Intelligibility and the language / dialect problem

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From Anschel Schaffer-Cohen:

I'm an avid Language Log reader, and as an amateur student of language politics I'm always fascinated by your discussions of language vs. dialect vs. topolect, and the role played by mutual intelligibility. As such, I was fascinated to see this quote show up in my Facebook newsfeed:

From the last sentence this is obviously (translated into) Portuguese, a language I don't speak and have never studied. But as a Spanish speaker, not only is it entirely understandable to me, I actually had to get to the end of the third sentence before I realized it wasn't in Spanish in the first place! These first sentences are an example of something I've only ever seen before between Yiddish and German, where some simple sentences ("Du bist alt", "דו ביסט אַלט", "You are old") are identical in both languages. Is there a word for this? And is there anyone out there who, following the Chinese example, considers Spanish and Portuguese to be "dialects" of Iberian?

This is clearly an issue of great interest to me, but it would be otiose to list the countless posts I've made on related topics. If you Google on "victor mair + language log + intelligibility" and "victor mair + language log + dialect", you will find a bunch of relevant posts. The most recent post in the series: "Mutual unintelligibility among Sinitic lects" (10/5/14).


  1. Greg Malivuk said,

    October 11, 2014 @ 11:35 pm

    Interestingly, I've been told by Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking students alike that Spanish conversation is generally intelligible to people who speak Portuguese, while the reverse is not true.

  2. S Frankel said,

    October 11, 2014 @ 11:46 pm

    This must refer only to the written languages. If the quotation were read aloud, it would be immediately obvious that it's Portuguese, not Spanish.

    Sorry, I don't know how to write phonetic characters here, but the vowel in the first word is a schwa in European Portuguese, and either that or [i] in Brazil, while it's [e], I think, in Spanish. The last syllable of "limite" is [te] in Spanish, and either [t-schwa] or [chi] ("ch" as in English, except dental rather than alveolar) (in Portugal and Brazil, respectively).

    I don't know if there's a classic dialect continuum between Spanish and Portuguese, but it would be fair to say that Galician is somewhere in the middle – it looks like Portuguese written with a Spanish orthography.

  3. Sergey said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 12:31 am

    Not sure about Spanish but AFAIK Yiddish is essentially a dialect of German. Remember, there used to be great many small German kingdoms, each with its own dialect. And the modern German "hoch-Deutsch" god standardized only after Germany got united by Prussia. So Yiddish isn't more different from German than one of these original dialects.

  4. Hans said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 3:21 am

    As the Terms "language" and "dialect" are quite loaded, it's probably better to say that Yiddish is parte of a language continuum of variants that includes the Standard literary and the regional varieties of German (and Dutch).
    And your desciption of the history of the formation of the German Standard is a bit off the mark – the literary standard developed already before the political unification and has been in a form quite close to the current standard since the 18th century. That is why the same standard (with a few small deviations) is also used in Austria and Switzerland, which were not part of the united Germany created by Prussia.

  5. S said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 3:49 am

    @Greg Malivuk

    Might that not be down to there being less Portuguese than Spanish speakers (globally, as well as in the Iberian peninsula), so a Portuguese-speaker is more likely to have had exposure to Spanish and developed some level of passive understanding than vice versa?

  6. Tako said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 5:16 am

    @S and @Greg: I think it's more cultural. The Portuguese learn more foreign languages than the Spanish and the Spanish have this almost "cultural anxiety" about learning other languages, "We're Spanish, we're no good at learning other languages" is a remark I heard often here (I'm Dutch but live in Madrid).

    @Victor Mair, another example could be Dutch vs Afrikaans, but it might suffer from the same problem Sergey mentioned, personally it seems like a very fine line between dialect and language, maybe it has changed more than just some words and pronunciations, but it's so completely intelligible to me (as if it's Kids Dutch or something) that I find it hard to give it the tag "language". Anyway, there are many examples of short sentences being exactly the same and other's that could be seen as someone writing in a funny way or having made some typing error or is just not too educated (that's when it sometimes seems as if a kid wrote it).

  7. Wes Meltzer said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 7:11 am

    I was an exchange student in the northwest of Spain, north of Leon in a small town near the Cantabrian mountains, after studying Spanish from Mexican teachers on the West Coast, and learned first-hand the similarity between Portuguese and non-Castilian dialects in western Spain.

    I found Asturies and Gallego sounded a lot like Portuguese, and all three were roughly equally semi-comprehensible to me. In northwest Castilla y Leon, at least, even the pronunciation of Castellano has features we associate with Portuguese. A great example is the near-total loss of pronounced 'd" and 't', like 'hablado' is pronounced a bit like Lisbon dialect 'ao' for the pluscuamperfecto. After that experience, I spent a week in Lisbon and got just fine speaking Spanish! All I had to learn was "obrigado."

    I am not familiar with Gallego except in passing, but based on first-hand experience in rural areas in and around the Portuguese border, there very likely was a historic continuum of Iberian pronunciation features that was dramatically flattened by the expansion of Castilian into standard Spanish. The northwestern languages (Asturiano, Leones, Gallegos, etc) sound a lot like Portuguese. It's much more common among older speakers in rural areas– one older lady told me younger kids sounded like what they saw on TV, in Castilian of course.

  8. Lazar said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 10:28 am

    @Tako: I've seen examples between Afrikaans and English, too, like "My pen is in my warm hand."

  9. GeorgeW said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    @S Frankel: I think I have read that there is something called the Latin Continuum from Italy to Portugal in which speakers more close geographically are able to understand each other better than speakers of 'the same language' more geographically distant.

  10. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    One thing that makes Yiddish feel very far from the rest of the German dialect continuum is the large number of words with non-germanic roots, mostly Slavic and Semitic. This gives Yiddish a vastly different "feel", and greatly reduced intelligibility by German speakers. Calling Yiddish a dialect of German is a bit like calling Middle English a dialect of Frisian.

    Note: these comments are all about "eastern" Yiddish, as historically spoken roughly in the area of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Western Yiddish, spoken in the German states, was probably considerably less adulterated, but it died out more than a century ago without leaving a significant literary tradition.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 11:08 am

    @Tako: That attitude on the part of the Spanish is traditionally (at least in the US) associated with the French, but it would seem that it is in fact stronger in Spain, if we are to believe a map someone posted on Facebook recently showing the percentage of residents in each EU country that could carry on a conversation in English. Unsurprisingly, the percentages in Scandinavia and the Netherlands were upwards of 80%, while France came in somewhere in the high 30s, and Spain, if I remember correctly, at 29.

  12. Jonathan said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    @Sergey: I'm quite sure Spanish is not a dialect of German,

  13. Christian Weisgerber said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 11:53 am

    Historically, much of Europe must have been covered by a few dialect continua:
    * Romance from the Atlantic to Sicily (but excluding Romanian)
    * Continental West Germanic
    * Continental North Germanic
    * East-West Slavic
    * South Slavic
    The modern nation states with their emphasis on a national standard language are breaking this up.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    I used to work with taxonomists, and for them the concept of 'species' is likewise highly complex and contested – especially in microbiology. The 'interbreeding' definition is fuzzy and not always easily decidable or applicable. But nevertheless there's enough of a working definition within each field for people to communicate without constantly having to return to first principles.

    Is it the same in linguistics – i.e. scholars use 'dialect', 'topolect', 'language' etc. with confidence that most people in their field knows what they mean and will go with the flow? Or if not, why is it so hard to achieve consensus?

  15. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

    @ Christian Weisgerber

    And if you accept Andrew Garrett's account of the phylogeny of IE languages, those families themselves are the result of pruning and convergence between a much more numerous continuum of dialects.

    Speaking of Romanian, almost all the Romanians I know can understand standard Italian pretty well, but Italians can't, as far as I know, understand much Romanian. The two languages are almost identical phonologically, but it might have to do with the non-Romance elements of the Romanian lexicon – perhaps more Italian words have Romanian cognates, even if they're more formal in register, than vice versa.

    Also, if it's true that Portuguese find it easier to understand Spanish than vice versa, is that because Portuguese is disappearing, one vowel at a time?

  16. S Frankel said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 2:32 pm

    Hmm. The original poster discussed a quotation that was totally ambiguous (Portuguese/Spanish), at least for the first few sentences. But I don't imagine that this situation could ever occur in spoken languages, since it's always possible to identify individual dialects within a language. And, if this ambiguity affects only written languages, it could hardly ever cause confusion between Yiddish and German.

    In other words, the original poster discussed two completely separate things – one is ambiguity of language identify (sentences which are equally valid in two languages), and the other is mutual intelligibility.

    As for Yiddish and German – my German is rough, but it's enough to understand simple Eastern European Yiddish. Anything complicated is not really possible to follow, though, because of the high proportion. But I live in New York and have "accidentally" listened to Yiddish conversations by local ultra-orthodox Jews. Their language is so infiltrated by English that I don't have much trouble in following what they're saying.

    Probably can add a few more dialect continua for Europe. Definitely a Goidelic Celtic one, from SW Ireland through the Isle of Man, and on to NE Scotland – (English has replaced the Gaelic languages in most of this area, but that's fairly recent). If you go back a millennium, there was a Brythonic Celtic one as well, from SW Scotland through Cumberland and Wales to Cornwall.

  17. Cuconnacht said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    There was once an English proverb: "Good beer and good cheese is good English and good Fries." (Fries = Frisian.) don't know how true that was or is.

  18. Peter Taylor said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    @Wes Meltzer, the pronunciation of -ado as -ao is fairly widespread across the peninsula. A quick search for scholarly discussion of it turns up The Spanish Language Today, Miranda Stewart (2012), which observes that

    Nowadays the inroads made by -ao into standard Spanish are such that -ado has become a marker of extremely careful speech and, according to Green (1990a:82), -ao has become standard pronunciation among younger speakers.

  19. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 6:55 pm

    But is the Spanish '-ao' a diphthong or the two vowels in hiatus, or something else?

    The Portuguese is a nasalised /ɐ̃w/, right?

  20. Eric P Smith said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

    @GeorgeW: I'm not an expert, but I can believe what you say about the Latin Continuum. I haven't a word of either Spanish or Portuguese, but I can easily understand the whole passage from knowledge of Latin and French.

    Years ago on vacation I heard the following conversation between a German tourist and my (Scottish) mother: "Ist das Wasser warm?" "Yes it's lovely, come on in." My mother had no German, and she replied before realising that the question wasn't in English.

  21. R Fandango said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 3:56 am


    The traditional rhyme I'd heard in English is Bread, butter, and green cheese is good English and good Fries, which in West Frisian is Brea, bûter en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk. Your example works too, though, and in Frisian would be Goed bier en goede tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk.

  22. Vanya said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 4:24 am

    The Yiddish literary tradition in Vilnius, which was one of the centers of high Jewish culture, used a dialect that had a lot of Hebrew words, but relatively few Slavisms. I picked up a dual language text of "Jossel Rakovers Wendung zu Gott" the other day, where the Yiddish has been transcribed using German orthography, and found the Yiddish fairly easy to understand. Lithuanian Yiddish seems much closer to standard German than are German "dialects" like Alemannisch or Frisian. On the other hand Romanian or Ukrainian/Galician Yiddish seem very different from Hochdeutsch, based on my limited acquaintance.

  23. Wes Meltzer said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 7:47 am

    @Peter Taylor: Thanks, I don't recall noticing 'ado' -> 'ao' elsewhere in Spain — but outside of the very small town I was in, I didn't have much contact with younger speakers. All the same, that was VERY noticeable to someone educated by Spanish speakers from Mexico.

    One of the things I thought was interesting, to go back to the OP, is that I can understand fairly simple written Portuguese if I attempt to sound it out as though it were Spanish. I'm not going to tell you that's a scholarly result! But I can almost never understand written French, and I found Catalan to be far more challenging than Portuguese.

    On another note: Because I was curious I went back and looked at an assignment I wrote at the time (2001) in order to get credit, mostly on the current events. I had written about some local debate in the news about making Leones an official language in the province, and whether there really WAS a Leones at all.

  24. Bathrobe said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 7:51 am

    Sorry, I don't know how to write phonetic characters here, but the vowel in the first word is a schwa in European Portuguese, and either that or [i] in Brazil, while it's [e], I think, in Spanish. The last syllable of "limite" is [te] in Spanish, and either [t-schwa] or [chi] ("ch" as in English, except dental rather than alveolar) (in Portugal and Brazil, respectively).

    That's less than the differences within a single topolect in Chinese.

  25. BZ said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 9:01 am

    There is some sort of a continuum between many Slavic languages as well. I am (was?) a native speaker of Russian and, while I could probably understand written Ukrainian often, I usually don't understand spoken Ukrainian at all. On the other hand, when I was 10 or so, I heard a Slavic language being spoken on the radio (Bulgarian maybe?) which my brain disturbingly interpreted as Russian sentences made up entirely of words I don't understand (Ukrainian seems to have enough "foreign" markers to me such that I never got this feeling).

  26. leoboiko said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    I'm a native Portuguese speaker and I think Portuguese, Spanish, Galego and even Català would likely be considered to be "dialects of the same language" by most criteria, were it not for cultural and political factors. I've never studied Català for a minute and had no contact with it whatsoever, but I've just headed to and found out I can understand the first paragraph as well as I can the frontpage of (and I've been studying Japanese for more than a decade).

  27. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

    Just for points of references for others, the Spanish version would be:

    Que nada nos limite. Que nada nos defina. Que nada nos sujeta. Que la liberdad sea nuestra propia sustancia.

    In Asturian, due to a lack of cognate, only the second sentence matches Spanish/Portuguese exactly.

    Que nada nos llende. Que nada nos defina. Que nada nos suxeta. Que la llibertá seya/sía la nuesa propia sustancia.

    Galician, if I'm not mistaken, would be:

    Que nada nos limite. Que nada nos define. Que nada nos suxeita. Que a liberdad sexa nosa propia sustancia.

  28. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

    Wish we could edit posts. Those should be [i]sujete/suxete/suxeite[/i].

  29. Yet Another John said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

    @Pflaumbaum et al.:

    Here in Colombia, the suffix [aðo] (spelt "ado") is often reduced to [ao]. There is never any hiatus or glottal stop (and indeed any such hiatus would be phonologically weird in the context of Spanish).

    The situation is very analogous to -ing versus -in' in English: many speakers use and recognize both variants to some degree, but one of the variants is strongly marked as an indicator of socioeconomic class and/or region of origin, and is stigmatized by many educated speakers. (It is the [ao] variant, of course, which is stereotyped as a lazy reduction.) Even the d en a word like "nada" can be weakened to the point where it sounds almost like "naa" with a long vowel (again, nothing like a hiatus is ever present).

    The use of -ao for -ado is especially common among the Afro-Colombians living on the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts. One of the most famous pop vocalists from the Colombian Pacific writes his nickname as "Tostao" (< "Tostado", I presume referring to his "toasted brown" skin complexion).

    You can see Colombian d-dropping in nature, plus some linguistically interesting discussion, here:

  30. Joseph F Foster said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 5:01 am

    Christian Weisgerber said,

    October 12, 2014 @ 11:53 am

    Historically, much of Europe must have been covered by a few dialect continua:
    * Romance from the Atlantic to Sicily (but excluding Romanian)

    I wouldn't exclude Rumanian. IstroRumanian is very close geographically to NE Italy and Dalmatian became extinct only in the late 1800s. I suggest the "Latin" dialect continuum ran at one time all the way from the Portuguese Coast to the Carpathians and the Black Sea.

    BTW — Latin unstressed /o/ becomes /u/ in Rumanian, cf Spanish cognosco but Rumanian cunosc. And Rumanians I know in their 50s and 60s pronounce the first vowel in political correctness "Romania" as [u].

  31. Lazar said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 11:23 am

    @Yet Another John: Two interesting cases of d-dropping are the terms cantaor(a) and bailaor(a), which have entered the standard language as distinct words referring to singers and dancers of flamenco.

  32. Philipp Angermeyer said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

    Kathryn Woolard has suggested the term "bivalency" to describe the phenomenon that a linguistic form "belongs" to more than one language. I highly recommend her paper:

  33. Francisco said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    Having many friends in Spain, I guess the difficulty spaniards have in understanding Portuguese is down to Castillian being phonetically very simple. Which may also be a reason why they struggle with foreign languages in general.
    An anecdote regarding Portuguese phonetics and prosody: years ago, chatting with a Brazilian student in Glasgow, we eventually became aware of the incredulous stares of the other exchange students around us. They thought we were speaking totally different languages!

  34. dainichi said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

    @Matthew Stuckwisch

    "the Spanish version would be: […] Que la liberdad sea […]"

    Typo for "libertad"?

  35. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 8:31 pm


    Yup. These are the problems you dealing with languages that are so close!

  36. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 4:10 am

    @ Joseph F Forster

    "BTW — Latin unstressed /o/ becomes /u/ in Rumanian, cf Spanish cognosco but Rumanian cunosc. And Rumanians I know in their 50s and 60s pronounce the first vowel in political correctness "Romania" as [u].

    They also pronounce the first 'a' as /ɨ/ and the second as /a/. But the name of the country in English is nowadays officially 'Romania' with two diphthongs and a schwa.

  37. Scardanella said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 8:58 am

    Don't want to disturb your discussion, but didn't Max Weinreich (btw the founder of modern Yiddish-Studies) said* it all (in Yiddish):

    אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט
    a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot
    A language is a dialect with an army and navy

    *[or a student of his said this, the source is not that explicit]

  38. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2014 @ 11:36 pm


    Max Weinrich may (or may not) have made that claim, but it is not a truism. We have dealt with that old canard again and again. Here are some references.

  39. Greg Malivuk said,

    October 16, 2014 @ 6:56 am

    @Francisco: Yeah, I always figured the phonetic simplicity of Spanish was a factor as well. (Incidentally my observation is primarily based on talking with people from South America, not Europe.)

  40. Joseph F Foster said,

    October 16, 2014 @ 7:36 am

    Re Mr. Pflaumbaum's observation above about the spelling Romania v. Rumania,

    "BTW — Latin unstressed /o/ becomes /u/ in Rumanian, cf Spanish cognosco but Rumanian cunosc. And Rumanians I know in their 50s and 60s pronounce the first vowel in political correctness "Romania" as [u].

    They also pronounce the first 'a' as /ɨ/ and the second as /a/. But the name of the country in English is nowadays officially 'Romania' with two diphthongs and a schwa.

    That's the point. To make it look more like Latin, some literati and the government changed their "official" spelling of that unstressed [u] to "o". They were so linguistically naïve that it didn't occur to them to go back and change all the u's back to o's.

    The "official" spelling is silly, and we in the United States are not required to use it. I will continue to spell it "Rumania" and the adjective "Rumanian".

  41. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 16, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

    They didn't need to change other u's to o's. They weren't pushing for a general return to Latin spelling/pronuciation of unstressed /o/, they wanted that particular word to look more like 'Roman'.

    It's not silly, because the majority of the population pronounces the word /romɨnia/, and that is ultimately what decides usage. You are of course entitled to pronounce it as you like, but given the mammoth (and linguistically naive) re-latinisation of the language that happened in the 18th-19th centuries, making a true principle of your preference would require you to create own private version of the language.

  42. Joseph F Foster said,

    October 16, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

    Well, you're right that the majority pronunciation will ultimately determine what is said. But of course this is a spelling pronunciation and the literati~government will no doubt win eventually among the populace general. But it's taken awhile because the older Rumanians I know still pronounce it [u]. It makes the word and its derivatives look borrowed when de fapt it wasn't. Hardly the only case where governments linguistically naïve but politically determined have done and wanted their populace to do silly things.

  43. Lenni said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 11:01 am

    @Greg @S @Tako
    It's true, but it also happens in Latin America (between Brazilians and Spanish-speaking countries). I'm Argentinian, and people here are generally quite good at learning languages, so I don't buy Tako's argument about 'cultural anxiety'. It must be something to do with the languages themselves, and I've got a theory of my own.
    In written language, Spanish and Portuguese are relatively close, but when they are spoken, Spanish has a pronunciation that resembles Latin much more, and the spelling reflects that. We have 5 vowel sounds for 5 vowel letters in Spanish, but not in Portuguese you don't. Spanish spelling is way more phonemic than in Portuguese, so for example, a word like 'mente' (mind) is spelled the same in both languages, but it would be pronounced /'mente/ in Spanish and /'mẽʈʃi/ in Portuguese: for a Brazilian, the Spanish version sounds like a 'careful' pronunciation, whereas for Spanish-speaking people it's much more difficult to decypher what word it is.
    A phrase like 'tener en mente' (Spanish for 'have in mind') is pronounced /te'neɾ en 'mente/ but it becomes 'ter em mente' in Portuguese, pronounced /'teʁ eĩ 'mẽʈʃi/ in Brazil. In Portuguese, you sometimes have /ɾ/ for 'r', /t/ for 't', /m/ for 'm', /n/ for 'n'… with a 'Latin' correspondence between spelling and pronunciation (as in Spanish), but in Portuguese you can additionally get /ʈʃ/ for 't', nasal vowels for 'm' and 'n', /ʁ/ for 'r', etc. and many more cases not shown in the example phrase I chose. Also, the fact that Portuguese has 'lost' a syllable in 'ter' but in the conjugation they have a nasal, makes it easier for them to guess that 'tener' means 'ter' than for us to deduce that 'ter' means 'tener'.
    All in all, I don't think this happens because "we're lazy/anxious about other languages" (arguably true for many Spaniards), but because Portuguese departed more (away from vulgar Latin) particularly in pronunciation, in its evolution path.

  44. January First-of-May said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 10:25 am

    I'm also a native speaker of Russian, so here's my own observations…

    Belarus(s)ian spelling is apparently (nearly-)phonetic, so in writing it basically looks like phonetically spelled Russian (with the occasional unfamiliar word and/or dialectal-sounding form). Never had an opportunity to find out what it sounds like, though (doesn't help that it's pretty much only used officially).

    Ukrainian looks different because of "o" becoming "i" a lot (and a few other similar changes), and sounds even more different, bordering on unintelligible. Certainly doesn't feel like Russian (except when you're reading Ukrainian texts aloud and laughing at all the funny words).

    Bulgarian is indeed a lot like Russian, but it looks very different because of the awfully common Ъ letter. That letter is pronounced exactly the way you'd expect it would – which happens to be pretty close to the original Proto-Slavic sound – so it's a rare case where it's more intelligible pronounced than written (though barely).

    My mother reported that Czech is perfectly understandable in writing, but sounds completely different (that weird R with a tick on it is pronounced "sh"). Serbian (and the rest of Serbo-Croatian) is intelligible when written in Latin but not when written in Cyrillic, because their transliteration is weird. Not sure about Polish.

    …I wonder if, had the Pskov region dialects survived WWII, linguists today would be talking about whether they are actually their own language(s)… some are already saying about that the dialect of Kadka/Martynovo (Myshkin district, Yaroslavl region), but that one's very obscure (and very localized).

    On Spanish/Portuguese: this makes me wonder what did, in fact, happen to Paganel when he learned the wrong one (in Captain Grant's Children). Had he been pronouncing the written words of Spanish (or Portuguese, as it happens) as if it were French? That certainly seems more likely than what is described in the book, and fits with Paganel's character.

  45. Gabriel said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 4:17 am

    I am a native speaker of both Spanish and Galician. I understand Portuguese because it is very close to Galician.

    Spanish and Portuguese are different languages with very similar vocabulary. The phonetic structure and the grammar are quite different. On the other hand, Portuguese and Galician are two dialects.

    In the Iberian Peninsula languages suffer erosion as you go to the south. This happens both when you move from Galician to Portuguese and when you do it from northern Spanish to southern Spanish. The erosion is noticeable in the loss of consonants and in the colapse of pairs of consonants in a single one.

    For example going from northern Spanish to southern Spanish you find the colapse of "c" (th sound) and "s" to the "s" sound and the removal of many post-vocalic consonants like the "s". Conversely, when going from Galician to Portuguese you find a similar colapse of "c" and "s" to an "s" sound. Also there is a colapse of the "x" (sh sound) and "ch" sound in Galician to a single "x" sound in Portuguese. Like in southern Spanish, Portuguese loses plenty of post-vocalic consonants relative to Galician.

    Eroded languages are more difficult to understand. That is why Portuguese-speakers understand Spanish much better than the reverse. Portuguese is a more eroded language than northern Spanish.

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