Linguistic Term for Global Understandability

I’ve been reading the SD long enough to know that there is no official accent for English. We are all the same here! gives all the English Speakers in the world a big hug

But I do have a question. Is there a term for measuring global understandability?

For example, I have talked to a guy that recently came to the US from Africa (I think Liberia). He told me English was his first language, but to my American ears he was extremely difficult to understand. His accent was very strong, and he constantly used words I had never heard of (types of slang I assume). However, he did not have much of a problem understanding me.

I presume this is because he has probably watched many American movies/television shows and is therefore is more able to understand my “version” of English.

Is there a term for this? If I were to speak into a microphone and it was played for all of the native English speakers, I would guess that maybe 70-90% of them world would be able to write down almost exactly what I said. I am guessing if this guy did the same, it would be much lower, maybe 20-30%, if that high. I would say my global understandability is higher than his. Is there a linguistic term for this?

mutual intelligibility.

Yes, and your paritcular situation with the fellow from Liberia is “asymmetric intelligibility.”

The term is “universally understandable”; so, for what you asked about specifically, it’s universal understandability. That’s not an ideal term, though–something that was clearly about accent (and not semantic understandability) would be better. I can’t think of anything for that…

So I guess this is something that is not mentioned much? This seems important though. If you are goign to broadcast out information, you need to pick someone whose accent is the most understandable to the most people (and consider your audience I suppose).

Yes, I can’t imagine there isn’t a term for it. I’m sure people engaged in “voice-over” refer to it. I just haven’t looked for it. <blush>

This isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, but an “acrolect” is the dialect of a language that is considered the standard or “prestige” version of that language.

“universally understandable” is the least clumsy and needlessly polysyllabic way I’ve read thus far from the above options.

A more simple term is lingua franca - where once it was Latin, it then became (during and post Empire) English.

At the advent of national radio broadcasts to the UK and the Empire, in the 1930s, the BBC developed something called Received Pronunciation

The rational being that it didn’t matter where in the world you listened to the radio (and everywhere in the Empire - one third of the world’s population - then received The BBC World Service), or what local dialect, patois, creole, accent or pidgin English you spoke with, everyone would get a commonly accepted and understood form of standard English.

A lingua franca is a language widely spoken as a second language and used for communication by people with different *first *languages. This is different from what the OP was asking about, which is whether there’s a term for the dialect of a particular language that will be most widely understood by native speakers of all the different dialects of that same language.

Not at all. Received Pronunciation existed long before the advent of the BBC, and as the prestige accent and register of the time, was adopted simply as a matter of course.

Yes – I don’t know if there’s a technical term for it other than guizot’s “asymmetric intelligibility”, but people from small dialect communities – e.g., people speaking Broad Australian, Lallans, Indian English – typically will understand people speaking in Received Standard English or Standard American English, but the understanding may not go the other way, because their dialects diverge from the “standard” dialect. That’s partly because radio, TV and films use those standard dialects, so people on the fringes of the language get exposed to the standard, but most people close to the centre of the language community don’t get so much exposure to the fringes.

As an extreme example, people speaking Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch or Norwegian – languages closely related to English, but not dialects of English – typically can understand and speak English fine, partly because their first language is close to English, but partly because they get a lot of exposure to English. However, the average speaker of English does not understand any of those languages.

I would think this is the biggest factor - the more accents you are exposed to, the more liklely you are to be able to understand a new one, if you’re seldom exposed, you will battle.

OK, if we must, let’s do this by the numbers - from the British Library (who, I think we can agree, might know about these things):

Received Pronunciation

You’ve just described my two earlier posts.

I was correcting your first post. “Lingua franca” is not a simpler term for what the OP was looking for, it is a term that describes a different concept altogether.

I didn’t say anything about Received Pronunciation, because that’s also not what the OP is looking for. The term “Received Pronunciation” refers to a specific dialect of British English, it is not used to describe the “broadcast standard” dialects in other languages, or even in non-UK English. Matt Lauer’s speech is probably comprehensible to a large percentage of native English speakers around the world, but he does not use Received Pronunciation.

I’ll happily agree that the rationale given by the BBC at the time was as you stated it (though I do feel that by saying “To a certain extent Reith’s decision was understandable, and his attitude only reflected the social climate at the time.” the article you quote does rather support my understanding that RP was chosen largely as a matter of course).

I take it you concede that RP wasn’t developed by the BBC in the 1930s.

Yes. I agree with your points. I’d like to add another way of thinking about what the OP is looking for: it would be the established term for that variant of a language which is thought to be intelligible to speakers of the widest range of dialects of that language. This term we’re trying to nail down would not only describe an English standard, but would apply to an equivalent form among variants of, say, Malagasy.