Mutual intelligibility among Slavic languages

I know that “mutual intelligibility” is a knotty area, one that often depends more on individual speakers rather than languages themselves. I think my question is more or less factual, but the mods can feel free to move it to IMHO if they wish.

I’m aware that speakers of Czech and Slovak usually consider each other’s language to be mutually intelligible. In general, does the same hold true for

Bulgarian and Macedonian?

Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian?

I’d like to know. My only data comes from interacting with Romanians, whose language has not insignificant slavic elements, but I, a fellow Romance language speaker, can sort of understand the gist of a conversation. ETA I don’t speak any purely slavic language to any degree.

Not the same thing as you’re asking, but I’m indicating interest in your topic.

I speak serbian, and I can more or less follow russian, to a point. I would not call it ‘mutually intelligible’ but alike enough to be understood, I’d say, about 50-60% of it without too much arm-waving. Likewise with Macedonian.

Very interesting question. The answer is made a bit awkward by the difference between how a comparative linguist might answer and what ethnic nationalism feels more accurately reflects the (somewhat idealized) state of affairs. So there are two accurate and mutually contrqadictory answers to many Slavic-language questions.

Upper Sorbian (AKA Wendish or Lusatian), spoken by 40,000 in easternmost Sachsen, Germany, and Lower Sorbian, spoken by 10,000 in Brandenburg just north of them, are distinct dialects which are mutually intelligible.

Czech and Slovak are clearly different languages with a high degree of mutual intelligibility.

Russian and Ukrainian, so I was told by my own Russian teacher, who had lived for several years in the old ukrainian SSR, are clearly distinct languages with differing syntax and vocabulary that nonetheless preserve a fair amount of mutual intelligibility. I got the impression they resemble the Scandinavian languages in this regard. I don’t have similar cite data for Belarussian but I’ve formed the impression it’s a third member of that set – distinct language with quite a lot of common forms with the other two.

Linguistically, Macedonian comprises the westernmost dialects of Bulgarian. For obvious reasons, the Macedonians themselves consider it a distinct language, with separate standards. The matter is made more complex by the fact that historically there has been a spectrum of dialects leaning more towards Serbian on the one hand and toward Bulgarian on the other as one travels south through Serbia into Macedonia and then east into Bulgaria, so that any distinct line between the two languages is slightly arbitrary – the national boundaries come as close as reasonably can be defined, but there’s a fair amount of mutual intelligibility between villages on across the border from each other.

I’ve left for last the thorniest question: the speech forms of the majority of the formerly Yugoslavian nations. I need to preface this by saying that there are strong emotions involved with the various claims, so people may take sharp exception to these comments. That said, most linguistic scholars would say that Croatia, Bosnia-and-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia all speak a common language, Serbo-Croatian, which is however strongly demarcated into dialects. The longstanding dialects, however, do not reflect the ethnic national borders. The four nations, though, have been adamant in stressing the variations in vocabulary, etc., that make their local dialects unique, and hence consider that they speak Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian – and even in Montenegro, which historically has always spoken Serbian, there is a movement to ‘create’ a Montenegrin language by stressing local vocabulary and idiomatic differences. In point of fact, however, the Shtokavian dialect has become the predominant form throughout the language area, being the standard in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and within Croatia in eastern Slavonia, most of mainland Dalmatia, and the literary language; the Kajkavian and Chakavian dialects occur only in central Croatia (around Zagreb) and in Istria and the Adriatic islands respectively. All the variants, however, are for the most part mutually intelligible, with only the sort of vowel variations one might hear in differing English dialects.

Finally Slovenian is a distinct language which apparently has a large amount of mutual intelligibility with the Serbo-Croatian group.

I would say that one of the more important things to mention is that it is far more mutual intelligible then germanic languages are (and I think Roman languages as well). I speak some Slovene (by no means fluently) and with that I can understand much more in a whole range of Slavic languages than I can follow in the Germanic group. I speak English and Dutch fluently, plus some reasonable German and don’t understand a word of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian or Frisian.

What the former Yugoslav republics (bar Macedonia and Slovenia) is concerned, I would also say this really is the same language with different accents. Since the break up the former republics (now countries) are actively trying to make the languages different. For many Slovenians that also speak (whet used to be) Serbo-Croatian this can be really frustrating. So they (my family for instance) use the words they have used for 30 years, but now they get a dirty look with either the announcement that they don’t understand or that the word isn’t Croatian. Funny thing is that the ‘new’ Croatian word is often borrowed from the Slovenian (or ridiculously made up; zrakoplof anyone?).

It’s funny that I can often understand different slavic languages depending on who is speaking. With Bulgarian for instance, i have a few colleagues that I don’t understand at all when they speak Bulgarian, while with other Bulgrians I have little problem in at least discerning the topic of conversasion. I also managed to ‘read’ some news-paper articles whin I was in Russia, and all from some rudimentary knowledge of Slovenian.

I have a Dutch friend that speaks Czech and Russian and it happens that we (mostly he) says or writes something in either Czech or russian and I respond in Slovenian, with both of us getting what we are saying.

You forgot Poland. :smiley:

Allow me please to add two anecdotes. My wife was buying something in a bakery that was being clerked by an elderly man, originally Polish. She heard him speaking what was clearly a Slavic language and not Russian (which she can speak, although not well) to the previous customer and asked him what language that was. He admitted he wasn’t sure, maybe Ukrainian. So he evidently was able to exchange some words with speakers of several Slavic tongues.

A friend, originally from Georgia (the southern US state), but having lived in Ohio for most of his adult life, and I were having dinner with a Serb who had been living in the US since coming as a grad student and whose English was extremely fluent. My friend asked him how close really were Serbian and Croatian. He was silent for a moment, then sighed and said that he had been out of that milieu for long enough to finally admit it. They were less different than were the English dialects spoken by the two of us (I’m from Philly). Another Serbian I know said that it had seemed to him that Serbia was even using the western alphabet more and more until the breakup and now they were back to using Cyrillic exclusively.

I speak Czech fluently and Russian with less ease but still at a level to enable me to converse and read without too much trouble (it’s mostly that I have not used it in quite some time, once upon a time my Russian was better than my Czech). At any rate, neither of these languages is my native language but on the basis of my skills in Czech, I can read West and South Slavic languages, the Western ones (Polish, and especially Slovakian) more so than say Slovenian or Serbian/Croatian. I’m mostly talking about reading newspaper articles here; fiction tends to be difficult, and watching a movie would also be a higher level; I could do that for Slovakian and maybe Polish, but the S-Slavic languages would be more difficult.

For Russian, it’s pretty much the same story. On the basis of my Russian, I have very little trouble following what goes on in Belarusian or Ukrainian, although I have very little experience with hearing those languages spoken. As it happens, where Czech lets me down the Russian is often helpful, and the other way around, but that is more particular to me and not necessarily a tool that native speakers of a Slavic languages might have at their disposal.

Final points: the Slavic elements in Romanian, a Romance language, are insignificant as far as I can tell. They are mostly restricted to vocabulary, I think, and even then the influence is pretty minor. I have never studied Romanian in great detail, I must admit, but I’ve seen plenty of written Romanian and I’ve never had that experience of ‘hey, I recognize a ton of these words’.

As for Serbian and Croatian, there the difference is increasing in a way that is largely politically fabricated (the same is true for Slovakian and Czech but there the mechanism is rather different media, different school systems, and few connections to make up for it - data shows that youngsters in both countries are much less likely to understand each other than their parents were before 1993, which is a crying shame IMHO). Watching No Man’s Land (Bosnia, 2001) with students the other day, we noticed that when the Bosnian and the Serbian soldiers are yelling at each other, they do so in the same language… When I was in Bosnia, I asked for the train station and used ‘Kolodvor’; it was pointed out to me in the nicest way possible that they appreciated my efforts but that really, they preferred Želježnična Stanica (the Serbian) over Kolodvor (The Croatian). Given the ease with which I, 1) as a foreigner, 2) who is only approaching the languages on the basis of another Slavic language, could move around in Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian, my view is that given a minor level of effort, the languages could be mutually intelligible and might usefully be seen as a single language.

I didn’t forgetit; I intentionally skipped it! :smiley:

The only thing I was certain of before this thread was that Polish was mutually intelligible with Kashubian, a dialect spoken by 53,000 in Pomerania north of Gdynia, all of whom are also fluent in Polish. I’d been given to understand that Czech and Slovak speakers and Polish speakers could follow the other language somewhat haltingly, but was by no means certain of whether this was true and if so to what extent. In his regard, I refer you to Švejk’s post just above.

You have to keep in mind that there isn’t one Ukrainian language. Russian and Ukrainian form a dialect continuum. The further east you go in Ukraine, the closer the language is to Russian. I believe the same can be said about Russian, in the opposite direction.

One of my ex’s was Bulgarian and I’d actually asked this of her, but it was several years ago, so no promise on it’s accuracy. I seem to remember that she mentioned she had pretty good mutual intelligibility (it may have been Macedonian, I don’t remember which one), and at least some ability to communicate a few words with a few other Slavic languages. I do seem to recall that there is a Bulgarian that is a member of the Dope, so maybe that person will drop in and clarify.

I speak Russian and can follow Ukrainian and Belorussian pretty well. I can get the general idea of Polish, Czech, Slovak, Sebian, Macedonian and Bulgarian (Macedonian and Bulgarian are easier for me). My wife speaks Slovak and can follow Czech with no problem (very closely related) and Serbian. She can kind of follow Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian.

In general, the farther west you go from Russia, the more Germanic influence you have in the languages.

can you explain how you mean this, and can you provide a cite it? Intuitively, it might seem logical, but syntactically or even in terms of vocabulary, I am really not sure that it is true.

I don’t mean sytactically, but Czech has more vocabulary that comes from German that Russian. Again, I don’t speak Czech, but when I was traveling in Czech Repbulic and heard a word with an unfamiliar root, it often had a German origin. This might be too WAGish for GQ, so I’ll retract the claim, but the farther west I travel from Russia, the less I was able to understand, not just the accent, but also the basic roots.

Interesting factoid: three of my four maternal great-grandparents came from the Polish-Slovak border region. My grandmother calls the dialect they spoke “Slavish” and describes it as sort of a Slavic Esperanto, by which they could communicate not only with Polish and Czech/Slovak speakers but even other Slavic language speakers.

I checked this out with a linguist who specialises in Eastern European languages and he confirmed that at one time there were many such dialects across the region, and some still exist today (another example he gave was one used in southern Lithuania and northern Belarus).

An amusing sidelight on the Romanian language: my best friend in college was Romanian, and I visited his home many times, and heard his parents speaking to him, and each other, in Romanian. Conversations usually sounded the same as any conversation in a romance language, but heated conversations sounded more and more Slavic as the participants got more upset. My friend told me this might be because a lot of the more emotionally loaded words in Romanian are Slavic in origin.

that’s a great way of explaining it.

somewhat relevant factoid:

I was always told to refer to the language as ‘naski’ with people from the balkans, rather than ‘serbian’ ‘croatian’ or ‘bosnian’. ‘Naski’ simply means ‘our’, as in ‘our language’.