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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!
Common Misconceptions: Portuguese Is Not 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. For this reason, 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.
Here are the main characteristics that make Spanish and Portuguese different, but also quite similar:
|Native Speakers||Approximately 480 million||Approximately 215 million|
|Official Language in||21 countries||10 countries|
|Word Order||Word Order|
|Pronunciation Differences||Distinct "z" and "c" sounds||Voiceless fricative "s" sound|
Latin American Spanish
Written: High, Spoken: Moderate
Mutual Intelligibility: Written vs. Spoken Forms
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. After all, there’s an almost 90% lexical similarity between the two.
To help you observe the written mutual intelligibility between Spanish and Portuguese better, let’s look at a short basic lesson on verbs in two variations:
Portuguese to Spanish
Spanish to Portuguese
Do you see now why the spoken forms are less mutually intelligible than the written forms?
Examples of Similarities and Differences Between Spanish and Portuguese
Let’s look at some examples to help you better understand the similarities and differences between Spanish and Portuguese.
- 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.
False Friends: Watch Out for These Tricky Words
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 being 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;
- rato means “a little while” in Spanish and “rat” in Portuguese;
- traer is “bring” in Spanish and the similar-looking trair is “betray” in Portuguese;
- cadera means “hip” in Spanish and cadeira (notice the extra ‘i’) means “chair” in Portuguese;
- pegar means “to hit” in Spanish and “to pick up” in Portuguese;
- Perú refers to the country in Spanish, but in Portuguese, if you drop the accent (peru), it means “turkey”;
- borracha refers to a drunk girl in Spanish, but to a “rubber” or “eraser” in Portuguese;
- salada does mean “salad” in Portuguese, but in Spanish it means “salty”;
- oso means “bear” in Spanish and osso (with an extra ‘s’) is “bone” in Portuguese;
- acordar means “to agree” in Spanish and “to wake up” in Portuguese.
Cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. Essentially, they are “linguistic cousins”. They often look similar and have the same or similar meanings. Since Portuguese and Spanish share nearly 90% of their vocabulary, there are a lot of such cognates between them. Here are a few examples:Spanish-Portuguese Cognates
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;
Conclusion: Embrace the Similarities and Differences
The bottom line is that Spanish and Portuguese are indeed different but also quite 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 in your learning process.
Recognizing and embracing the similarities and differences between Spanish and Portuguese can help us learn more about these languages and the cultures they come from. Both languages share some features but also have unique parts that make them special. Recognizing these parts helps us improve our knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese and grow our respect for their cultures. Understanding that languages can be both similar and distinct encourages a more nuanced view of the world, emphasizing unity in diversity.
If you still have questions regarding Spanish vs. Portuguese, let’s look at some frequently asked questions:
How similar are Spanish and Portuguese?
There’s an almost 90% lexical similarity between Spanish and Portuguese.
Can Spanish speakers understand Portuguese and vice versa?
It’s often suggested that individuals who speak Portuguese typically have a better understanding of spoken Spanish than Spanish speakers have of spoken Portuguese.
How do European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese differ?
The main difference between European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese is the pronunciation. However, there are also vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and spelling differences that make the two languages differ.
What are the key pronunciation differences between Spanish and Portuguese?
Portuguese, sometimes likened to Russian in its sounds, is a stress-timed language with varied vowel sounds and atonic syllable reduction. In contrast, Spanish, characterized by its smooth and consistent pronunciation, is syllable-timed, providing a rhythmic flow where each syllable takes roughly the same amount of time. Additionally, Portuguese features numerous slurred sounds, contributing to its fluid nature, while Spanish, in contrast, has more pronounced and distinct word articulation.
Is it easier to learn Spanish if you already know Portuguese, and vice versa?
Considering there’s almost a 90% lexical similarity between Spanish and Portuguese, yes. It’s definitely easier to learn Spanish if you already know Portuguese and the other way around.
Is Spanish or Portuguese more widely spoken?
With approximately 480 million speakers worldwide, Spanish is more widely spoken than Portuguese. In fact, Spanish is the forth most spoken language in the world by total number of speakers.
From 0 to conversational in Spanish and Portuguese
It can be really tricky to learn Spanish and (even harder) to master Portuguese pronunciation if you don’t actively live in a Spanish-speaking or Portuguese-speaking country. But with Mondly, the award-winning language learning app, you can learn both these Romance languages naturally with practical topics and authentic conversations recorded by native people so you can learn only from the best.
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