How mutually intelligible were the various Germanic languages in the early middle ages?

I was listening to an audio lecture on the History of the English language by Professor Michael Drout. He starts in the German migration period, gives a brief overview of some of the other branches in the Germanic language family, Gothic etc before concentrating on old English, Middle english,The great vowel shift, early modern etc. Fascinating.

It made me wonder how long the various West Germanic languages would have been mutually intelligible.

It seems we should be able to tell by written records. Let’s say in the time of Charlemagne. Would a speaker of Old High German be able to speak to his Saxon cousin in England?

If you look at a family tree of the Germanic languages, it shows that Old English and Old High German were already one of 5 branches on the family tree. The others being Old Frisian, Old Saxon and Old Dutch. Were they all essentially separate languges by the 9th century or could they still communicate? Perhaps requiring slow talking and wild hand gestures?

And if the answer is “Yes they could”, what about the North Germanic languages? The scandinavian languages. Thats going back even further on the family tree before North and West Germanic have a common ancestor.

In Charlemagne’s time, two speakers of the West Germanic languages (that is, not Gothic and not Norse) could certainly have communicated if both were trying to make themselves understood. It was probably still easier, however, to use Latin. You might enjoy Orrin Robinson’s Old English and Its Closest Relatives. From there, here’s a line from a Continental Old Saxon text, the parable of the Sower and the Seed, less than a century after Charlemagne:

Hê stôd imu thô bi ênes uuatares staðe

Word by word,

“He stood him then by one water’s shore.” The same text in Old English, the direct ancestor of our speech, is:

And eft hê ongan hî æt þære sæ læran.
“And after he (be)gan they at the sea teach”

Old High German is

Thô tag uuas giuuortan, gihalôta zi imo sîne iungiron
“the day was become, gathered to him his younger”

So they’ve become fairly different, but enough similarities remain in vocabulary and grammar that they’d be somewhat mutually intelligible.

Is there any equivalent for a modern english speaker? Would it be anything like someone with a strong american regional accent trying to talk to someone with a strong british regional accent?

Or was it beyond just accents at that point? I’m from the SE USA. I have a friend from midlands UK. We still use the same words, grammar etc. But in a phone conversation I have to focus. I often say “What?” “say that again” Often I dont understand every 5th word. Of course I can piece it together via context but i’ve found I cant just walk around doing other things with the phone to my ear half listening.

The following article says specifically that the West Germanic languages (i.e., not the North Germanic ones, which are the Scandinavian languages, nor the East Germanic ones, which are the dead language Gothic and a few others) were probably mutually intelligible in the early Middle Ages:

Imagine if you and your British friend never watched each other’s TV shows and movies. You could learn to understand each other, but it would take some work.

Maybe. except that written language is the same. Maybe accent differences are the first step in a language split. To a linguist, im not sure how thats classified. We’re using the same words,grammar, syntax. It’s just her pronunciation is almost unintelligible to my ears.

I don’t know about the situation in the middle ages, but even today, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are fairly close and certain dialects of Danish and Norwegian are very mutually intelligible.

There is, arguably, the Scots Language, which is either a dialect of English or a separate language depending on where you draw the line.

In England in the Early Middle Ages, parts of the country (Wessex and Mercia) had people speaking West Germanic languages/dialects (“Anglo-Saxon”), and parts (the Danelaw) had people speaking North Germanic languages/dialects (“Norse”). Apparently people from the different parts did manage to communicate – and in the end Anglo-Saxon prevailed, with a lot of Norse influence, followed after 1066 by the Romance language Anglo-Norman adding a lot of vocabulary.

But keep in mind that Norway was ruled by Denmark for about 300 years (from the mid 16th century until the early 19th). That’s pretty recent.

In Charlemagne’s time, Scots and English were certainly not separate languages, though Northumbrian ( > Scots) and the southern dialects were already drawing apart.

I don’t know that there is a good modern analogy with English, simply because the vocabulary and other features of English have changed so radically from its nearest continental neighbours.

I basically cannot understand a word of Scottish English (most definitely, not Scots Gaelic, but English as spoken by at least some Highland Scots). Ditto Barbadian English and Cockney dialect.

In a mystery written by two Swedes, Maj Wahloo and her husband whose name I have forgotten, the murder took place in Malmö, just across the strait from Copenhagen. Because the perp probably escaped to Denmark. The head of the Swedish Police Force had to talk to his Danish opposite number. The story went that after pretending for decades that they actually understood each other’s language, now that they something substantive to communicate, they settled into speaking English. True this was only fiction. Still I assume it represents reality.

Quintas writes:

> It’s just her pronunciation is almost unintelligible to my ears.

I find this hard to believe. Are you claiming that you’ve never watched any British movies or TV shows with characters speaking nonstandard dialects? Are you claiming that after years of regularly talking to her over the telephone that you haven’t gotten better at understanding her? I think you’re exaggerating. My observation is that any two people who speak modern-day dialects of English will learn to reasonably well understand each other after a few weeks of daily contact (or after several dozen telephone calls). It’s also my observation that people tend to throw around the phrase “almost unintelligible” rather too freely.

One often hears that Frisian is the closest language in the world to English. Along with the rhyme “Good butter and good cheese is good English and good Fries,” which is said to be the same sentence in both languages. (That’s the language name Fries, the Dutch name for Frisian, not the potato delicacy. Pronounced like freeze.) Anyway, the only cheese I put on my fries is parmesan.

But then if you get all enthusiastic like whoa cool baby, I’ll learn a new language with minimum effort!, your first look at a Frisian phrasebook can be shattering.

Ik hâld fan dy.
I love you.

Lokwinske mei dyn jirdei.
Happy birthday.

Ik ferstean net.
I don’t understand.

And you’re like, close to English my ass!!!11ien!! :smack:

The truth is that Modern Frisian is not mutually intelligible with Modern English, except in certain carefully selected phrases, like the quote in the first paragraph. Modern Frisian is actually a collection of three languages: West, North, and Saterland Frisian. It’s specifically West Frisian that is closest to English. Note that “closest” means “closest relative on the family tree,” which does not necessarily mean “mutually intelligible.”

Old English and Old Frisian *were *fairly mutually intelligible, but over the passage of 1,500 years they’ve diverged plenty. Together they form the Ingvaeonic subgroup of West Germanic on the Germanic family tree. The close relationship will be perfectly obvious to linguists who know how to analyze the underlying forms, who have studied Old English and proto-Germanic and are acquainted with the systematic sound shifts and other regular patterns of changes in the history of West Germanic.

Every so often a mutual-intelligibility gem swims into visibility of the lay person up from the murky depths of the North Sea that has drowned the land bridge that joined England to Frisia during the last glacial maximum. To ask “what time is it?” in West Friesland, you have to say “How late is it?” If you say “How late is it?” in English, you’ll be understood in Frisian. But the phrase is patterned after Dutch Hoe laat is het?, which is quite foreign to English ears despite its intelligibility.

Just compare the numbers in Old English and Old Frisian, versus the modern languages. This will give an idea of the mutual intelligibility of the old ones.

one	an	en	ien
two	twa	twe	twa
three	thri	thre	trije
four	feower	fiuwer	fjouwer
five	fif	fif	fiif
six	sex	sex	seis
seven	seofon	sigun	sân
eight	eahta	achta	acht
nine	nig'on*	nigun	njoggen
ten	tien	tian	tsien

*The marked g’ in OE nig’on means it is pronounced y: “niyon.”

We can blame the French for that. :slight_smile:

Modern Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are very close indeed, and would be entirely mutually intelligible, if it weren’t for minor issues like the Swedes thinking the Norwegians are all peasants and stubbornly refusing to understand them, and the Danish pronunciation having gone haywire from drinking too much beer, hanging out with the Dutch and, apparently, stuffing their mouths with cotton a lot.

This is always a fun argument, with lumper vs. splitter linguists vs. popular opinions wirth varying degrees of scholarship behind them.

Let’s start with two presumptions:
A. “Language” and “dialect” refer to two different levels of distinctness, albeit with fuzzy borders to be sure.
B. The differentiation between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ derives from some combination of:
-1. A language has a iterary standard.
-2. A language is/was the national speech of a past or present independent nation.
-3. There is a ceiling on the degree of mutual intelligiblity between two languages, above which they are merely dialects of each other (e.g. German/Dutch vs. Dutch/Flemish)
-4. What the speakers of a language self-identify as speakers of (e.g., Montenegrins until very recently self-identified as speaking Serbian).

Based on that, Scots ks now a dialect of English. But it got there by convergence, from being a clear independent language in the 1400s by the criteria above.

Your distinction between “language” and “dialect” is not accepted in linguistics.

And your criteria are not those of a “language” but rather those of a “standard dialect” or “standardized dialect.”

The mistake is in pointing at language and dialect as exclusive categories. That’s not correct. You can’t speak a language without speaking a dialect, so everything is a dialect.

Two dialects can be said to be dialects of the same language if they’re close enough. Now how close they have to be is not certain. Must they be mutually intelligible? This is where politics and society come into play to determine the question.

I resent that remark. There is no such thing as “too much beer”. We could cut down on the cotton eating, though, I admit that - if only to make room for more beer.

It’s been said of the Celtic languages: The Goidelic languages Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx are three dialects so divergent they’re practically languages; and the Brythonic languages Welsh, Cornish, and Breton are three languages so close they’re practically dialects. I forgot who said this quote, but I like it because it points up how deliriously fuzzy the whole dang subject is.

From what little I think I know about Celtic, the three forms of Gaelic are fairly well mutually intelligible, and mutual intelligibility is at best fair to middlin among the Brythonic languages. Between Brythonic and Goidelic, the mutual intelligibility is probably next to nil.