Spain and Portugal are of course neighboring countries in Western Europe, but just how similar are the Spanish and Portugese languages? Will understanding one automatically mean you will understand the other?
There is definitely some crossover and similarity between Spanish and Portugese, but also some important and distinct differences as well, especially in pronunciation of vowels and consonants. Portugese is a softer spoken, more nasal language whilst Spanish is a harder, more clearly pronounced language.
Knowing one of these languages will make it easier to learn the other, but it will not automatically guarantee you will understand the other. They are more closely related in written than in spoken form, with a large number of the words similar enough to be mutually intelligible.
When you move over into spoken form , Portugese arguably becomes a harder language to learn, with more specific rules regarding accents and pronunciation to learn, and a certain nasal tone you need to adopt for some words that can be harder to grasp than Spanish, which is pronounced more literally. Let’s look in more detail at some similarities and differences between the two languages.
Similarities Between Spanish and Portuguese
Spanish and Portugese are related in that they are both Ibero-Romance langauges which are derived from Vulgar Latin, as are French, Italian and Catalan. Being derived from the same root linguistically, there are certain similarities – more in the written than the spoken form – and there is enough similarity for some mutual intelligibility between the two.
The two are closely related and having knowledge of one language will certainly make it easier to pick up the other. That said, the Portugese especially have a strong sense of national identity distinct from Spain and would hate the two languages, or any other aspect of their cultures, to be seen as one common entity.
There is around a 90% basic similarity in terms of identical or closely related words between the two languages, which makes understanding written forms of each language a little easier.
It is fair to say for example that a Portuguese person could read a Spanish newspaper and be able to understand most of it, and likely vice versa, since so many of the words will be similar with a few exceptions. It is when you move over into spoken form that the two languages begin to diverge more, as we will go into now.
Written vs Spoken Spanish and Portuguese
This 90% similarity in written forms between the languages means that often many of the words are very similar in written form, with perhaps a vowel added in Portugese, meaning that the two languages can be mutually intelligible when being read.
In spoken form the languages become more different, with different accents and pronunciations used in the two languages. In general, Portugese can be argued to be the more complex language to learn, and it is considered more likely that a Portugese person will understand spoken Spanish better than a Spanish person would understand spoken Portugese.
Portuguese is more complex because it has a greater variety of sounds and particular pronunciations – you can see this putting words side by side and listening to them being pronounced. You will notice very quickly that the Portuguese words are far more likely to be pronounced differently than they look on paper than Spanish words, which do have some special rules but are more often pronounced closer to how they read.
Here are a couple of examples of similar or identical words in Spanish and Portugese which are pronounced very differently. Notice the heavier and more obvious and deliberate pronunciation of Spanish versus the softer, more nasal and less obvious pronunciation of Portugese.
- Mundo – means world in both – pronounced “mundo” in Spanish; “mund” in Portuguese – vowel dropped.
- Pez (S) and Peixe (P) – mean fish – pronounced “peth” and “paishe” respectively.
- Pelado – means skinned or peeled in both – pronounced – “pelado” and “pelad” respectively – vowel dropped in Portuguese again.
- Polvo – see below for meanings – pronounced “Polvo” and “pulv” respectively.
- Torre – means tower in both languages – pronounced “torr-eh” in Spanish and “torh” in Portuguese.
- Mero – means mere in both languages – pronounced “meh-ro” in Spanish and “mehr” in Portuguese.
So you can see that Portugese has far more of these less obvious rules on how to pronounce certain letters or accents which cannot really be guessed but simply have to be learnt. Vowels at the end of words are often dropped in Portuguese so the word is softer and less pronounced.
Spanish does have these rules but to a lesser extent and you are more likely to be able to get something “over the net” verbally by just pronouncing it as it reads, though there are certain rules to follow there also, like a “z” usually being pronounced as a “th” sounds eg. Jerez = “hereth” in Spanish.
Personal Pronouns in Spanish and Portuguese
Another big difference in the two languages is the different words they have for personal pronouns – I/you/he/she/it/they. Spanish and Portuguese both have very distinct different words for all these pronouns which you will need to learn when addressing people. They are summarized in the table below.
|You (singular, formal)||Usted||Você|
|You (singular, informal)||Tú||Tu|
|You (group, formal)||Ustedes||Vocês
|You (group, informal)||Vosotros||vós|
False Cognates (False Friends)
There are also some notable false cognates – also known as false friends – between the two languages, meaning that words spelt the same or almost the same can mean two completely different things in each language. These are the exceptions to the 90% similarity between written words between the languages we mentioned earlier.
This can lead to the odd misunderstanding (in some cases a little embarrassing!) as a Spanish and Portugese speaker can get their wires crossed as to what each other means with certain words. Here are some examples of these false friends:
- Polvo – means powder in Spanish but octupus in Portugese.
- Salada – means salty in Spanish but salad on Portugese
- Rato – means little while in Spanish but mouse in Portugese.
- Embarazada – pregnant in Spanish; Embaraçada means embarrassed in Portugese.
- Cena – means supper in Spanish but scene in Portugese.
- Doce – means twelve in Spanish but sweet in Portugese.
- Salsa – means sauce in Spanish but parsley in Portugese.
- Abono – means subsciption or fertilizer in Spanish, deposit or allowance in Portuguese.
- See here and here for some more false friend examples between Spanish and Portugese.
Pronunciation of Consonants
Portugese is in general a much more fluid, soft, and nasal language in it’s pronunciation, whereas Spanish words tend to be pronounced more deliberately and closer to what’s actually written.
This can also make Portugese harder to understand as well as speak for beginners, since words in sentences can all seem to blend into one in much the same way they do in French because of the soft nasal pronunciation, whereas sentences in Spanish can seem more comprehensible in the sense of the words being more distinctly pronounced without the softening or omission of vowels.
Here are some examples of general rule differences between Spanish and Portugese around how consonants are pronounced in words. Pronunciations are always Spanish (S) followed by Portguguese (P).
- A “d” is generally pronounced as is in Spanish, but with a softer “th” accent in Portuguese.
- Example – Nada – nothing – pronounced “nada” and “natha” respectively.
- A “b” is generally softened in Spanish, pronounced almost as a “v”, whereas it is not softened and pronounced more as is in Portuguese.
- Example – Saber – to know – pronounced “sa-vair” and “sa-bear” respectively.
- The double r or an r at the start of a word is pronounced as a “rolling r” in Spanish but with more of an “h” accent or just as a normal r in Portuguese.
- Example – Carro – pronounced “car-rho” (S) and “carho” (P) respectively.
- Example – Rapido – fast – pronounced “rra-peedo” and “hrapid” respectively.
- Example – Torre – tower – pronounced “torr-eh” and “torh” respectively.
- See the video embedded below for some more interesting differences in how consonants are pronounced between Spanish and Portuguese.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that Portugese itself has two distinct varieties – native or European Portugese and Brazilian Portugese. These two variants are far closer together linguistically than Spanish and Portugese, but do have their differences.
The different between European and Brazilian Portugese is much the same as the difference between British and American English, with some slightly different spellings and words used for different scenarios, but overall they are not a million miles apart from each other and both variants can usually be interchangeably understood in written form especially.
The differences are not big enough for Brazilian and Portugese people not to understand each other when writing or speaking each other’s dialects. Much like it isn’t a deal breaker if an English person sees certain words used with a “z” instead of an “s” in American English, like rationalize or socialize , the differences are minor and do not hinder communication.
See our Languages Courses page for links to great introductory audiobook courses for both Spanish and Portuguese, available for free with a trial of the Audible audiobook service.