Iberia’s children: A short history of why Portuguese and Spanish are different

by on November 13, 2015

“They look similar!” I can already hear you saying. “Look, just change this, and constitución becomes constituição. Todo is tudu and bien is bem. Lengua is lingua, and idioma is idioma. They’re just dialects of the same language.”

Yes and no.

Now, no. Portuguese and Spanish are currently quite different. You can’t learn one and expect to function effortlessly in the other. Portuguese sounds are quite different from Spanish ones, as are the two languages’ vocabularies. And which variety of present-day Portuguese and Spanish are we talking about, specifically? There’s Argentine Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, for starters, and Canary Islands Spanish and Guinean Portuguese, not to mention the regional differences between Portuguese and Spanish dialects within Portugal and Spain themselves.

But once upon a time, yes. Portuguese and Spanish were, basically, dialects of the same language. That language was Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, from which all Romance languages spring.

Hundreds of years later, how have Portuguese and Spanish grown apart, and why? And will they always be different?


Iberian siblings

Spain and Portugal presently occupy almost the entirety of the Iberian Peninsula, the spit of land that sticks out of Western Europe just below France. (Almost, but not quite: the tiny Principality of Andorra sits snug along the border of Spain and France, ensconced in the embrace of the Eastern Pyrenees.) The Iberian Peninsula is where Portuguese and Spanish were ‘born’ (if languages can be born) and it is also the main reason why Portuguese and Spanish are much closer to each other than to the other major Romance languages: it has allowed them to develop in relative isolation. Indeed, this is plain to see on a map: the oceans surround the western, southern and eastern edges of the Peninsula, while to the north, the Pyrenees form a natural border with France. It is for this reason also that Portuguese and Spanish are usually known as the Iberian or Iberoamerican languages.


But Portuguese and Spanish were not the first languages on the Peninsula, nor are they those first languages’ descendants. They come from a very different place.

All roads lead from Rome

The story of Portuguese and Spanish, as with all Romance languages, actually begins in Italy. Or, more specifically, with the Roman Empire, which spoke Latin and spread the language across the lands that it conquered and governed.

At their height, the Romans controlled almost all the areas immediately surrounding the Mediterranean, including modern-day Italy, Croatia, the Levant (the area around modern-day Israel, Lebanon and Syria), the Maghreb (modern-day Morocco), and the Iberian peninsula (which the Romans called ‘Hispania’). Latin, as the language of the Roman Empire, was thus brought into all these places, and it gradually began to supersede the use of many other languages on the Peninsula.

Aquitanian, Tartessian, Lusitanian, Celtiberian: these are some of the languages believed to have existed on the peninsula before the arrival of the Romans in 218 BCE. All have now been lost to history (except perhaps Aquitanian, which may have survived in its possible daughter language, Basque, and which you can read about here) because Latin superseded them all in the new Roman province of Hispania. At this time, there was no Spain or Portugal to speak of; there was only Hispania, initially divided into two sections, Hispania Ulterior and Citerior, which became three from 27 BCE: Lusitania (the south-west), Baetica (the south), and Tarraconensis (the rest); and then five from 284 CE, with swathes of Tarraconensis becoming the new provinces of Galicia (the north-west) and Cartaginense (the south-east).

Thus, for the next 600 years, Latin continued to reign supreme on the Iberian Peninsula, as it did in most of the other areas of the Roman Empire.

Latin, however, was itself changing. Just as there are formal and informal versions of Arabic and Tamil today, spoken in different contexts, so too were there different varieties of Latin emerging in the Empire. There was a standardised, ‘higher’ version of Latin, which we call Classical Latin, spoken in more formal contexts like matters of administration and, later, in churches; and then there was the more informal Latin that everyday people spoke, which gradually came to be called colloquial or Vulgar Latin.

Vulgar Latin developed differently in different parts of the Empire. Not all the reasons for the differences are known, but one main factor could be that different parts of the Empire had different indigenous languages that came into contact with Latin, and thus different parts of the Empire had different loanwords (and eventually vocabularies) in their versions of Vulgar Latin. For example, the Vulgar Latin spoken in Spain and Portugal might have included loanwords from Celtiberian, whereas the Vulgar Latin spoken in France might have loanwords from other indigenous languages instead such as Gaulish.

Of course, Vulgar Latin was frowned upon by authorities and those from the higher echelons of society, and Classical Latin remained their language of choice; they maintained it as a unifying language that was used for administration in all parts of the Roman Empire. Thus, as long as the Empire stayed intact, so too did Latin.

Gothic and Arabic

Like all great empires, however, the Roman Empire was destined to fall. As its influence and control over the territories on its periphery began to weaken significantly, territories like Hispania began in the 5th century CE to experience several waves of invasions by Germanic peoples like the Vandals, the Alans, and the Visigoths. Eventually, Hispania came under control of this last group, the Visigoths, who were invited to rule the province for Rome by Emperor Honorius in 415 CE, and who gradually took complete control of it, especially after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE.

The new kings were native speakers of Gothic, a distant but now extinct relative of today’s German and English. Gothic never really caught on in Hispania, and remained the language of the upper classes, while the majority of the population continued to use Vulgar Latin for everyday communication and interaction. However, with Classical Latin no longer readily available for ‘reference’ as the standard to aspire to, Vulgar Latin in Hispania likely began to change further, incorporating several new features from Gothic.

Then, beginning in 711 CE, Visigothic Hispania was almost entirely conquered by the Moors of the Umayyad Caliphate, becoming the new Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus. In a series of swift, lightning-fast conquests, the Umayyads took almost the entire Iberian Peninsula, and replaced Gothic with Arabic as the language of the elite.


However, the Vulgar Latin dialects continued to survive in large part because most of the population remained Christian despite now being subject to heavy Arabic influence. For this reason, the Vulgar Latin of this time is known as Mozarabic. As had been the case under the Visigoth kings, Mozarabic was spoken by a large majority of the population, while Arabic was only used by the upper echelons of society.

Whence Portuguese and Spanish, then? At last, with the Muslim conquest of Spain, they were beginning to appear.

Beloved Homeland

In the northwest corner of Spain, the tiny kingdom of Asturias successfully resisted the Moors, and was able to recover and grow in strength throughout the 9th and 10th centuries CE. This one remaining Christian bulwark on the peninsula thus served as the nucleus of the movement known as the Reconquista or the Christian reconquering of Spain, and also as the nucleus from which Portuguese and Spanish as we know them today were eventually born.

At its inception, Asturias was composed of the modern-day regions of Asturias and Galicia, which were never fully under the control of the Moors. Indeed, Galicia especially had remained fiercely distinctive since the 4th century. In 409 CE, slightly earlier than the rest of the peninsula, it had become a separate Roman vassal state under the Suebi, a separate Germanic race from the Visigoths, and remained an independent Suebi kingdom until 585 CE, when Visigoth King Leovigild absorbed it into the rest of Visigoth Hispania. Galician dialects of Vulgar Latin were thus already rather more divergent compared to Vulgar Latin and Mozarabic dialects on the rest of the peninsula, and even compared to their Asturian brethren.

Enter a Galician nobleman named Vimara Peres, who at the end of the 9th century CE, led an Asturian force to conquer a sizeable chunk of Andalusian territory between the Minho and Douro rivers. Asturian King Alfonso III awarded the entire region to Peres as a County, and Peres resettled the area with Galician colonists. He also named it after the largest port city in the region, Portus Cale—taken today as the origin of the name Portugal. From this point on, Portugal began to develop its own regional identity, and indeed, its own distinct Vulgar Latin dialects, separate from the Asturian ones.

Portuguese and Spanish

Eventually, Asturias splintered into several successor states as various kings and heirs fought for control over the area. Two of these successor states were the Kingdom of Leon, and the County of Portugal, the latter of which declared its independence as a separate Kingdom from Leon in 1143 under King Afonso Henrique, and by which time had expanded to fill out most of the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Portuguese was also by this time a markedly different dialect from the other Vulgar Latin daughter dialects, and Portugal’s separation from Leon ensured that this would continue to be so.

Meanwhile, Leon, later the Kingdom of Leon and Castile, gradually began to assert itself as the dominant force in the central area of the Peninsula. It eventually defeated the Moorish kingdoms, and expanded to control the territory of modern-day Spain by the end of the 15th century CE. The Vulgar Latin daughter dialect that eventually became the language that we know today as Spanish was the Castilian dialect that originated with Leon and Castile, and which became standardised in written form in the 13th century around the city of Toledo through the work of the Toledo School of Translators. Under the official patronage of King Alfonso X, this group worked to translate a large body of various Arabic and Hebrew texts into Latin and, for the first time, Castilian, giving Castilian a sizeable body of “official” written language, and in doing so laying the foundations for Castilian’s eventual dominance over the other daughter dialects of Vulgar Latin.

Differences today

Today, both Standard Castilian Spanish and Standard Continental Portuguese reflect this rich tapestry of linguistic and cultural history, with a sizeable number of loanwords from Arabic, Gothic and (in the case of Spanish) Basque. Both languages retain similar grammatical features and syntax, and also share many cognates, or root word forms, as a result of their common descent from the Vulgar Latin spoken on the peninsula.

However, Portuguese and Spanish differ mainly because of their different origins during the period following the Muslim conquest of Iberia and the advent of the Reconquista. Modern-day Portugal was conquered and consolidated as a stable kingdom much earlier than Spain, and thus the process of the standardisation of Portuguese began earlier than that of Spanish, resulting in Portuguese retaining more recognisable features of Vulgar Latin than Spanish, whose original core dialects evolved and became standardised much later. Geography, both natural and political, has also played a part—had Portugal not remained an independent kingdom and state, it is conceivable that Portuguese might have deteriorated, much as the other Vulgar Latin dialects have today. (The reverse with Castilian Spanish is possible too, though much more unlikely, due to the relative size of the two polities).

Other Vulgar Latin dialects?

What happened to those, I hear you ask? After all, there were other successor states to Asturias, like Aragon, and Navarre. Surely they had their own unique dialects. And what happened to Leonese and Galician?

The answer is that with the process of standardisation, other dialects that have not been chosen as the standard often become marginalised and are left to simply fade away. In many cases, this is exactly what happened with the other dialects up until recent times: Aragonese, Leonese, and Navarrese are all still spoken, but by relatively few people, as Castilian Spanish became the sole language of use in almost all domains of public life after the 15th century. Nonetheless, Galicia has managed to maintain its strong distinctive regional identity, and Galician has survived quite well into the present day as a strong marker of that identity. Galician and Portuguese continue to be rather more mutually intelligible than Portuguese and Spanish as a result of Portuguese’s evolution from the Galician Vulgar Latin dialects; indeed, most linguists agree that Galician and Portuguese form a sort of continuum of intelligibility. Two other languages that have experienced a resurgence on the peninsula are Catalan, which after almost near-extinction has reemerged as one of the primary drivers of the Catalan independence movement, and Basque, very probably the last survivor of the languages originally spoken on the peninsula before the coming of the Romans.

The New World 

Now that you know how Portuguese and Spanish came to be, the question is, where are they going?

In the 14th and 15th centuries, Portuguese and Spanish explorers were an integral part of the European Age of Exploration, which saw the colonisation and domination of Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia by European colonists. Portuguese and Spanish came to override indigenous languages in much the same way Latin did, and with almost identical end results: Spanish is now the dominant language in most of Central and South America at the expense of many native languages, while Brazilian Portuguese has far outstripped Continental Portuguese in terms of number of speakers and influence. Both languages have also left their mark on daughter languages as far flung as Tagalog in the Philippines, Kristang in Malaysia, and Guinean Creole in Guinea-Bissau.

With the collapse of the Portuguese and Spanish overseas empires in the 18th and 19th centuries, all these varieties and offshoots of Portuguese and Spanish have been largely left to develop on their own, much as the various dialects of Vulgar Latin were left to their own devices after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And already we are seeing marked differences: Brazilian Portuguese speakers, for example, often pronounce initial ‘d’ sounds with a sound rather like the English ‘j’, an innovation unknown to Continental Portuguese, while Argentinian Spanish speakers are famous for their almost lyrical intonation patterns, a feature not found in Castilian Spanish. Chilean Spanish is full of loans from Quechua, while informal Angolan Portuguese is filled with loans from Kimbundu.

It seems possible that both languages might go the way of their once dominant Roman parent. Already we sometimes speak not of Portuguese and Spanish, but Portugueses and Spanishes; in a hundred years, perhaps we might even speak of an Iberian language family. As the Spanish saying goes, no hay dos sin tres—never two without three.

54 Responses to “Portuguese and Spanish”

  1. Duarte

    Thank you for this fantastic article. I am of Portuguese descent and found this to be a fascinating read. Obrigado.

  2. Theresa

    I am of Spanish descent and found your article quite interesting esp. of Castilian and Asturias background; always interested in finding more history and facts of
    my ancestry. Castro-Gomez??

  3. Portuguese an Spanish are still quite intelligible, 95% so in the written form. This language pair is the closest to each other in vocabulary, grammar and structure than to any of the other ones. People wrongly believe that just because Italian and Spanish tend to sound alike that they must somehow close/intelligible. The reality is that Italian and Spanish are actually not that alike at all. Their grammar, vocabulary and structure diverge quite more than people think.
    Conversely, educated Portuguese and Spanish speakers can converse effortlessly with one another each in his own language.

    • I know this is over a year old, but I found this article and saw this comment and had to chime in. I am fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese and I can say with a certainty that they are not 95% intelligible, written or otherwise. I have been in many social situation were speakers of both languages were present and there was no “effortless” communication. What I have seen is that Portuguese speakers have a much easier time understanding Spanish speakers than the other way around.

    • That’s because you aren’t Spanish or Portuguese, if you were you would understand why they are very intelligible and actually we can speak in our own languages and still understand each others very well. On the other hand, you are right when you say that it is easier for Portuguese.

    • Paulo Goncalves

      Generalisations have their limitations. I am Portuguese and live abroad for any years. In my opinion, the ability to read the other language may be roughly similar between Portuguese and Spanish but clearly this is not the case with the spoken version. The latter seems to be mostly dependent on the amount of exposure. So in my experience Spanish are generally more inward looking and tend to be less exposed to foreign languages. As a result, they can often struggle with Portuguese. Catalan has a closer sound system to Portuguese than Spanish (Castillan) but I am not sure this helps too much to understand the language. Perhaps this would be an interesting angle to explore the reasons why there are limits to understanding. Personally I was exposed to some Spanish when young yet I could also understand some Catalan when over in the Catalonia. I find Spanish harder and more similar to French.

    • Paulo Goncalves it’s interesting that you find Portuguese more similar to French because I am fluent in Spanish (in the process of learning Portuguese) and was thinking that about Portuguese and French. I thought that they sound more similar to each other then either of them to Spanish. They seem to slur their sentences much more then us spanish speakers.

  4. Your article is a good first approach to the subject — congratulations on helping bring it to wider audiences. However, as a galician myself I need to be picky of a couple of aspects:

    1. There was no such thing as a «Kingdom of Asturias»

    Check the sources. There are about 40 period references (be it map, manuscript or stone inscription) which identify either kings or kingdom. Of these, just one talks about a «king of Asturias». Five speak about the «king of Galicia and Asturias» (in that order). The rest, thirty-something, speak about the «Kings of Galicia».

    The Kingdom of Asturias was a fabrication of spanish national historiography to, essentially, make up spanish continuity since the Visigoths (and, before them, the Roman Empire), in their myth that spain was a unity across history. In actuality, Asturias was part of Gallaecia (Galicia) in period sources. The sections of the Iberian Peninsula which were not under control of the muslim kingdoms were called «Galicia», and so is referenced in the muslim chronicles themselves. They often call the territory they control not only Al Andalus, but «Hispania», and the lands where the christians dwell are «Al Jalikia» — Galicia. The Cid, Rodrigo Diaz, the famous «spanish» hero of the so-called Reconquest [which didn’t exist either, but that’s another story], was insulted by the muslim with the name «galician dog».

    As I stated before, this supposed Kingdom of Asturias doesn’t appear in period sources. For all we know, it seems completely made up. There is no coat of arms or standard. It doesn’t appear in maps. It’s name can’t be read in period coinage. It wasn’t written down in period documents. The Muslims, who wrote way more than the Christians, didn’t acknowledge its existance — yet everywhere you can see the traces of the Kingdom of Galicia: its arms are at Segar’s Roll of Arms (XIII century) along the major european kings of the time. It’s name appears in countless maps, written over the north-western half of the Peninsula (whereas no «Leon» or «Asturias» appear, most of the time). Even the Vikings speak of «Jakobsland» — the land of Saint James.

    But, as you correctly depicted, Galicia was a pain in the ass for the Romans, then the visigoths, and afterwards the muslims. When the Kingdom of Gallaecia/Galletia/Galicia/Galiza (not Asturias) split and the Kingdom of Castile was formed (from what was essentially a galician County, much like Portugal), Castile soon invaded its neighbouring kingdoms of Leon and the (shall we say) remnants of Galicia. In trying to legitimate its right to rule over its much older, more stablished sibling kingdoms (Leon had one of the most successful capitals of the old Kingdom of Gallaecia, and the lesser Galicia had Santiago, the christian capital of the West), Castile began making up a history of being ancient and descendant of a long tradition of kings, rooting back to the visigoths.

    They needed, however, a missing link between the visigoths and the recent Kingdom of Castile. What had happened during the muslim invasion, and in the centuries that followed? They could have told the truth — that Galicia resisted and expanded. But Galicia was a political rival at the time, playing strong alliances with Portugal and England (whereas Castile relied on France and Aragon), and acknowledging it as the inheritor of visigoth/suebic legitimacy over the peninsula would surely mean that it had a right to rule over Castile (as it once did). So, instead, castilian historians chose to manufacture a reality which wasn’t uncomfortable and which would not fight back: the Kingdom of Asturias.

    (That the galician people fought hard for their independence during hundreds of years didn’t help. Even at the XIV and XV centuries, they were still revolting themselves against the Castilian kings and wanting to set up their own government, supported by Portugal and Britain. Galician noblemen and cities routinely hailed portuguese or english kings as their own, rather than castilian ones. This seems to have been so since the X century, judging from period sources.)

    And here, let’s get to point 2: Castillian didn’t dislodge Latin. Galician did.

    King Alfonso X is famous for several things. One of them, indeed, is making castillian the official language for courts and law. The other is for writting the «Cantigas de Santa Maria», the most famous piece of Iberian medieval poetry and music… in galician language. Galician was the language of high culture at the time in Iberian christian courts. That Afonso X decided to make Castilian an official language for law came as shocking, because that was not standard (the Portuguese wouldn’t do the same until a generation or two later, with King Diniz, my namesake and Afonso X’s grandson). However, that minstrels and poets of all kind wrote in Galician is well attested by the remaining poetry which lived until today, and it was considered so normal that both kings and lay people did so.

    «“Italiae, Galliae, Gothiae; Aquitaniae, Galleciae”[Frankfurt Council, VIII century]; “Hadefuns rex Gallaeciae” [Reichenau Chronicle],“mortuus est Ranimirus filius Veremu-di rex Gallecie et filius eius Ordonius successit in regno” [Historiae Minores XXVII] or “Adefonso Regi Gallaeciarum” [letter by Pope John IX]. Leon is placed in 874 and 928 “in territorio Gallecie”, and yet in 946 is still called “Legione de Galletia”.»

    Rererence for further reading and sources: https://www.scribd.com/document/319154759/Falsificaciones-Historicas-el-Reino-de-Asturias-PDF

    • Now, having said the above things, I should clarify that they are clarifications — in general, your article does show a refreshingly modern and renewed take on Iberian history and on the history of its languages. Other writers would have completely ignored any other narratives than the main spanish and portuguese ones, so thank you for keeping a more open mind on the matter.

    • Attila

      Your comment was as valuable as the article itself. I’ve learned a lot today Moving to Portugal soon, trying to learn about the area, its culture and history, I’ve not expected to find so much great info on one page. Thanks both to you and the original author. Great stuff!

  5. Thank you for this interesting expose. I am a composer, musician, singer-songwriter, writer and from my travels in Spain, Portugal, France and through my work with European musicians also, I became very interested in the history, genesis and current obvious differences in spoken Portuguese and Spanish.
    Enlightening and good that you put up online.
    Thanks again Kevin Martens Wong.
    Mark Chan

  6. Very interesting read.

  7. Marie

    Very interesting! I wish you had added Ladino to the mix – would be interested to know how, when, where it evolved and persisted especially after the reconquista and inquisition.

  8. Good article however am of Portuguese descent and my parents believed that after you went to school al day in the us you must go to portuguêse school at night
    I am therefore fluent in Portuguese as well as thoroughly versed in history
    “successor states were the Kingdom of Leon, and the County of Portugal, the latter of which declared its independence as a separate Kingdom from Leon in 1143 under King Afonso Henrique, and by which time had expanded to fill out most of the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula”

    King Alfonso was the grandson of the King of Leon. His mother was the princess. The rock that was Portugal at the time, was her dowry. Her husband was named Duke of Portugal and their son declared independence and became King. This was in 1492. Northern border was Galicia. He then started to conquer lands to the south and 5 generations later we have what is now Portugal borders.

    Please check your facts

    • Francisco Marques

      Sorry, you have to start checking your facts as well…

      just some hints on dates:

      . 1143 – Tratado de Zamora – independence declare for the Kingdom of Portugal

      . 1173 – Mediated International recognition – Alexander III’s Bula Manifestis Probatum

      . 1297 – Tratado de Alcañices/ Alcanizes establishing the shape of the current border between the two Iberian states.

      . 1415 – Oversees expansion starts with the conquest of Ceuta by the portuguese.

      . 1415-1462 – Conquering and colonization of the Macaronesia macro-archipelago.

      . 1492 -Spain comes into what is practically and de jure, its current form with the conquering of the Kingdom of Granada. Simultaneously it is the official date Columbus reached “India” and gave a face to 500 years of bad-karma for some millions of people. ;)

  9. I agree with commenter Pablo, there’s quite a bit of similarities in both languages, not sure I would put the percentage as high as 95%, I would say 85% “make-able” meaning between the two in written form. So as a spanish speaker, it is much, much easier to understand portuguese from a written standpoint than from a verbal one. While in the case of the portuguese speaker, I understand it is much easier for them to understand spanish from both a verbal and written form due to the open-direct pronuniciation of spanish. Which is where the great similarities between spanish and italian lay… it’s almost easier for a spanish speaker to make out spoken italian that spoken portuguese, as the portuguese pronunciations seems very distorted, nasal, to the spanish “ear”, almost akin to french pronunciation… while spanish and italian are both extremely direct and open-vowels based.

    • Javier Ramos

      But I have never seen a Spanish and Italian speaker have an intelligible conversation about anything beyond just the basic conversation stuff. In fact, I have been to many Spanish speaking tourist destinations over the years and have in fact I have seen It alien tourists struggle to communicate with the local hotel Spanish speakers. It’s always, “huh, what, no I meant, which one, can you repeat please?” kind of thing, and after a couple of minutes both take their leave from each other politely, but in frustration.
      Conversely, I have see very communication between Portuguese tourists and the Spanish speaking hotel employees. They never looked confused. The thing is that our vocabularies and grammars are so similar, that when an unfamiliar word comes up, we can easily understand the meaning of the unfamiliar word just from the context alone. Sometimes a Portuguese speaker will use a certain word, and a Spanish speaker will use another word, but both words mean the same thing, and thus they both understand what is meant. It’s often times just ‘word usage’. But since our vocabularies and grammars are like 89% alike. The other thing that greatly facilitates comprehension between Portuguese and Spanish speakers is the fact that the structures ( word order ) of both languages are almost identical. Italian is a horse of a different colour. I agree that Spanish and Italian sometimes sound similar, but what good is that if an Italian orders ‘Pasta Burro) at a restaurant in Bolivia, and the Spanish speaking Bolivian comes back with a plate of pasta and a Donkey? The similar accent means nothing when different vocabulary is used, and between Italian and Spanish, quite a lot of vocabulary is different. And the words that are different between both languages are usually the important, everyday used ones, that are critical for intelligibility.

  10. Interesting article but with a good of flaws

  11. Phonetics are overrated.

    A totally different word in Italian would never be intelligible to a Spanish speaker
    But a Portuguese word with 1 or 2 letters in a different order eg. Aldea (Spa.) vs. Aldeia (Port.) would 100% be intelligible regardless of accent…in this case the accent difference is negligible. And, this word (derived from Arabic) means the same thing in both languages.

    Immigrants who speak with heavy accents are understood because a word is the same regardless of the heavy accent. Thus, the same or very similar words will be understood between Spanish Portuguese speakers regardless of the accent.

    Now a spanish speaker with no previous exposure to Italian would never understand that ‘CALCIO’ means soccer on Italian…in Spanish it is ‘FUTBOL’ and in Portuguese it is ‘FUTEBOL’. Get the point? The similar lexicon between Spanish and Portuguese is 89%
    But between Spanish and Italian it is 82%. The 7 % difference may seem trivial? But it is Huge!

    Plus the grammars of Spanish and Portuguese are almost the same. The sentence structures between the two are very, very close as well.

    • To correct you: Soccer is “futbol” in italiano as well.

    • Wow, Juan doesn’t know anything about Italian or Portuguese.
      Portuguese shares a lot of vocabulary with French. Abajour, sutia, garcon… just as Spanish shares with Italian: Gracias, gratzi. Obrigado is completely different!
      And no, Portuguese speakers do NOT understand what spanish speakers say, unless they learned to do so.

    • julio iglesias

      Juan, you are wrong. check out these words in spanish and portuguese (in this order):

      Thank you : Gracias – Obrigado
      Child: Niño – Criança
      Old person: Ancian0 – Idoso
      To Share: Compartir – Partilhar
      Sick person: Enfermo – Doente

  12. Beautiful article, thank you for bringing to light forgotten history. Gallaecia was once North Portugal and Northwestern Spain, and the Lusitanians to the south west, another distinct group of Portuguese. The North West in particular held the largest concentration of Celts in Iberia, moreover, it held as a Suebi dominant tribe from 409AD to mid 500’s when the Visigoths took over, claiming all of Iberia. The Suebi were a branch of Germanic tribes unique to Gallaecia, and these ancestors fully integrated with this Celtic dominant region, as did the remaining Visigoth Germans of Iberia.

    Portugal sounds different than Spanish because its dialect retains the Vulgur Latin spoken in this Celtiberian/Germanic region. That is why Portuguese shares phonetic similarities with French, who preserved Vulgur Latin very well and had a strong Celtic branch on the west coast, and Germanic dominated branch tot he east (Historically held as the Gaulish stronghold). There are indeed well over 1,500 Celtic/Germanic words in Portuguese as well, and the Mozarabic influence is small, around 400-800 Arabic words vs 8,000 Arabic words in Spanish. Castille dominated the ancient sounds of Gaulish in Iberia, the only reason why Portugal still preserves it is because of our region, and early isolation.

  13. My name is Julio and I am from Spain. I would like to share my thoughts about this conversation. Forgive my English mistakes please.

    English: Do you want to drink a beer?

    Italian: Vuoi prendere una birra?

    Spanish: Quieres tomar una cerveza?

    Portuguese: Queres tomar uma cerveja?

    Now which two are the closest in terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax?
    There are thousands of other examples of this nature.

    Do you think the Portuguese accent would confuse a Spanish speaker from understanding the sentence? Definitely not!

    The following excerpt was taken from a literature piece about the great similarities between the Portuguese and Spanish languages from Instituto Cervantes in Spain.

    Portuguese and Spanish share so many similarities to the extent that they can be called dialects of a same language. The two languages ​​share an almost identical vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure at a level of 89%. Educated speakers of both can communicate easily with one another, each speaking in his own language.

    Without question, there is not a closer language to Spanish than Portuguese, and vice versa.

    Thanks for the time.

    • Varinia

      I completely agree with Julio.

      In my opinion, there is no doubt that Spanish and Portuguese are very similar but the pronunciation is different. As a Spanish speaker, Italian is easier for me to pronounce but not to understand. It is interesting that I always found the pronunciation of Portuguese and Catalan similar to French. On the other hand, Italian and Spanish sound similar.

      In Argentina, for example Spanish sound like Italian,regardless of the influx of immigrants from Italy, France, Germany…

      Kevin Mathens Wong, thank you for the article. My son is of Portuguese descent, I am glad I found in your article a source of knowledge that I will be sharing with him. The article has created a wonderful forum of discussion.

    • damian

      Portuguese does have nothing to do with Spanish, in writing form we can read it but we don’t know the meaning i used Spanish to do my drivers license test and i failed i used English and i passed ,got more a Slavic and basque phonetic than Spanish

  14. Very interesting article I came across as I was looking into some connections about the Hispanic/Latino debate when it comes to categorizing Brazilians and demographics, etc.

    So from that demographic standpoint, I have a simple question: is it REALLY all that bad to consider Portuguese/Brazilians as “Hispanics”? Based on ALL of these historic connections to each other, linguistically and geographically? I know Portuguese-speaking regions are classified as Lusophone, but going back to the very beginning, both languages coming from the Iberian peninsula makes the debate somewhat trivial when you back to those very roots of Latin and the Roman empire, does it not? Just as we categorize all the other major ones of French, Italian, etc…as essentially “Latin”.

    I’m not trying to start a another big debate but that thought came to mind. I am also perfectly aware of how complicated the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” can be but considering how the languages come from one region, does it matter that much? I feel like people get very passionate about that discussion simply because of Brazil ending up with a different linguistic outcome from colonization but Spanish and Portuguese both came from the same place in Europe.

    I guess that did become more than a simple question, but that’s all.

    • Manuel R.

      French and Italian people, like Portuguese and Spanish people, aren’t Latins, they speak a latin derived language. I think the confusion comes from there. Latins are long gone as well as their language. The term “Latinos” was coined in the US to classify ONLY American populations that speak Spanish, not those that speak Portuguese (Brazil) or French (Guyana and Quebec).

    • Thank you Manuel.
      You can not categorize different people as the same. You can not say someone is hispanic if they don’t have a hispanic heritage. They don’t speak spanish.
      Should we consider those of English descent German?
      Unfortunately for some, America has English speakers and hispanics only. Nothing else.

    • Eric, like others have pointed out, Hispanic is a cultural-linguistic word associated with Spanish speaking countries and peoples. Lusophones are very proud of their cultures and get tired of being “same differenced”. That’s seen as cultural erasure. There is a word equivalent to Hispanic for Portugese speaking countries and peoples. It’s Lusitanic. The word isn’t used as often as it should be. It seems to be underknown. Alsom if people say a word doesn’t describe them, why insist on using it to describe them?

    • Clemente Alves

      To Eric V: Do not lump in the Portuguese with the Spanish by calling them Hispanic. I don’t think the Galicians and Catalans and Basques would care for it either. If you must find a term that satisfies everyone, then it would be Iberian. We are all Iberians from the Iberian Peninsula. Iberian cultures and Iberian languages come from Iberia. Iberian is the way to go, not Hispanic.

  15. Pearl hadeer

    The Roman Empire also included Palestine region because you know Israel wasn’t established at that time.

  16. Pearl hadeer

    The Roman Empire included Palestine. Politics aside, this is factual history. Otherwise, it would be legitimate to mention Palestine alongside Israel

    • Daniel Martinez Abreu

      The Romans renamed Israel and Judea to spite the Hebrew people who were a thorn on their sides.
      They gave it the name of the Philistines a Greek Mediterranean people .

  17. Manuel R.

    This a fine article except for one major flaw that the author should investigate further and thus deprieves the article of a more robust content and thus it can’t be used as reference. I guess this article was never reviwed by an historian or an academic expert in this issue. That major flaw that totally kills the credibility of the article is stating that:

    “However, the Vulgar Latin dialects continued to survive in large part because most of the population remained Christian despite now being subject to heavy Arabic influence. For this reason, the Vulgar Latin of this time is known as Mozarabic. As had been the case under the Visigoth kings, Mozarabic was spoken by a large majority of the population, while Arabic was only used by the upper echelons of society.”

    Today we understand that the conquering of the northern half of Iberia never really happened, the muslim did regular raids in the north and had the control of some walled cities in a central Iberia belt for brief periods (no more than decades). They never really conquered those lands (so, you all should mistrust these maps where all Iberia is muslim except a little spot in the north). Also many people fled to from the occupied south to the north (as usual). In fact the south, expecially in todays Portugal, was largely unoccupied by comparison with the north, so the muslim could never really impose their language and religion to the majority of the Iberians, todays southern Portugal is still largely depopulated with only 7% of the population. Another sign of the lack of capability to impose culture and language is the Portuguese language has some 600 to 800 arabic words (half of them arabized toponimy in the south) in a total of 300000 words … that’s meaningless.

    I did this introduction to better explain you that, what you wrote about Mozarabic is far from true. Mozarabic wasn’t really a mix of arabic (or whatever language the moorish invaders spoke) and latin. Mozarabic was a romance language that obviously could have some arabic influence and to better understand that influence we need to understand who were the mozarabs. They weren’t arabs as the name may imply (in fact there were no arabs in the peninsula, at least in statistically meaningfull numbers becausee the invaders were moorish and the arab elite only arrived some 40 years later fleeding from Damascus, they were a ruling ultraminority). The mozarabic were visigothic nobelity that, after the muslim occupation, maintained business with the muslim. They were a small minority that was accepted by the muslim at trade levels and thus, even if christians and speaking a romance language, they could also speak the invaders language (most probabily an arabic dialect) and that is where they may have got some arabic influences. So, concluding, mozarabic wasn’t a mixed language of latin and arabic, it wasn’t the name given to those days vulgar latin and it wasn’t certainly spoken by the large majority of the population, on the contrary, it was spoken by a small minority of gothic traders, not by the populations of Iberia neither by the occupied populations of Iberia.

    • damian

      you right in the point in that one , its a fact that the co mum people never spoke good Latin , my parents just did grunt some similar words of imitation at the church nothing else because they did not know a shit about the Latin spoken in the church even the Portuguese they spoke was very hard to understand to from a well spoken person of Portuguese , as a reference i can compare a continental Portuguese speaker and a speaker from Madeira island very hard to even catch a sentence

  18. There is a sound in Spanish, the “j” in hijo, that comes from the throat, and seems similar to Arab or Hebrew. There is no sound like that in Portuguese. People in Rio de Janeiro speak the double r in a world like “carro” more like a French speak “Paris”, it is a softer sound.

    I wonder if people of the center of the peninsula, during the centuries of contact with the Arabs, couldn’t have fought alongside to some Muslims rulers in civil wars between them. And eventually even receiving land as payment for loyalty. Galicians on the other hand were less involved in the Spanish politics of the Arabic period. Or being far north, could even have been less touched by Muslim domination.

    Anyway Galician is very close to Portuguese, almost the same language, while Spanish is easy to understand but clearly a different language.


    • I think you’re confusing Arabs with Muslim. It isn’t the same thing. Although Arabs are Muslim, the Moorish invaders of Iberia were Berbers, not Arabs. Linguists say that they didn’t even spoke Arab, or at least the same Arab as the Umayyads ruling minority certainly spoke (even today saying that Moroccan is Arab … is mostly rhetoric because an Iraqi that also is said to speak Arabic can’t understand a Moroccan). Plus, even at the ruler’s level, the Umayyads that ruled from 756 to 1031 were the ONLY Arab rulers. After them, the Almoravid rulers (1085–1145) came from today southern Mauritania, so they were Sub-Saharan or close to that (not Arabs) and finally the Almohad rulers (1147–1238) were northern-African Berbers (not Arabs).
      I think people have a huge difficulty understanding that there were no Arabs in Iberia, or at least not to a relevant statistical level. Invaders were northern African Berbers (moors), traders were northern-African Berbers, eventual migrants were northern-African Berbers (not Arabs). That is why almost none Arabic culture (language, religion, traditions) was absorbed and retained by Iberians (especially not in the west), and also, at genetic level, the Iberian “Arabic” heritage is insignificant, Iberians have the same as French and less than Italians and much less than Greeks and Balkanics. Also Arabia is as far away as Moscow… all this helps confirming the inexistence of a real “Arabic party” in Iberia.
      People has to stop referring to Muslim in the Iberian Al-Andalus period as “Arabs”, there were no Arabs in Iberia with statistical populational significance, the few were a ruling ultra-minority in a specific time-window.

  19. Thank you for you article! I hope neither of the two languages die out!

    • As a Portuguese with university education, I can tell you that I barely understand Spanish. However, I understand much better Galicians. Well, we are brothers. My impression is Spanish has strong Mediterranean influence. I have seen Spaniards speaking Spanish and trying very hard to communicate with Portuguese. It is painful to ear them talking and refusing to admit that don’t have enough knowledge each others language. I also question your knowledge of Brazilian’s Portuguese. I am speaking from my own experience and not out of my a…..

  20. Renu Rao

    Lovely article. Thank you for such a clear explanation.

  21. Alex Wells

    Very interesting article and discussion. I am working on a play a The Last Days of Don Juan – written in the early 17th Century in which the relationship between Portugal and Castille is referred to in one scene. One of our actors is of Argentinian birth but grew up in Spain. He plays an Italian duke. And he does a pretty good Italian accent. Now I know why!

  22. Todo is Tudo

  23. Lewis Alexandre Medeiros Custódio

    Congratulations. Just some minor observations: “todo” (es) is not “tudu”, but “tudo”(pt). Portugal became independent on October 5th 1143, yes (treaty of Zamora), but the king was called Afonso Henriques, not Afonso Henrique. The portuguese still call him Dom Afonso Henriques (D. Afonso Henriques).

    It is a good article, but it is a pitty you did not mention Dante’s “De vulgari eloquentia” when writing about vulgar latin, galician-portuguese (galaico-português), nor the fact that modern standard continental portuguese has 7 voewl sounds (8, if you wish to include the azorean dialect) and spanish has only 5. Other than that, a very nice article.

    Again, congratulations.

  24. Mary Smith

    As an uneducated amateur on the subject, I wanted the author and discussion contributors to know how wonderful this exercise was for me. I learned a lot and I researched a lot while reading all the rhetoric. Thanks to everyone who contributed. What an exceptional experience this was for me, a 74 year old woman and English speaker.

    • Re my comment on here: you should definitely watch the film ‘Arrival’ as it’s a sci-fi story which centres on applied linguistics. Very unusual. That languages determine the way we think.

  25. Very interesting indeed. I looked up this subject after watching the film ‘Arrival’ (about alien contact) and a brief scene where the heroine is giving a linguistics course about the differences between Portuguese and Spanish. Who says you never learn anything from Hollywood?!

  26. D'Angeló Casanóva XIV

    I’m very fascinated by history although I always approach everything with a grain a of salt & a skeptic point of view given that it is winners of wars & often religious leaders , who write history and thus our understanding of such events often lacks other dimensions that would’ve added details for a complete picture on perspectives of all those involved. We were not alive at the time such events took place, thus the accuracy of recorded events shouldn’t be expected to be 100% spot on as it is natural to have some sort of bias.

    Regardless, I appreciate this interesting read and everyone who contributed.

  27. Rómulo Osorio

    Amazingly simple but historically correct. The other Romance languages as well (e.g. Provencal in France, Rumanian, Mediterranean coast, etc.) comprised a big library in my home. Just a few months ago, in a foreign country (before COVID) some Portuguese speaker heard my last name “Osorio” in a waiting room… a last name that has its origins in Galicia… and their last name was Osório [with accent] as well… small world to establish a friendship over an expresso. I love the history of all languages and this inquisitiveness goes the same for the Slavic ones and their divergences / unique origins. : )

  28. twalrus1

    This article explains why Portuguese sounds like a mixture of Germanic and Spanish while Spanish sounds more Arabic to me. The sound I notice most in Portuguese is the hard (SHR) for German and English. Funny enough, the hard (SHR) sound is how I can easily separate Mandarin from Cantonese without knowing either language.
    on a side note and highly off topic: I accidentally noticed that Nigerians have the most beautiful head shapes in Africa. I was google imagining Nigerians (I had just met and had a long conversation about cameras with a Nigerian doctor in Texas) and noticed that they all had nicely photogenically shaped heads. Very nice hairlines and without overly exaggerated bulges. I thought to myself, “if I was to go bald, i would wish to have a Nigerian head shape. I don’t know why i noticed that (probably because I like photography and like to look out for photogenic items).
    BUTTTTT, I have used the head shape to ask (correctly most of the time) if someone is Nigerian.
    Sometimes the little things are easy to not notice……

  29. Janice Peters

    The study of languages and linguistics is extremely interesting. I have studied three Romance Languages and lived in other countries. It seems that people who have not studied languages other than their own tend to lump together Romance Languages as if they are all the same…They end up making huge social gaffes while trying to impress others at times.

  30. Many times, when someone asks whether language X is a dialect of language Y, they get answers that are political, not linguistic. A linguistic answer would talk about how they differ in vocabulary, in grammar, in spelling and pronunciation. A political answer, such as this article, talks about the political history of the peoples involved. Both types of answer are of interest to many people; but one should not assume that they will both lead in the same direction, or that the answers to the political questions will help in elucidating the linguistic questions, and vice versa.

  31. ibraim sued

    I’m a Brazilian Portuguese speaker and yes, Spanish is very easy to be understood, even to be spoken as most of the words are basically ‘the same’ . Some are just out of a daily use but anyrone with a bit of cultural life knows them in it’s own language. That said you then realize a language is not just about vocabulary, nurt different sentence building, too, but both ways of each of this two languages fit into one another. The reason Portugiese sprakers kave an easier time undertanding Spanish than the other way around is that Portuguese is rich in nasal sounsds which make Spanish speakers very confused. Also, European Portuguese is stress paced, just funny to us, Brazilians, sillable paced speakers, but very difficult to Spanish speakers and others. Rhe author points out somewhere above, in different wording, that the conversation between these two languages will go quite easily IF between two well educated persons. Then they’re almost the same language, for us.

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