Spanish vs. Portuguese: How similar are they?

Is Portuguese Spanish? This is probably one of the most common language-related misconceptions.

Spanish vs. Portuguese: How similar are they?

We all know that languages coming from the same language family generally share similar traits. That’s canonical for most language families. In our case, the Romance languages descend from Vulgar Latin and that is the reason why there are so many words that sound almost the same in all five languages (six – if you count in Latin). For example, the word “water” is “aqua” in Latin, “agua” in Spanish, “água” in Portuguese, “acqua” in Italian, “eau” in French and “apă” in Romanian. Except for French and Romanian, they are all similar. Still, as you were right to think, Spanish and Portuguese are the most alike. So yes, Portuguese is similar to Spanish, but how mutually intelligible are they? Let the Spanish vs. Portuguese battle begin!

Is Portuguese Spanish?

This is probably one of the most common language-related misconceptions. No, Portuguese is not Spanish, but they were both born in the Iberian Peninsula somehow isolated from the rest of the land by the Pyrenees so it’s only natural for them to resemble in a lot of ways. After all, there’s an almost 90% lexical similarity between the two – meaning that 90% of their words have a cognate (equivalent) in the other language.

So, naturally, if you speak one, you’ll probably understand a part of the second, but don’t count on being able to speak it fluently. Spoken Spanish and Portuguese are less mutually intelligible than their written forms. In other words, on paper, the two languages look very similar and speakers of either language can generally read the other language without too much struggle. But when it comes to the spoken forms, or the phonology, things get a bit more complicated as the pronunciation is more different than you’d expect. However, it is said that Portuguese speakers typically understand spoken Spanish better than Spanish speakers understand spoken Portuguese.

Let’s look at some examples to help you better understand the similarities and/or differences between the two languages.

  • English: “Are there any interesting sights that we can visit?”
  • Spanish: ¿Hay algún lugar interesante al que debamos ir?
  • Portuguese: Há algum lugar interessante que possamos visitar?
  • English: “Where do you recommend I eat?”
  • Spanish: ¿Dónde me recomiendas que coma?
  • Portuguese: Onde você me recomenda para comer?
  • English: “I have booked a room.”
  • Spanish: He reservado una habitación.
  • Portuguese: Eu reservei um quarto.

Quite similar, aren’t they? But remember: that does not make them the same language. Words like información (Spanish) and informação (Portuguese) or carro (Spanish) and carro (Portuguese) may look the same, but they sound different. While the Spanish carro is pronounced the same way it is written (with the strong double r), in the Portuguese carro, the double rr is pronounced using what is known as a voiceless fricative or a guttural r. So “r” is – only in some cases – the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish “j” and are both pronounced using the “h” sound.

portuguese vs spanish
“Ponta Negra, Natal, Brazil” by Pedro Menezes©

Spanish vs. Portuguese: False friends

Unsurprisingly, Spanish and Portuguese share a lot of cognates (words from different languages that look and sound similar and even share the same meaning), but they also share a lot of “false friends” or false cognates (words that look and sound the same and might share a common origin, but have different meanings). So it would be best if you would not get ahead of yourself in trying to guess the meaning of a new word that looks similar to a word you already know. Crazy misunderstandings like being pregnant instead of embarrassed can happen when you least expect it! (If you are not familiar with this cognate -> the Spanish “embarazada” is similar to the English “embarrassed”, but funnily enough it translates to “pregnant” in English.)

Here are some examples of the most common “false friends” from Spanish and Portuguese to help you avoid potentially embarrassing situations:

  • pelado – translates to “skinned” or “peeled” in both languages, but colloquially changes its meaning to “having a shaved head or new haircut” in Spanish and “being naked” in Portuguese. You wouldn’t want to mix those two, wouldn’t you?
  • while in Spanish, largo means “long” and ancho means “wide”, in Portuguese, largo means “wide” and longo means “long”. That sounds like a headache, doesn’t it?
  • polvo – means “octopus” in Portuguese and “dust” in Spanish
  • you already know that the Spanish (estar) embarazada means “(to be) pregnant”. Well, the same as English, Portuguese translates (estar) embaraçada to “(to be) embarrassed” or “(to be) entangled” so be careful with this one (again!)
  • exquisita means “exquisite” or “delicious” in Spanish and esquisita (notice the “s” that takes the place of the “x”) means “weird” in Portuguese. A letter can truly change everything…
  • “Red” is rojo in Spanish, but Portuguese roxo breaks the “Romance” norm and translates to “purple”. The Portuguese “red” is vermelho.

Other notable differences

At this point, we already settled that although very similar, Portuguese and Spanish are also different in terms of pronunciation and false cognates. Besides, there are also differences given by the area in which the language is spoken. Brazilian Portuguese is different from European Portuguese and Latin American Spanish is different from European Spanish. And as we already mentioned, behind that there are entire centuries of rich history and different influences. It’s nothing but fascinating!

But before you go, here are four more major differences between the two languages we should not overlook:

  • while in Spanish both yo and me are used to express the singular form of the first person “I”, in Portuguese only eu is used;
  • ñ in the Spanish alphabet becomes nh in Portuguese, so España or Spain is Espanha in Portuguese;
  • while in Spanish you have to use muy before adverbs and adjectives and mucho before a noun or after a verb, in Portuguese you just use muito;
  • while Portuguese speakers tend to use a casa dela to express possession, the Spanish speakers just say su casa as you probably already know from the well-known expression Mi casa es su casa;

The bottom line is that Spanish and Portuguese are indeed different, but also similar. So, if you already speak Portuguese, learning Spanish will certainly become way easier and vice-versa. You’ll soon discover that even a small resemblance between words like “hello” in Spanish and “hello” in Portuguese will make a huge difference for your learning process.

Excited to find out more? Here’s the best way to learn Portuguese, the days of the week in Spanish and everything you need to know about Spanish verbs and Spanish accents. Good luck!

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Diana Lăpușneanu

Movie geek turned content writer, Diana is passionate about storytelling, mythology and art history. She is currently expl ... more about Diana.

5 comments on “Spanish vs. Portuguese: How similar are they?

  1. Educated Spanish and Portuguese speakers can generally have a good conversation each speaking in his own language. It also helps a lot to avoid using slang and jargon, and do not speak fast. It’s actually remarkable how alike these two languages are. The fact they they share 90% of their vocabulary makes it very easy of speakers of both to decipher the meaning of an unfamiliar word or expression simply from context. In other words, if both understand 8 out of 10 words, they can easily deduce the meaning of the other unfamiliar 2 words. No other Romance language speaker can do this with the facility of a Spanish/Portuguese speaker. Meaning, out of all the Romance language speakers the only pair of Romance language speakers than can achieve a considerable level of mutual intelligibility are Portuguese and Spanish, and either of these two with a French, Italian, or Romanian speaker will not be able to achieve it nowhere near as easily, definitely a not a Romanian or French speaker. An Italian could probably have a basic 2 way conversation with a Portuguese or Spanish speaker. With no prior exposure or familiarity with the other language, an Italian and Spanish speaker would likely only result in approx. 45% maybe 50% intelligibility both ways. Between a Brazilian and a Colombian for example, the figure would be approx. 85% – 90% both ways. Between an educated Portuguese speaker from Portugal and one from Spain, the level of intelligibility would likely around 75% – 80%. The reason for the slight decrease with this pair would have to do with accents. The Castilian Spanish accent is gunfire super fast, and the Portuguese accent is less vowel friendly than Spanish. A lot also depends on who is doing the talking and who is doing the listening. From the many real life experiments that I have conducted on the level of intelligibility between Spanish and Portuguese speakers from the above mentioned countries, my figures are very, very close to accurate.

  2. Why did you use synonyms and different semantic structures to make Portuguese and Spanish look so different? I’m a native Spanish speaker and I can tell you that I understand 100% of written Portuguese… and after three days in Porto, I could understand it also when spoken…

    Natural translation:

    Spanish: ¿Hay algún lugar interesante que podamos visitar?
    Portuguese: Há algum lugar interessante que possamos visitar?

    Spanish: ¿Dónde me recomienda para comer?
    Portuguese: Onde você me recomenda para comer?

    Spanish: Reservé un cuarto.
    Portuguese: Eu reservei um quarto.

    Of course you can stress absurd differences as you did in your article…

    Stressed translation to make Portuguese and Spanish different for a foreigner:

    Spanish: ¿Acaso habrá un sitio de interés para que vayamos a conocerlo?
    Portuguese: Há algum lugar interessante que possamos visitar?

    Spanish: ¿Adónde me aconsejas ir a comer?
    Portuguese: Onde você me recomenda para comer?

    Spanish: He prenotado una alcoba.
    Portuguese: Eu reservei um quarto.

    1. Very well composed post Ignacio!

      You obviously have a deep understanding of the very special relationship that the Portuguese and Spanish languages share.

      It also bothers me when people intentionally try to make both look as different to one another as possible. Italians are famous for this, as it seems to really bother them that the Iberian brother languages of Portuguese and Spanish languages are as remarkably similar to one another as they are, and that a very high level of intelligibility exists between both, to the extent that they can both have a wonderfully fluid conversation with one another, each speaking in his own native language. There is a significant portion of Italian vocabulary and grammar that is unfamiliar to the Portuguese and Spanish speakers which significantly hinders the intelligibility between the Italian and (SpanishPortuguese) speakers.

      The reality is that Portuguese and Spanish speakers can easily communicate with one another, and occasionally when an unfamiliar word comes up, it is quite simple for them to decipher the meaning of an unfamiliar word through context alone. Often times what appears as a difference is nothing more than just a different word choice. A Spanish speaker will say something using a preferred word, whereas the Portuguese speaker will know that word, but might use another cognate in place of the particular word that the Spanish speaker chose to use. It’s as simple as that.

      Additionally, 90% of cognate vocabulary exists in the dictionaries of both languages. Sometimes a Spanish speaker will also use a more modern word, whereas the Portuguese speaker will use a more archaic form of the word. But for educated speakers of both, this poses no trouble at all. The grammars of both languages are also incredibly similar, as are the sentence structures of both languages.

      Heck, even most of our first names and surnames are also the same! The Portuguese and Spaniards are also pretty much the same people based on the results of various DNA studies.

      Thanks for your excellent insights!

      tu hermano Jorge

  3. I met a lady coworker from Colombia, we used to try speaking in our languages but we started adding some words in English. I think mostly she didn’t understand me, and we switched to just speaking English.

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