How Similar are Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian? (8 FAQs Answered)
Hola! Oi! Ciao!
Have you ever come across a Portuguese speaker and thought you recognized a word or two that sounded like Spanish? But then you poke your ears up and hear completely different sounds and think… what is that?
Or have you gone into an Italian restaurant and thought that the way people greeted one another sounded a lot like a rap intro from a popular Brazilian funk song?
You are not crazy, my friend! Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese share countless linguistic similarities because they come from the same language group, and yet they’re completely different.
Let’s find out why.
1. What Language Group Do Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese Come From?
These 3 languages come from the Romance language group.
The Romance languages are a language family in the broader Indo-European language group that was derived from ‘Common Latin.’
They got their name from their Latin origins, the language spoken by the Western Roman Empire. Their grammatical inflection system has been simplified and lost most of the complex case structure of classical Latin.
How Latin Became the Foundation of Romance Languages
With Latin being the foundational structure of the linguistic makeup of Romance languages, it is no wonder why you see such strong resemblance between these Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
The foundational influence that Latin has on the creation of Romance languages includes:
- Sentence structure (syntax)
- Feminine & masculine linguistic qualities
- Writing system
- Musical and melodic cadence (which comes from alteration between consonants and vowels)
The most spoken Romance languages are French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.
(If you want to continue down the “language rabbit hole” then you will see a lot of similar vocabulary between the romance languages.)
2. Why Do Some Romance Languages Sound So Different Than Latin?
The Romance languages differ so much from Latin because they come from Vulgar Latin which is what the uneducated population of the Roman Empire spoke.
FUN FACT- The area that the Romance languages are spoken in Europe is mostly the extent of the Western Roman Empire.
These languages were respectively influenced by the varying linguistic groups around them, much like the Spanglish that developed in Miami.
Language adapts to its surroundings – or how else would we get the word ‘pizza’ in English?
3. How Similar are Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian?
Where lexical similarity of Italian and Spanish is around 80%, Spanish and Portuguese is around 90%.
In other words, these Latin languages are cousins.
If you are passively listening to the three languages being spoken, they are similar enough to realize that they belong to the same language group.
More often than not, you should be able to pick out similar vocabulary in all of the languages, as they share a common root. Check out some examples of these below:
These languages differ in the common usage of verb tenses, some are even non-existent in others, like Portuguese “personal infinitive”, yet the languages still share a common syntax and grammatical rules.
However, there are times when the words, sounds, and idioms are so different from one language to the next that a speaker of one language cannot simply understand the other two without context.
4. Why Are Spanish and Portuguese So Similar?
The simple answer? They are their own linguistic best friends, and heavily influenced each other.
The technical answer? Like we just mentioned above, Portuguese and Spanish vocabulary overlaps approximately 90% of the time.
Due to geography, Spain and Portugal are in relative isolation from the rest of Europe. This is due to Portugal being on the West end of the Iberian Peninsula and the Pyrenees mountain range separating Spain and France.
This has resulted in these two countries being slightly cut off from the rest of Europe, which led to them heavily influencing each other’s cultures, especially linguistically.
Well, Aren’t Spanish and Portuguese Basically the Same Thing?
Do not make the mistake of assuming they are one and the same – each language and dialect inside the language has its own unique qualities.
In fact, these two countries have a history of bloodshed through war which has absolutely shaped distinct differences in the two cultures. However, the linguistic influences and similarities they share are undeniable.
Speaking of roots, another common influence these languages have can be attributed to Arabic. There are so many words that come from Arabic in Spanish and Portuguese. A key reason for this language exchange is due to a long history of trade and conquest between the geographically adjacent regions of the world.
Important Note: Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese are drastically different. Brazilian Portuguese has a different linguistic history and influence from the vast diversity of Indigenous tribes, African slaves, and subsequent immigrants to the country. The Portuguese in this article is geared toward Portuguese spoken in Portugal.
5. Does Spanish Sound More Like Italian or Portuguese?
Spanish tends to sound more like Italian than European Portuguese.
The biggest difference you can attribute this to is the vowel reduction in Portuguese or the weakening of vowel sounds. Unlike the melodic cadence of Italian and Spanish, European Portuguese is often compared to Slavic or Russian languages.
Additionally, Spanish vowels are consistently pronounced the same way, making for a total of 5 different vowel sounds, or phonemes. Italian, by comparison, has 7, and Portuguese has a whopping 14!
6. What About Latin American Spanish and Portuguese vs. European Spanish and Portuguese?
Seeing as Italy wasn’t much of a new world colonizer, it is important to note that both Spanish and Portuguese have Latin American counterparts which differ drastically.
Although the Portuguese have a pretty easy time understanding Brazilians (partly because the majority of media content they consume is from Brazil), Brazilians often have a difficult time understanding European Portuguese.
Here are the more tangible differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese.
And while there are quite a few differences between Latin American and Castilian Spanish, the use of the pronoun ‘vosotros’ in Spain is one of the most notable, along with the use of the present perfect (he comido) to reference recent events, as opposed to the preterite (comí) that is used on the American side of the pond.
Why The Big Differences?
These differences exist because the two regions have vastly different histories and in turn different linguistic contributions. For example, indigenous languages in Mexico have influenced many of the words used in Mexican Spanish, and in some cases, completely replaced them with indigenous words.
In Brazil, exposure to African, Asian, Indigenous and European populations has greatly affected their colloquial vocabulary, slang, and pronunciation. For example, people from Rio are often teased in Brazil for maintaining the Portuguese “sh” pronunciation of the letter “s” before a consonant.
For example, gostoso → goshtoso
This is due to the popularity of Rio as a royal port.
7. Are Italian and Portuguese Similar?
In terms of phonetics, Brazilian Portuguese sounds much more similar to Italian than European Portuguese, which sounds more Slavic.
It is important to know that the second-largest Italian population outside of Italy lives in São Paulo, Brazil, after Buenos Aires and before New York.
As a result of the Italian influence in the region, this specific dialect of Portuguese sounds a lot like Italian. There is a similar language adaption in Argentina. There are linguistic theories that Paulistas (people from São Paulo) drop the “s” at the end of plural words because in Italian plurals always end in “i” or “e.”
- Paulista Portuguese (informal) – as coisa
- Portuguese – as coisas
- Italian – le cose
8. Which Should I Learn First – Spanish or Portuguese?
It is recommended to learn Spanish first.
Coming from English, Spanish is the easiest language to learn first due to its predictable grammar and pronunciation.
Spanish is spoken like it is spelled (unlike English which has many unpredictable pronunciations like though, thorough, and through.) Portuguese, on the other hand, has a phonetic system that often doesn’t align with the English alphabet.
For example, the world ruim (bad, from the word “ruin”) in Portuguese is pronounced hoo-een, whereas, in Spanish, en ruinas (in ruins) is pronounced exactly how you would in English ru-ee-nas (but of course, you’ll have to try to roll your r’s!)
If you speak French already, learning Portuguese first will be easier because Portuguese pronunciation is much more nasal and similar to French.
Overall, one language can be used to learn the other. Learning one helps you better understand the linguistic qualities of the other.
Why You Need To Learn At Least One Of These Romance Languages
Almost half the world is bilingual, and the numbers keep increasing. Here’s why these 3 languages should be at the top of your list.
1. Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the world (~534 million speakers)
Most countries in Latin America speak Spanish, and that is almost an entire continent.
This means whether you are working in the melting pot that is the United States or traveling to a Spanish speaking country, you will need this language (or be at a severe disadvantage by not speaking it.)
2. Portuguese is not far behind (~250 million speakers)
Though it is less common than Spanish, it is spoken in key parts of the world that hold many opportunities. For example, Brazil, the powerhouse of the Latin American economy, consistently ranks in the highest GDP.
If you plan on heading to Brazil or entering into the world of international business, then expect to run into Portuguese at some point on the journey.
3. Italy ranks in the top 5 most visited countries in the world
Italy sports an impressive 60+ million visitors annually, considering it is only a country of only 60 million inhabitants.
If you have the opportunity to travel, you may find yourself basking in the sun along the Amalfi coast of Italy. When that day comes, it is good to be prepared with some Italian in your back pocket (or at least some Spanish or Portuguese to help you establish your Italian basics quickly.)
No matter what your starting preference, any of these languages will be anchors to allow you to better learn the others.
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