On mutual intelligibility and familiarity

There’s an idea that dialects are mutually intelligible and languages are mutually unintelligible. John McWhorter had a nice piece in the Atlantic where he summarized the evidence against this idea. There are two factors in mutual intelligibility that McWhorter does not mention: familiarity and power.

Ultimately we can place any pair of language varieties on a continuum of closeness. On one end, for example, I can speak my native Hudson Valley dialect of English and be understood very easily by speakers of the Northern Cities dialect on the other side of the mountains. On the other end of the continuum, when my neighbors from Bangladesh speak their native Bengali I have no idea what they are saying.

As McWhorter shows with examples like the “languages” Swedish and Danish and the “dialects” of Moroccan and Jordanian colloquial Arabic, the edge cases are much less clear. He talks about dialect continua like the one between French and Italian, where the variety spoken in each village is subtly different from that in the next village, but still understandable. When people from towns that are hundreds of miles apart meet, however, they cannot understand each other’s village dialect.

McWhorter simplifies things a bit when he says that in English, “speakers of different dialects within the same language can all understand each other, more or less. Cockney, South African, New Yorkese, Black, Yorkshire—all of these are mutually intelligible variations on a theme.” It’s not true that any English speaker can understand any other English speaker. Consider this video of the English spoken on Ocracoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, produced by Walt Wolfram and his students:

I have played this video for my students here in New York, and none of them can understand it the first time. They can sometimes catch a few words, but often they identify the words incorrectly. I had similar difficulty the first time I heard it, but since then I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times.

I also spent a year living in Greenville, North Carolina, a town about a hundred miles inland from Ocracoke, where the inhabitants speak a related dialect. During that year my wife and I took several day trips to Raleigh (the state capital) and rural areas near Ocracoke, and spent a weekend on the island itself (a gorgeous, welcoming place).

What I observed in North Carolina in some ways resembles the dialect continua that McWhorter describes. Residents of mainland Hyde County sound a lot like Ocracokers, and people who grew up in Greenville (white people at least) sound kind of like people from mainland Hyde County. Raleigh is in the Piedmont region, and people there speak a Piedmont dialect with influence both from the nearby Coastal Plain and from economic migrants from Northern states. Data collected by Wolfram and his students largely corroborates that.

When we first moved to Greenville, I could understand people from Raleigh with no problem. I understood people from Greenville and the surrounding towns 95% or more of the time, but there were a few words that tripped me up, like “house” with its fronted syllable nucleus and front rounded offglide.

After a couple of months I felt a lot more comfortable understanding the Greenville accent, and the accents of Ocracoke and mainland Hyde County were no longer unintelligible. And that brings me back to the connection between familiarity and intelligibility.

Thinking back on it, I remembered that I used to have a much harder time understanding the Beatles. I didn’t really know what Eleanor Rigby and lovely Rita were doing and why, until I had listened to the songs over and over, and watched Dudley Moore movies, and met actual English people.

I didn’t have to do anything on this level to understand Billy Joel or Paul Simon, who sang in my (literal) mother tongue – their Hicksville and Queens accents are very close to my mom’s Bronx accent. I understood the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, much better when they affected American accents in “Rocky Raccoon” and “Wild Horses.” Yes, they were affecting some kind of Southern or Western accent, but it wasn’t a coastal North Carolina accent, it was a pastiche they had picked up from movies and music, and I knew it as well as they did. Plus, my father was from Texas.

My point is that our dialects aren’t as mutually intelligible as we like to say they are. We don’t typically have to learn them the way we learn a more distant variety like German or Fulani, but there is a role of learning and familiarity.

I’m sure McWhorter knows this; there’s only so much you can fit in an article, and it was tangential to his main point. Similarly, above I mentioned the role power in intelligibility, and I’ll write about that in a future post.