Italian VS Spanish - How Similar Are The Two Languages?

avatarMille Larsen
12 mins read

Italian and Spanish are two Mediterranean languages that both came from Latin, the language spoken in the Roman Empire.

They're the languages spoken in Italy and Spain - two countries known for a rich culture, a tourist-friendly climate and great cuisine. And the two languages are among the most popular to learn for English speakers for a wide range of different reasons.

But how similar are the two languages really? Can you get by in Italy with Spanish or in Spain while speaking Italian? Is it easier learning one language after the other?

How come they are so similar?

And are they practically the same language?

While Spanish and Italian are two languages with a common ancestor, Vulgar Latin, they've been separated for so long that they have developed significant differences. Yet, Italian and Spanish can be mutually intelligible if each speaker makes an effort. In terms of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary the two languages are close, but other languages are even closer. They're definitely not two dialects of the same language, but two, different, albeit closely related languages.

Latin: The Common Ancestor Of Spanish And Italian

There's a good reason that Italian and Spanish have a lot in common: They have a common ancestor, Latin, or more precisely "Vulgar Latin".

Vulgar Latin was the everyday language spoken in the Roman Empire as opposed to Classical Latin, which was the more official and formal version of the language.

And in case there's any confusion "vulgar" doesn't refer to the common Romans being impolite (although Roman graffiti left from classical times was.. Somewhat graphic). - Vulgar simply means "ordinary" or "common" in this context.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the lack of a central administration as well as a less frequent contact between the different ex-Roman regions meant that the Vulgar Latin around the world started to evolve and move in different directions.

The Latin spoken in Gaul mixed with Celtic and Germanic languages and gradually turned into French. The Latin of Romania eventually got influenced by Slavic languages and other local dialects and turned into modern Romanian.

The Latin spoken on the Iberian Peninsula turned into languages like Portuguese, Catalan and Castillian Spanish, and in modern day Italy, it became Sicilian, Lombard, Piedmontese and many others, including Florentine which developed into Modern Italian.

Spanish and Italian (and Portuguese and Catalan) have something in common that's not really the case with the rest of the languages from the Romance branch of the Indo-Eurpean language family:

They've all been influenced by Arabic.

While most people know that Spanish has a lot of loan-words from the Arabic language due to the multiple centuries when Arabic-speaking North-African Berbers ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula, not a lot of people are aware that Italy has a similar history.

Both Spanish and Italian have Arabic loan-words. They're not always the same, and they don't necessarily influence grammar and sentence-formation that much. And Italian probably has a little less Arabic influences than Spanish. But both languages have them.

Italian and Spanish both originate from Vulgar Latin and they were both influenced by the Arabic language for centuries. Sure, there were other influences as well, and notably Italian has been a lot in contact with Germanic languages from the other sides of the Alps.

But it wouldn't be completely off to assume that Italian and Spanish had a lot in common.

In the following, I'll try and look into some of the different aspects that make up Italian and Spanish, and I'll try and compare the two languages.

The Italian And Spanish Alphabets And How They're Pronounced

The Italian and Spanish alphabets (and how they're pronounced) are almost the same. Both languages use the five vowels, a, e, i o and u. Italian has the addition of what is called a "closed" e, however, which is the only vowel that's different from Spanish.

For a good walk-though of Italian vowel-pronunciation, watch this video.

Then there are the consonants, which are also quite similar. There are some differences, though. Both in how some letters are pronounced, but also in how they're used.

Double consonants is a good example of this. In Italian, consonants can be pronounced in two ways - in the normal way and in "double". When pronouncing double consonants, you need to dwell a little on the consonant sound and almost make a little pause while pronouncing. Here's a video example of that. There are words that use ordinary, singular consonants and others that use double consonants, so it's important to distinguish between them as to not be misunderstood.

In Spanish, double consonants are mostly used when it comes to the thrilled R.

As for the rest of the alphabet, most letters correspond relatively closely between the two languages, however, here are some of the differences.

  • G: In Italian, the G is pronounced much like in the English "Giraffe" but in Spanish it's more like a "ch" sound, like in the German "Achtung".
  • J: In Italian, the J is pronounced much like the English "Jack" but in Spanish it is closer to the Dutch "g" or the Arabic "خ" - the sound you make when you're cleaning your throat... (Sorry if that's too graphic).
  • LL: While the Italian double-L is pronounced like an English L, where you're simply saying it a little slower, in Spanish, the double L becomes a "y" sound. Mallorca is pronounced "Mayorka".
  • Ñ: this letter doesn't exist in Italian. In Spanish, it's pronounced like "ny", so "El Niño" becomes "El nin-yo".
  • V: In Spanish, the V is pronounced like the B, whereas in Italian it is pronounced like an English V.

Italian And Spanish Grammar - Similarities And Differences

In terms of grammar, Italian and Spanish have many similarities. They're obviously different languages, which means that grammar concepts are not exactly the same, but their principles are highly comparable, like when it comes to verb conjugation, for example.

One difference between the two languages' grammar is the "near future tense". In English, it corresponds to "I am going to". English and Spanish are roughly similar in that the sentence can refer to something you will do now, or something you will do "eventually". In Italian, however, there's no "eventuality" to the sentence. If you use the near future tense, its means that you count on doing it now.

Another difference is the use of the subjunctive mood, which is much more commonly used in Spanish than in Italian. The subjunctive mood exists in several forms, but a common example is sentences where the word "that" changes the form of the following verb. In English, you'd say "I suggest that you be careful" and not "I suggest that you are careful".

The Vocabulary Of Spanish And Italian

In linguistics, lexical similarity is often used as a a way of measuring the how similar languages are in terms of vocabulary.

Spanish and Italian have around 82% of their vocabulary in common. This doesn't mean that the words are exactly the same between the two languages, but that they have similar roots and that they are linguistically related.

To compare, Italian has 89% of its vocabulary in common with French and Spanish has 89% in common with Portuguese.

But these are all languages in the Romance language family.

If we were to compare languages from other branches, like English, which is a Germanic language, the numbers would be much lower, like English and French who have 27% of words in common. (And that's a high number!)

In other words, in terms of vocabulary, Spanish and Italian are close, but not the closest.

And while Italian and Spanish both got the bulk of their vocabulary from Latin, sometimes the common word in each language are based on two different words that used to be synonyms in Latin or as two different ways of speaking of the same thing.

There are many examples of this, but one could be the word for "window". In Italian, it's "fenestra" which looks like the French "fenêtre" and even the German "Fenster" (which also came from Latin). In Latin "fenestra" means an "opening" and maybe "an opening bringing light" and it could have both Greek and Etruscan origins. (Linguists aren't sure).

In Spanish, however, the word is "venana" which is actually derived from the Latin word "ventus", meaning "wind". So the Spanish word for "window" is related to the wind (like in English) whereas the Italian word is related to the actual hole in that wall. Both origins are Latin, but Italian uses one and Spanish the other.

Another example could be the word for "cheese", which, like the German "Käse" and the Spanish "queso" came from the Latin word "caseus", which is a synonym for the word "formaticum" which gave us "fromage" in French and "formaggio" in Italian. Or more correctly, "formaticum" used to be "fōrmāticus‎ cāseus" meaning "cheese put into a mould".

But as mentioned, even though Italian and Spanish have a lexical similarity of 82%, the similar words are only partly the same and still have some differences.

These differences often follow quite stringent patterns. Some Italian nouns become Spanish simply be removing an "i" like "concierto" or "tiempo" which are "concerto" and "tempo" in Spanish.

Then there are other words where it's just the ending that changes. Generally, the kind of nouns that end in "y" in English have an "-à" ending in Italian and a "-dad" (or just -ad) ending in Spanish. For example "dignity" is "dignità" in Italian and "dignidad" in Spanish. Liberty is "libertà" in Italian and "Libertad" in Spanish. This goes for a whole lot of other words that follow the same pattern as well.

A last point about vocabulary is about synonyms. Italian has a lot of dialects inside Italy, but the "official" Italian language is pretty much standard. Spanish on the other hand is spoken in over 20 countries and each of these have variation in vocabulary from one another, meaning that Spanish might have a lot more different words, at least if you want to cover all versions of Spanish.

Comparison of a short text in Italian and Spanish

To illustrate how similar the two languages are in writing, let's have a look at a short text example in the two languages.

The following is the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights translated into both Italian and Spanish:

Tutti gli esseri umani nascono liberi ed eguali in dignità e diritti. Essi sono dotati di ragione e di coscienza e devono agire gli uni verso gli altri in spirito di fratellanza.Todos los seres humanos nacen libres e iguales en dignidad y derechos y, dotados como están de razón y conciencia, deben comportarse fraternalmente los unos con los otros.

As you can see from the above, much of the vocabulary is the same between the two languages. While this is the case, they appear to be spelled differently and the small words such as the articles "gli" and "los" as well as the word for "and", "e" and "y" make the texts seem more different than they actually are.

Finally, for each translation the syntax and sentence structure is slightly different, and it would appear that the translators have made different choices in the wording of the last sentence.

Interestingly, however, despite how the two texts look different at the first glance, they agree on most vocabulary and even the word order.

Not having to deal with the pronunciation, an Italian speaker would rather easily be able to read and understand the Spanish text and vice-versa. While the spelling and some of the small repetitive words are different, the texts remain very similar as a whole.

The Verdict: How Similar Are The Spanish And Italian Languages?

Finally, how similar are Italian and Spanish really?

To some extent, they're mutually intelligible. A Spanish speaker and an Italian speaker could actually each one speak his or her native language and still have a conversation together. I've seen this before. But each person will need to speak slowly and maybe adapt some vocabulary here and there. For more complicated subjects (or for speakers with a less developed language-ear) it might be necessary to switch to a language that both parties speak fluently.

What about language learning? Would you have an advantage learning one of the two languages if you already spoke the first one?

You bet!

Italian and Spanish are very close. They share a lot in terms of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation and if you already know one of these languages, you'll be able to save a lot if time learning the other. A Spanish speaker should be able to become conversational in Italian within a couple of months with focused study, and the same goes the other way around.

But again, on the subject of comparing the two languages: It's a little like comparing apples and oranges. Or cats and dogs.

If you compare a cat to a dog, they clearly have a lot in common. They're both mammals with fur, teeth, ears, paws, similar behavior and so on, but there are huge differences too. Cats and dogs are obviously not the same animal! A dog can be compared to a coyote for a much closer resemblance, or to a snake for a much bigger difference. And the same goes for languages. It really depends how you look at it.

So are Spanish and Italian close? Yes, they're pretty close, and to some extent, if both parties make an effort, they're even mutually intelligible. But they're definitely not dialects of the same language, and they've both been Isolated from their common ancestor, Vulgar Latin for long enough to have evolved quite differently.