In linguistics, two languages are said to be mutually intelligible if speakers of the two languages can understand one another without any prior knowledge or effort. Mutual intelligibility is an important aspect used by linguists in determining whether what someone is speaking is a unique language or simply a dialect of another one. Mutual intelligibility can be either symmetric or asymmetric. The former case occurs when both parties have a mutual understanding of one another. Depending on the languages, the symmetric understanding can have varying degrees. Regardless of the degree, no party is at too much of a disadvantage.
Asymmetric intelligibility, on the other hand, occurs when one speaker has more understanding of the other’s language than the other’s understanding of the speaker’s language. The level of mutual intelligibility is determined by a concept known as linguistic distance. Linguistic distance measures the difference between two languages, which means that two languages will have a higher mutual intelligibility if the distance is smaller.
In addition to linguistic distance, there is a similar aspect known as lexical similarity. This aspect is used to measure the distance between two languages by examining overlapping vocabulary. The last aspect is a dialect. By definition, a dialect is a slight variation of a main language.
Scots: Mutual Intelligible with English?
The Scots language has a significant level of mutual intelligibility with English. The two languages even have similar roots. The Scots language has Germanic roots and is spoken widely in Lowland Scotland and some regions of Ulster. This language should not be mixed up with either the Celtic language or Scottish Gaelic. For distinction purposes, the Scots language is sometimes known as the Lowland Scots language since the other two were mostly spoken in the highlands. On the other hand, the English language is Western Germanic and appeared in the early stages of the medieval England period until it evolved to be the global language today. In addition to similar origins, the two languages have also experienced the same kind of influence namely Old Norse, Norman French, and Latin.
Despite having mutual intelligibility, this kind of relationship is asymmetric since it favors speakers of the Scots language. A speaker of the Scots language understands a speaker of the English language more due to exposure since most media in the world use English. In fact, most speakers of the English language have probably never heard the Scots language being spoken. When it comes to writing, however, the similarities between the two stand out even more. These similarities are detectable even though there are certain differences in the spellings. The similarities are so vast that there are suggestions that the Scots language is merely a dialect of the English language. However, there has been no agreement since universal criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects does not exist. The existing criteria that exist give contradictory conclusions.
Aside from the Scots language, there are other languages with close relations to English but not as close as the Scots language. The second closest language is arguably Frisian, which is also a Germanic language. However, just like the Scots language, an English-speaking person will most likely fail to understand words spoken in Frisian. However, in some cases, the pronunciation of words is not that different from English.