Are Portuguese and Spanish Similar?

Why learn Portuguese? Is it the same as Spanish? Is it almost the same as Spanish? If I can learn Spanish, should I not be able to understand Portuguese? It is possible you want nothing more than to take a tour through Central and South America. There are many reasons for learning Portuguese. But no matter how similar it may be to Spanish, presuming that one is the same as the other could be a costly mistake.

If I can speak Portuguese, can I speak Spanish? This is like asking if someone in the Southern US can understand everything a Scotsman is saying. While the history of Portuguese and Spanish is similar, there are distinct differences between them.

To begin this journey of understanding, we must first travel back to ancient Rome and their attempts at global domination.

An Introduction to the Romance Languages

During the period of Roman conquest and colonialism, there was a small peninsula. Today it is what we call the Iberian Peninsula. The Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula as they had much of the known world at the time.

The Iberian Peninsula was part of a larger location known at the time as Hispania. Its people were the Hispanicus (feminine hispānica, neuter hispānicum) to the ancient Romans in their native language. What they spoke was what we know as (Ancient) Latin.

From this stemmed a growth or evolution of the native languages, mixed in part with the Roman Latin. This resulted in the creation of “Vulgar Latin” as a common tongue during the early days of its linguistic growth and development. The Vulgar Latin then merged with the many localized languages and dialects. This then evolved into what we know as the Romance languages in common use today.

This family of romance languages includes Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, French and Italian. Though there are other variations and dialects which share the same linguistic origins. What? Did you presume that these were all the languages of love? Many people do, but the term Romance is, unfortunately for some romantics, nothing more than a derivative of the Roman influence. It has nothing to do with the romantic nature of this particular linguistic family.

The Evolution and Expansion of Language

For some, the study of the evolution of language is a passion. For translators and interpreters, in an ideal world, it would be a subject of equal devotion. It should also be a matter of necessity given the importance of translation in our global world. What is language if not the sum of its evolution?

It is presumable that those with an understanding of Vulgar Latin would still be able to recognize the romance languages today. They should at least be able to understand some of what is being said. It also remains likely that they would be able to gather the meaning of the conversation.

According to some linguistic experts, both Spanish and Portuguese have aged very well. They are among the most well preserved of the romance languages in some minds.

It may even be fair to say that Spanish and Portuguese have been among the most well-preserved of these romance languages. This adds to the confusion about whether learning Portuguese is enough to help someone learn Spanish, or vice versa.

Portuguese and Spanish are the only Ibero-Romance languages derived from the Vulgar Latin spoken in the Iberian Peninsula. Both Spain and Portugal suffered during and after the Crusades. Though Portugal was successful in driving off the Islamic Moors much earlier. Portugal established itself as a Republican nation in 1128.

After this time, Spain and Portugal would become allies as often as they became enemies. They remained allied until the end of the “reconquest” (or reconquista) was complete. Together, they would drive the moors out of both regions. After this, they became more competitive in their quest for colonization and control of the global trade routes.

According to Wikipedia the unification of Spain helped in these matters. Spain came into being through a unification of the crowns (or Royalty) of Aragon and Castile in the year 1479. In the year 1516 they would unify under a single crown for the first time. It would not be until 1812 that the name Españas would become the official name of the unified nation. In 1876 the two crowns became unified under the singular title of King of Spain.

Portuguese and Spanish Get Lost in Translation

Both Portugal and Spain were among the leading global traders of the day. Each competing against a very strong presence by India during this point in history. This quest for trade routes led to the commencement of colonization by both nations.

While much of West Africa speaks French today, these areas were first colonized by Portugal. The term “Guinea” (or “Guine” in Portuguese) differentiates the local people from their Moorish counterparts to the North. The Moorish people were prevalent further North in West Africa. They lived separate from the Guinean people with different cultures and traditions.

Portuguese is still used in Africa and remains the official language in six African states. These are the States of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé, Príncipe and Equatorial Guinea. From these early colonies, the Portuguese expanded around the coast of Africa and in to select areas of Asia.

This expansion would continue into the Caribbean nations and also moving early on into what is now known as Brazil in South America. Brazil comprises the largest part of the South American continent. Spain at the same time, moved into the Caribbean, South, Central and even North America. This allowed for the creation of colonies. While it is unfortunate, this would also prove catastrophic to the local populations.

These similar routes and destinations kept the languages evolving if not in parallel, at least close to each other. This parallel evolution of language was due to a congruent convergence with the Meso-American languages in use at the time. Again, this is why, even to this day there remains so much confusion about the two similar Iberian-romance languages. This is what makes life more difficult for many modern translators and interpreters.

The Localization of Language, Translation and Interpretation

Remember when we discussed the individual from the Southern United States trying to speak to the Scotsman with a Scottish brogue? This is due to the similar nature of the parent language but what remains a very distinct dialect. These are points of concern for anyone who may be seeking to become a certified translator or an interpreter.

As Portuguese and Spanish made their ways around the world, they evolved, mixing in with the local languages of their new colonies. Peru is a primarily Spanish-speaking nation, sharing a long border with Brazil. As a result, there may be areas along the border where the languages have evolved together. This creates a unique and distinctive dialect and linguistic variations from both languages.

The Spanish in modern day Spain is different from the Spanish spoken in modern Mexico. Mexican Spanish is very distinct from the Spanish spoken in the Caribbean. Caribbean Spanish is different than that spoken in Peru. The same holds true with Portuguese. The Portuguese in Portugal differs from that spoken in West Africa. The Portuguese in West Africa differs from that common to Brazil.

The principles of localization focus on unique linguistic characteristics of the same language. Think for a moment about your parents, your grandparents and your children if you are old enough to have them. Each generation will have expressions and vernacular unique to their respective generation.

There will also be cultural influences and even local history that may have a direct impact on the language. All these subtle linguistic variations between languages will notable. Anyone seeking to become a language service provider must understand these variations. This will be as true for those learning Portuguese as it will for those learning Spanish.

The fact that these languages have traveled and evolved together, leads to an expansive shared vocabulary. Pronunciations are one of the most notable differences, even when the words are the same. The Spanish word for “boss” is “Jefe” which in traditional (Mexican) Spanish is pronounced as if it began with “h”.

In (Brazilian) Portuguese, you must spell chefe with a “ch” and pronounce it with a more guttural beginning. It is almost as if the “h” sound comes before the “ch”. The sound of the “ch” begins in the throat.

Even in cases where the words are the same, these variations may cause confusion during verbal communication. At the same time, it is easy to understand how people may believe that the languages are more similar than they are. This even holds true when dealing with written communications.

Written communications in both Portuguese and Spanish are as easy to conflate as the spoken word, if not more so in some cases. This will be important to note for someone already familiar with Spanish who is seeking to learn Portuguese as a second or foreign language.

These days, medical document translation services are seeing an increased demand. The need for legal translators and interpreters is also prevalent during the global medical pandemic. The document translation services that they provide are as important and meaningful.

Research posted on ResearchGate, notes that use in Southern Africa and South America has made Portuguese more common. Portuguese is one of the fastest growing Western languages. There are roughly 240 native speakers of Portuguese in the world today. Portuguese is the 6th most spoken and 13th most taught language in the world.

Many people wishing to learn Portuguese may already have an intimate understanding of one or more variations of Spanish. For legal or medical document translation services, one incorrect translation can be deadly. A single bad translation may seal the fate of an innocent person in some cases. In other cases it may allow a minor medical condition to expand into a full-blown pandemic such as the global Covid-19 outbreak.

If there is any downside to learning Spanish and Portuguese, it may be for those who want to become language service providers. The more diverse and valuable language service providers will not need to speak more languages. The language service providers must be more familiar with those languages they do speak.

It is more important to ensure a complete and in-depth understanding of the nuances of language. The similarities between languages can make life challenging for certified interpreters and translators. This is true for anyone seeking to learn both languages.

There are some words that may have different meanings depending on whether they are being used in Portuguese or in Spanish. There are occasions when the lexical meaning will vary depending on the location or even the audience. Let us take a look at one example in Spanish to give a better understanding of this common conundrum.

In Mexican Spanish, the term “Gabacho” refers to light-skinned people of Mexican descent. It is also used for a select group of foreigners. (Gringo is a more derogatory form of this word) In Spain, “gabacho” is the word used for frog. The word “rana” means “frog” in the Mexican vernacular.

The potential variations increase between two similar languages such as Portuguese and Spanish. This is challenging even for native speakers. For someone who learned either of these languages as a foreign language student, the challenges are even more difficult.

It is not important if you wish to become a language service provider or not. No matter what the reason is for learning Portuguese, it is important to understand the more nuanced aspects of language. The similarities between Spanish and Portuguese may serve as a benefit in some ways. They can also be detrimental to someone not understanding the more subtle nature of the localized variations of language.

With that said, there is at the end of the day, a very strong relationship between Portuguese and Spanish that few would deny. Both culture and history play a role in the linguistic evolution. The relationship and correlation between these two languages is undeniable. The similarities between Portuguese and Spanish can be as much of an impairment as they can be an advantage.

There does seem to be a need to guarantee that the similarities between Portuguese and Spanish never become an issue. This is true for anyone learning Portuguese as a foreign language. The most viable solution is likely to consist of taking an immersive approach to learning the language. Add in sightseeing and incredible people and scenery and the entire immersive experience to learn Portuguese becomes something to look forward to for even the most uncertain language student.