Italy and Spain are both Mediterranean countries, but are hardly right next door to each other. What about their languages though? Are the Spanish and Italian languages similar or quite different? Are they mutually intelligible?
Spanish and Italian are actually quite similar in general terms and ure usually mutually intelligible in spoken and written forms between Spanish and Italians. Both languages are Romance languages derived from Latin with a broadly similar vocabulary base, with some differences in punctuation that do not usually prevent communication between the two languages.
Italians and Spaniards can generally understand each other as long they speak slowly and clearly. The languages have around 82% similarity in words, along with identical word order in sentences and similar vocabulary and grammar. Pronunciation is the main area where there are differences.
There are plenty of cognates of closely related or identical words, but also some false cognates and differences in pronunciation which can catch people out. We wil go through example of each of these below.
Can a Spaniard and an Italian Converse in Each Other’s Languages?
Given these similarities, could a Spanish person go to Italy and be understood in Spanish, or an Italian person go to Spain and be understood speaking Italian? The answer is overwhelmingly yes from people who have tried this.
Looking through forums and blog posts, there are plenty of examples of people using Spanish in Italy, or vice versa, and being perfectly fine with communication. They may need to speak slowly and clearly and repeat a few times, but there is definitely mutual intelligibility to the point where each language can be used in the other country for basic communcation.
Here is an example we found of Spanish working in Italy:
“I am Greek and I have studied Spanish. When I was in Rome and I wanted to ask for directions, I would speak basically in Spanish and at the beginning I would just say “Scusi, non parlo italiano ma parlo spagnolo” (Sorry, I don’t speak Italian but I speak Spanish), then move on to Spanish. It worked perfectly.”
And the opposite case of Italian being understood in Spain:
“Many Italian tourists come in Spain, they speak Italian and they are convinced that we are not understanding any single word, but we understand many things actually.”
And another interesting account of the mutual intelligibility of the languages:
“I’m italian and I live in London, I was in a hostel with Spanish guys, after 3 days we understood each other like old friends, and the particularity was our crazy, crazy skill to understand not just the language: but strange signals made with eyes or some gesture: a particular kind of body language used just with my family. An example, I said “be careful this person in front of us is dangerous” and I made a smile on my face and a fast movement of the eyes in direction of the ”problem”. They understood immediately and they did a rapid movement of the head to say “yes, i’m looking him” but very fast to mask the signal”
These are just three of many different quotes we could pick out which point out the mutual intelligibility between the two languages. There is pretty much universal agreement on this from both Italians and Spaniards so it is fair to say the spoken similarity between the two languages is quite high. Of all the Romance languages, they are two that are more closely related, though Italian is perhaps closer still to French in some ways.
Similarly, speakers of one language do report that it is was quite easy to learn the other one, which is not too surprising given the 82% lexical similarity between words in the two languages. Learning one gets you much of the way to learning the other; you just need to distinguish the specific rules of pronunciation and watch out for the false cognates, which we will go through further below.
Some Similar Words (Cognates) in Spanish and Italian
The lexical similarity between the two languages basically means there are a lot of words in Spanish and Italian which are either identical or very similar and have the same meaning. Here are just a few of many examples of these cognates or words which are similar or identical.
- Port – puerto in Spanish and porto in Italian.
- Book – libro in both languages.
- Good – buen in Spanish and buon in Italian
- Bank – banco in Spanish and banca in Italian
- Music – musica in both
- Art – arte in both
- A house – una casa in both
- Telephone – telefono in both
- Always – siempre in Spanish and sempre in Italian
- Supermarket – supermercado in Spanish and supermarcato in Italian
- Coffee – Cafe in Spanish; caffe in Italian
- See here for some more similar words.
Some False Friends (False Cognates)
In contrast to the cognates or similar words, there are however some false cognates or “false friends between the two languages – words which look and sound similar or the same yet have different meanings. These are the exceptions to the 82% lexical similarity between written words between the languages we mentioned earlier.
These can catch you out in conversation if you are not aware of them and lead to misunderstandings as to what you mean. Here are some false cognates between Italian and Spanish.
- Pronto – means “soon” in Spanish and “ready”
- Barato – means cheap in Spanish and “cheated” in Italian
- Burro – means “donkey” in Spanish but “butter” in Italian
- Pesca – means “fishing” in Spanish but can mean “peach” in Italian sometimes
- Topo – means “mole” in Spanish but “mouse” in Italian.
- Tiempo – means “weather” in Spanish; tempo means “time” in Italian.
- See the embedded video above plus here for some more false cognates between the two languages.
This is where the two languages begin to become more mutually intelligible, since pronunciation is actually quite similar between Spanish and Italian. This is what allows the mutual intelligibility between the two languages as long as each person speaks slowly to catch the subtle differences in words.
There are however some areas where the prounciation is different between the two languages. Here are some general rules for the differences between pronunciation between the two langauges:
- Italian words tend to end in a vowel; Spanish words tend to end in consanants.
- If a c or g is followed by and i or e, both languages soften the pronunciation, but in different ways:
- Soft c is pronounced as a “th” in Spanish; as a “ch” in Italian.
- Soft g is pronounced as a “x/h” in Spanish; as a “j” in Italian.
- To produce a “qw” sound, you use “cu” in Spanish; “qu” in Italian
- See the video above for some more differences with examples.