Spanish and Italian are so similar that the untrained linguist can, on occasions, struggle to tell them apart. This does make it relatively easy to attain reasonable competence in one having learned the other; although it can also make this difficult, because there are also fundamental differences which mean that the initial apparent similarity can be deceptive.
Four Western European national languages (which between them have around 200 million mother-tongue speakers in Europe and even more than that in the Americas) are descended from Latin – Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Of these, it is no surprise that Spanish and Portuguese have multiple common traits not shared with the others, although Portuguese is somewhat more challenging for a variety of reasons (discussed here).
Leaving aside Portuguese, geography would dictate that French should be the “middle” of the three, but this is not the case. In fact, the reality that travel was historically easier over water (i.e. around the Mediterranean) than land already makes French the isolate; and French is in any case an immediate exception because of its early contact with Germanic, discussed here.
Thus although Italian is closer to French than Spanish is, there is no dispute that Spanish and Italian have much more in common with each other, at least structurally and phonologically, than either has with French. So how can the Spanish speaker maximise their knowledge of Italian, and vice-versa?
Both Italian and Spanish are derived from Latin, and did not have the Germanic intervention that French had. Both specifically derive from “Vulgar Latin”, the spoken dialects of less educated people some centuries after Christ (notably, in the case of Spanish, Roman soldiers from all over the Empire who used Latin typically as a common second language). However, the differences between them arise in large part from the method of standardisation.
Essentially, modern Standard Spanish is a later standardisation than modern Standard Italian. In the case of Spanish, the basis is the language of the central Iberian Peninsula which moved southwards to encompass the entirety of Andalusia; “Golden Age Spanish” was the language of El Cid and of imperial Spain, but the spelling system was further adapted subsequently to take account of further phonological changes. Thus, Standard Written Spanish is designed fairly accurately to reflect the way the modern language is spoken.
In the case of Italian, there was effectively a “re-standardisation” to an earlier version, based around the Tuscan city of Florence (home of the medieval author Dante). This means that the Standard is somewhat more prescriptive – rather than reflecting how people speak, it asks people who speak a wide variety of ways to write a separate version for the sake of common understanding across the Italian Peninsula. The practical outcome is firstly that the “Standard” is in fact based on an older version of Italian (thus closer to Latin) than Spanish is; and, secondly, that spoken dialects of Italian are further removed from that “Standard” (although they are now swiftly converging towards it).
There has also been some linkage between the two languages over the centuries; most notably, Spanish administrators controlled much of southern Italy in the late Golden Age (although some of these would have spoken Catalan – that is one for another blog!)
Although Italian has more mother tongue speakers in Europe than Spanish (roughly 70 million to 50 million), Spanish is the more global language and is thus seen as the “bigger” of the two. This has practical modern consequences, in that Italians are more acquainted with Spanish than vice-versa. As just one of many cultural examples, it is common for Spanish-language songs to succeed in Italy (in fact both Number 1 and Number 2 in the Italian charts at time of writing are in Spanish); not only is the reverse impossible, but it is in fact the norm for Italian singers to record albums both in Italian and Spanish to maximise the market (the likes of Alessandro Safina, Eros Ramazotti and Laura Pausini all do this as a matter of course).
Therefore, the linguistic similarities (alongside historical links) allow a broad and wide-ranging cultural exchange – but this cultural exchange happens almost exclusively in Spanish.
The structural similarities between the languages are obvious. Fundamentally they are vocalic languages relying heavily on verbs. Both are:
- “pro-drop” languages (the subject pronoun may be dropped – for example, amo in Italian, Spanish and Latin conveys the meaning on its own of ‘I love/adore’);
- “masculine-feminine” languages (nouns may be one of two genders, masculine or feminine, and the markers are often -o and -a – thus Italian/Spanish amico/amigo ‘friend’ is masculine; amica/amiga is specifically a female friend);
- “post-attributive” languages (most obviously, adjectives typically follow nouns although common ones may precede – un buon’amico/un buen amigo ‘a good friend’ but la terra verde/la tierra verde ‘the green land’);
- typically “synthetic” languages (particularly with verbs – amava/amaba on its own carries the meaning of ‘I/he/she used to love’); and
- SVO (but SOV with pronouns) – thus vedo la terra/veo la tierra ‘I see the land’ but la vedo/la veo ‘I see it’, although word order is relatively free in each (more so in Spanish).
There are other similarities too, although these can mask some differences. Both languages, even in modern form, make significant use of the subjunctive mood, but usage varies slightly – for example, Italian has credo che sia and non credo che sia for ‘I believe/don’t believe he/she is’ (both with subjunctive), whereas Spanish has creo que es and no creo que sea (thus subjunctive only with preceding negative).
Other areas are subtly different, particularly where Italian is similar to French. For example:
- Modern Spoken Italian tends to use the perfect with avere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ to refer to the past at all, whereas Spanish distinguishes between perfect and preterite – thus in Italian ho perduto means both ‘I have lost’ and ‘I lost'; but Spanish distinguishes between he perdito and perdí;
- Furthermore, this distinction between avere and essere for the perfect is not retained in Spanish – thus sono venuto ‘I have come’ (literally: ‘am come’) but he venido ‘I have come'; Italian also displays preceding object agreement whereas Spanish does not, thus Italian la ho vista ‘I have seen it [feminine]’ but Spanish la he visto; or
- Italian must refer back using extra pronouns to mark case, whereas Spanish does not – thus ci sono tre amici qui ‘there are three friends here’ but ci ne sono tre ‘there are three [of them] here’, but hay tres amigos aquí and hay tres [no further reference word required].
Italian also has a markedly more complex set of preposition-article mergers. Where modern Spanish only has del (from de + el) and al (from a + el), and thus none at all for the feminine or plural (de la, a la; de los, a los; de las, a las), Italian has a vast range covering masculine, feminine, singular and plural – del, dello, della, dell’, dei, degli, delle; al, allo, alla, all’, ai, agli. alle; also nel, nello, nella, nell’, nei, negli, nelle and so on. It may be noted, however, that this is arguably not a structural difference, but an orthographical one (I do not intend to deal with orthography specifically in this piece) – the two languages have simply chosen to reflect these mergers in different ways.
The single most fundamental difference between Italian and Spanish (or any other Latinate language) is that Italian almost always requires words to end in a vowel – this is a tendency in Spanish, but is much less required. This has implications for verbs (thus ami/amano ‘you [singular]/they love’ versus Spanish amas/aman, Latin amas/amant), common word formation (dieci ‘ten’, Spanish diez) and, most markedly of all, the formation of the plural.
In Standard Italian (and all Italian dialects to the south of Florence), the plural is formed by changing the final vowel of the noun (or adjective): thus amico-amici ‘friend-friends'; terra-terre ‘land-lands'; campione-campioni ‘champion-champions’ (note also common borrowings which look common in one form but not the other, such as panino-panini, capuccino-capuccini, graffito-graffiti, pizza-pizze). On the other hand, Spanish does this in line with other Latinate languages and English – amigo-amigos, tierra-tierras, campeon-campeones. This applies equally to adjectives: canzoni italiane ‘Italian songs’, Spanish canciones italianes.
Italian and Spanish do sound similar to the untrained ear because they are structurally similar and quite vocalic (compare German or Dutch, which have considerably more consonants, particularly at the end of words). They also pronounce all the letters written – there is, for example, no silent final –e as there is in modern spoken French and Portuguese (and English).
However, as noted above, there are significant differences, primary among them Italian’s greater insistence on final vowels; perhaps as a consequence, its intonation is also markedly different (somewhat more up-and-down – whereas Spanish is quite flat, at least outside Argentina where there is considerable Italian influence).
Another easy marker is that Italian generally retains intervocalic voiceless consonants where Spanish voices them (as amico versus amigo above; also gelato ‘ice cream’ versus helado, etc).
Another Spanish development is the range of diphthongs (i.e. double vowels) in stressed syllables which Italian either has not developed or has developed differently (as Italian terra versus Spanish tierra from Latin terra; or buono versus bueno above from Latin bonus).
Italian does not share the Spanish requirement before consonants for e- before s-: scola ‘school’ versus escuela; Spagna ‘Spain’ versus España. Italian also allows more clusters, particularly with initial s-: svegliare ‘to wake'; scudetto ‘championship’. Spanish allows some of these combinations with other initial letters, but even then not all; and does not use even those it does allow as often.
To the untrained ear, there is one obvious sound which exists in Italian and not in Spanish, and vice-versa. Italian has a strong [ts] sound in words such as ragazzo ‘mate’ or even pizza, for which there is not even a remotely close approximant in Spanish (though there was, in fact, until around 300 years ago). In return, modern Spanish has a [x] sound similar to Scottish ‘loch‘ which does not exist at all in Italian; it is variously spelled, but most commonly now -j- as in hijo ‘son’, jefe ‘boss’, or occasionally g– as noted below.
A marked difference tied to this is the treatment of the letters c– and g- before a high vowel (typically –e or –i). In Latin this was always pronounced [k] and [g], but it softened in Vulgar Latin and then went in various directions. In Italian, c– is now [tsh] as in English ‘chin'; in Spanish it is typically merged with [s], so as English ‘sin’, although Standard European Spanish has [th] as in English ‘thin’ – thus the first syllable of Italian cinque or Spanish cinco ‘five’ is pronounced ‘chin’ in Italy, ‘sin’ in Latin America (derived from parts of southern Spain), and ‘thin’ in most of Spain. In Italian, soft g– is now [dsh] more or less as in English ‘gel'; in Spanish, as noted above, this is a hard [x] – thus Italian gemello ‘twin’ has a first syllable as the English ‘gem’, but the first sound of the Spanish gemelo sounds similar to the last sound in ‘loch’. (I do not wish to focus on orthography in this article, but the marking of any retained hard c- and g- before a high vowel is an obvious marker in writing: Italian add the letter –h in each case; whereas Spanish switches c– to qu– and g– to gu-: the most obvious example is Italian che versus Spanish que).
Modern Italian generally does not allow –l after an initial plosive, replacing it typically with the vowel –i – thus ciaro versus Spanish claro ‘clear’ (though see also below re chi-); piazza versus plaza ‘square'; bianco versus blanco ‘white’.
The letters b and v have merged, effectively, in modern Spanish, and the modern written standard selects them seemingly at random. Italian retains the clear distinction from Latin. Spanish also does not like initial f-, which is silent (though written h-) particularly in common words – thus Italian ferro versus Spanish hierro ‘iron'; also in fact fare versus hacer ‘to do’. Italian does not write initial silent h-: thus avere versus haber ‘to have’ (note also b/v merger); Olanda versus Holanda ‘Holland’.
As the gemello/gemelo example also indicates above, Italian retains double consonants, pronounced as such. Spanish does this only for the rolled –r– in words such as perro ‘dog’.
Spanish does have ll– but considers it distinct letter; the same sound is written gl– in Italian, although in fact it often equates to ch(i)– or pi– deriving from Latin cl-/pl– – thus, Latin clamare ‘to call’ gives Italian chiamare but Spanish llamar; Latin clavis ‘key’ gives Italian chiave but Spanish llave; Latin pluire ‘to rain’ gives Italian piovere but Spanish llover. This general palatisation is apparent in the –tt– versus –ch– combination too – e.g. Latin noctem ‘night’ gives Italian notte versus Spanish noche; octo ‘eight’ gives otto versus ocho.
There are of course many more parallels like these – they can easily be picked up.
As can be seen thoroughout this article already, a lot of vocabulary is similar, and differences are predictable or at least reasonably guessable: terra versus tierra ‘land'; amico versus amigo ‘friend'; perdere versus perder ‘to lose'; canzone versus cancion ‘song'; bianco versus blanco ‘white'; ferro versus hierro ‘iron'; piovere versus llover ‘to rain’.
Many words are, of course, identical: La luna grande solo ama la cosa con la costa verde ‘The big moon only likes the thing with the green coast’ is an entire sentence which is theoretically identical in Italian and Spanish.
This is misleading, of course. Nothing is that easy!
Firstly, there are simple words which are just completely different. My list of core vocabulary demonstrates some. Other key words which are not remotely similar include Italian ripostare versus Spanish contestar ‘to answer'; volere versus querer ‘to want'; imparare versus aprender ‘learn'; scegliere versus elegir ‘to choose'; posto versus lugar ‘place'; fino a versus hasta ‘until'; vietato versus prohibido ‘forbidden'; tavolo versus mesa ‘table'; or camara versus habitación ‘room’.
Secondly, there are many examples of where the same or a similar word exists in each language but is not used identically or even similarly. Italian avere ‘have’ covers both Spanish haber and tener; then Spanish de ‘of, from’ covers both Italian di and da. Italian comprendere covers ‘infer’ and even ‘include’ but not directly ‘understand’ (for which it has capire); Spanish comprender covers more ‘understand’ but not so much ‘infer’ (for which it has entender). There are countless examples of this – indeed it is the norm, in practice.
Thirdly, there are words which, while available in both, are simply more commonly used in one language than the other. For example, devere ‘to have to’ is widely used in Italian, but its Spanish equivalent deber is less so (Spanish often prefers a construction such as tener que). The adjective necessario ‘necessary‘ is used in Italian alongside necesario in Spanish, but the verb necesitar is exclusive (at least in regular modern usage) to Spanish.
As a general note, because the Italian standard is based on an older version of the language, much of its vocabulary is longer and/or closer to the original Latin. Thus Italian settimana ‘week’ becomes much shorter Spanish semana; or Italian numbers such as undici ‘eleven [literally one-ten] and dodici ‘twelve [literally two-ten]’ become the more clinical Spanish once, doce. (Interestingly, with numbers between 11-20, Spanish switches order one later than Italian – for 15-17 Italian has quindici [five-ten], sedici [six-ten] and then diciasette [ten-seven], which is in line with Latin; Spanish has quince [originally five-ten] but then dieciseis [ten-six] and diecisiete [ten-seven].)
These are literally random observations as a rusty Spanish speaker who recently spent some time in Italy. They are not designed to reach any particular conclusion.
Nevetheless, they do reinforce my long-held view that we are wasting our time teaching languages individually in schools, as if they all have to be approached separately from each other. The simple fact is that knowledge of Spanish is a vast advantage in Italy; and vice-versa no doubt. Yet it is also a frustration – you can come to think you can say and write more than you actually can; some basic grounding is still necessary.
The historical background is helpful to aid the switch from one to the other, as is the basic vocabulary linked to above. However, most important of all are the patterns which enable structures and vocabulary to be reasonably guessed at. Becoming familiar with those is like becoming familiar with the controls of a car while learning to drive – they look intimidating at first, but once you learn to use them they become second nature.
Most of all, adventures in comparing Italian and Spanish are adventures in the most prominent linguistic culture of them all, descending obviously as they both do from Latin. It is sometimes easy, sometimes frustrating, sometimes challenging – but always fun!