The Spanish and Portuguese languages both originate from Latin, dominate the Iberian peninsula, and have migrated to cover large portions of the Americas. But just how similar are these languages?
There aren’t many languages that have more in common than Spanish and Portuguese. They share quite a lot, from similar origins and geographic regions to almost identical alphabets and tons of common vocabulary. The differences are significant, however, and it could be easy to underestimate them.
Just because you speak one of these languages doesn’t mean you’ll understand what someone is saying in the other. This is largely due to differences in pronunciation. You’d have more luck reading in the other language, but different accents could cause confusion.
Where exactly are the dividing lines? Read on for a deep dive into what really separates Spanish from Portuguese.
Whats the Difference Between Spanish and Portuguese, Really?
In taking a look at how two languages are similar, examining the vocabulary that each uses might be a good place to start. One clear way to do this is to measure the number of cognates between languages.
Cognates are words in two different languages that have some sort of shared origin and appear to be similar. Some examples of cognates in English and Spanish are horrible, cereal, and hospital. Although the pronunciation of these words is different in each language, they are spelled in the exact same way.
Spanish and Portuguese have a ton of cognates. In fact, they’ve got around 90% lexical similarity. In comparison, Spanish and English are closer to 25% similarity. Comparing the two languages in these terms reveals a very strong connection!
As an extremely brief example of this point, here’s a short list of the many, many words that are nearly identical in Spanish and Portuguese.
There are also useful patterns one can use to quickly come up with a word in one language using the other. These are pretty straightforward and further highlight just how closely related these two romance languages are.
The following are some examples of spelling changes that can be made to word suffixes to get the equivalent word in the other language.
|Spanish Suffix||Portuguese Suffix|
Of course, there’s much more to languages than vocab, but understanding how many words are shared by Spanish and Portuguese provides some valuable insight.
The way grammar works in both Spanish and Portuguese is very similar, but there are plenty of subtle differences. Basic word order and sentence construction are largely the same in both languages; they usually follow a subject + verb + object pattern, just like in English.
One difference to be aware of is that where Spanish has three definite articles, el (masculine), la (feminine), and lo (neuter), Portuguese only uses two: o (masculine) and a (feminine). This isn’t something that has a huge impact on how either language is used.
Another interesting variation in the two languages has to do with contractions. There are significantly more contractions that can be made with definite articles and prepositions in Portuguese than in Spanish. For example, no in Portuguese comes from the words em (in) and o (the) to mean “in the.” In Spanish, the two words would remain separate.
These differences and others related to grammar could cause small trip-ups for speakers of one language trying to understand the other, but they otherwise don’t represent any great dissimilarities.
— Speaking & Listening
This is the area in which the two languages are probably most distinct. Based on the similarities they possess on paper, you’d be forgiven for assuming that a Spanish speaker could effortlessly understand a Portuguese speaker and vice versa. However, that isn’t quite the case.
Spanish and Portuguese are not entirely mutually intelligible, and differences in pronunciation are probably the biggest reasons for this. One significant difference between the two has to do with vowel sounds. While Spanish has five consistent vowel sounds, Portuguese has more than ten. This means that a Spanish speaker will need to learn to make some new sounds in order to speak Portuguese well.
Speaking of pronunciation, it’s also important to consider the regional differences that exist in both languages. The Latin American varieties of Spanish and Portuguese are more similar to each other than their Iberian counterparts. There are also large groups of Portuguese speakers in Africa with their own pronunciation differences.
— Reading & Writing
Spanish and Portuguese are most similar on paper. Taking pronunciation out of the picture makes these two languages very close, but there are still some minor differences in how they’re written.
The alphabets in Spanish and Portuguese are almost identical to that of English, thanks to their shared Latin ancestry. The only letter not shared by the two languages is the Spanish letter ñ.
The different accent systems in each language are where more significant differences occur. In Spanish, only one accent is ever used, and it’s always used to mark syllable stress in a word.
In Portuguese, accents are an entirely different beast. Two of them are used to indicate stress, and all five signal the sound that a letter should make. For example, á, â, ã, and à should all be pronounced differently in Portuguese. This is something that Spanish speakers would need to study in order to read or write Portuguese accurately.
Not all of the diacritical marks are used with each vowel. Check the table below to see which vowels can carry which accent.
In Portuguese, you’ll also see the cedilla, or ç, which is pronounced with the /s/ sound.
As you can see, Portuguese has slightly more going on in its written form, but both languages are otherwise very similar on paper.
Is one language more desirable than the other? That depends on who you ask. Do you have a thing for Spanish-language TV series like Casa de Papel or Narcos? Then Spanish might have a special appeal. On the other hand, Portuguese might be more attractive to the Bossa Nova fan. Both languages have strong associations with popular cultural items around the world.
World language buffs and polyglots might have a sweet spot for Portuguese over Spanish just because it’s spoken by fewer people globally, making it more interesting to some.
In terms of which language is more useful, there’s a clear overall winner. Looking at the two languages in terms of popularity, Spanish is spoken by 559 million people globally, making it the second most widely spoken language in the world. Portuguese comes in at 270 million speakers.
There’s more to the usefulness of a language than popularity, though. For example, a businessman in Brazil or Portugal will clearly get more benefit out of speaking Portuguese than Spanish. The reverse is true for a shop owner in Southern California, where there is a high number of Spanish speakers.
Both languages are spoken across the globe, but Portuguese has a stronger presence in Africa than Spanish. While Spanish is the official language of one African country, Equatorial Guinea, Portuguese is the official language of six African countries, making it more useful on the world’s second largest continent.