it up easily over the years.

Down in the Bierzo zone transitional between the Leonese and Galician languages, there are Castillian speakers who have been living there for years who cannot understand Leonese, Galician or Berciano. With languages like that being spoken around them all the time, one would think they would have picked up them easily over the years.

The truth is that these languages are not as close as they seem, and much has to do with intonation as the example of the Castillian speaker living in Valencia indicates. In addition, one way to tell that you are dealing with a separate language and not a dialect of a single tongue is that the other language doesn’t necessarily get easier to understand the more you hear it. The factor of motivation cannot be ruled out. The Castillian speakers above who cannot understand Galician, Leonese, Berciano, Asturian, Valencian, Catalan or Andalucian have obviously never taken the time to try to learn the language. They simply cannot be bothered. If people do not want to try to learn a language, even a very closely related one spoken around them all the time, they simply will not learn it.

It is said that after 2-3 months of close contact, a Castillian speaker can pick up Aragonese, Catalan, Asturian, Leonese or Galician. But that is if one is sufficiently motivated. The powerful variable of motivation in language learning cannot be underestimated.


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