Spanish vs Portuguese: Similarities and Differences
Are Spanish and Portuguese that different? That is the question I’ve heard lately from my friends when I tell them how challenging speaking Portuguese is for me. I studied Spanish philology, married a Mexican guy, lived for more than 15 years in Spanish-speaking countries, and 6 months ago, I moved to Portugal.
It must be easy, people say. Spanish and Portuguese are so similar. That’s true, but they are also different in a tricky way that takes you some time to discover. I also got to know that while I struggle to understand people around me, they have almost no problems understanding my Spanish. I’ll tell you later why.
Portuguese was my second language in college and having learned its grammar and history is helping me now. Let’s explore whether Spanish and Portuguese are more similar than different. Find out what to keep in mind if you already know one of them and want to learn the other.
Are Spanish and Portuguese Similar?
Yes, they are, and if you don’t speak either of them, you’ll have problems distinguishing one from another. My husband is from Mexico, and he has never studied Portuguese. He can survive on the street in Portugal, read a newspaper, order food, and drinks, etc. This would definitely not happen if we were living in China.
Let’s have a look at the well-known first sentences from “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez in both Spanish and Portuguese and you’ll get what I’m walking about:
Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padrelo llevó a conocer el hielo. (Spanish)
Muitos anos depois, diante do pelotão de fuzilamento, o Coronel Aureliano Buendía havía de recordar aquela tarde remota em que o seu pai o levou para conhecer o gelo. (Portuguese)
The English translation is: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. “
As you can see, the sentence in Spanish looks extremely similar to the sentence in Portuguese, and if you know one of these two languages, you’ll have no issues with understanding it in the other one. Why?
A Little Bit of History
Spanish and Portuguese originated on a small territory of the Iberian península, and their history was extremely tangled for centuries. That’s why they are so closely related but with differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. They both belong to Romance languages (along with Sardinian, Italian, Romanian, Occitan, and French).
Many people say Italian is easier than French, and that’s true. Why? All the Romance languages evolved from Latin, but not all of them evolved to the same degree. To simplify the topic a bit, I’d say that the ones that evolved more are more complicated to learn as far as spelling and pronunciation are concerned, and have more exceptions. Look at the table below, the highest the percentage, the greater the separation from Latin:
|Language||Degree of Separation|
So, is Portuguese harder than Spanish? Yes, it is. Portuguese evolved more than Spanish, and it’s phonology (how it is pronounced) and spelling are more complicated. Can a Portuguese person understand Spanish and vice versa? Because Portuguese speakers are used to more complicated sounds, it’s easier for them to understand the Spaniards than the other way round.
Learn more about the history of Spanish.
Portuguese started functioning as a separate language in northern Galicia where it evolved from the Vulgar Latin that was spoken there. Even today, people using Galician communicate with the Portuguese with no problems. When I studied Spanish philology, an exchange student from Galicia, Spain, chose Portuguese as his elective, to make his life easier.
Now that you know why Spanish and Portuguese are similar and different at the same time, let’s take a closer look at their specific similarities and differences.
You now know that Portuguese and Spanish come from the same Romance family and simply went different ways. However, they still share some common words and grammar due to their shared Latin origins and geographical proximity. They were isolated from Europe by the Pyrenees and by bodies of water from everybody else, so their mutual relationship was strong and intense.
Remember that Brasilian Portuguese has more similarities with Latin American Spanish, whereas European Portuguese is more similar to Spanish spoken in Spain, el Castellano.
What is similar? The word order is mostly the same, with some tiny exceptions. The use of genders for common nouns that you don’t have in English appears in both of them, too. And the vocabulary looks very similar. Remember the first sentence from “One Hundred Years of Solitude”? You have:
Muchos – muitos (many)
Años – anos (years)
Después – depois (later)
Pelotón de fusilamiento – pelotão de fuzilamento (firing squad)
Coronel – coronel – (colonel)
Recordar – recordar (remember)
Aquella – aquela (that)
Tarde – tarde (afternoon)
Remota – remota (distant, remote)
Padre – pai (father)
Llevó – levou (took)
Conocer – conhecer (discover, get to know)
Hielo – gelo (ice)
In fact, there’s almost 90% lexical similarity between Spanish and Portuguese! That means 9 out of 10 words are similar and have a cognate in the other language.
Cognates are words that look and sound similar in both languages because of a common origin. To find out more, check out Easy Cognates for Beginning Spanish Learners.
Now, let’s have a look at a handful of cognates between Spanish and Portuguese. I have included the common, everyday words on this list.
|Comer (to eat)||Comer|
Apart from some minor changes in accents, you can’t deny there is a strong resemblance.
Cognates between Spanish and Portuguese are your lifesaver if you know one language and are learning the other.
You can read and even say more that you have actually studied. This is what my husband does now, he says things in Spanish with a Portuguese accent, and can function in Portugal without major problems.
However, it’s not always that easy, and my daughters always tell me Spanish is not that similar to Portuguese because “butterfly” in Spanish is mariposa and borboleta in Portuguese.
Differences between Spanish and Portuguese
Spanish and Portuguese also have significant differences. Some people even say that it can be more difficult to learn one of them knowing the other; ironically, it’s easy to get confused as a result of so many similarities.
Let’s take a glimpse at the main differences between these two languages: vocabulary, grammar, and spelling.
I remember talking to a new Portuguese friend. She asked me how long I had been in Portugal and I answered: un rato.
She went silent, looking at me with a visible question in her eyes. Then she explained to me that rato in Portuguese means “rat” and not “a short period in time” like in Spanish.
In the same conversation, I told her that I work as a maestra and she said that she doesn’ know much about music. At this moment I looked confused, and I got to know that maestro in Portuguese is “conductor” and not “teacher,” which is what I wanted to say.
Rato and maestro are examples of false cognates. It means they look and sound the same but have a different meaning. They can have different origins and they look similar only by accident. Or perhaps their meaning changed in one place over time but not in the other country. Do you want to learn some more?
|Spanish (English)||Portuguese (English)|
|Vaso (glass, cup)||Vaso (vase, flowerpot)|
|Oso (bear)||Osso (bone)|
|Pez (fish)||Pez (pith, resin)|
|Polvo (dust)||Polvo (octopus)|
|Tienda (shop, business)||Tenda (tent, marquee)|
|Perro (dog)||Perro (rusty)|
|Aceite (oil)||Aceite (accepted)|
|Oficina (office)||Oficina (repair garage)|
|Topo (mole)||Topo (top)|
Days of the Week
I remember when I started studying Portuguese, what struck me was how Portuguese speakers name the days of the week compared to Spanish speakers.
You want to say “Monday” and expect something similar to Spanish lunes and instead, you get Segunda-feira. What? Why?
It’s because modern Portuguese does not use the Roman planetary system for the days from Monday to Friday. They derived their names from Church Latin and made them numerical.
The word feira refers to religious Catholic celebrations and is often omitted in speech. Saturday and Sunday are called sábado and domingo in both Spanish and Portuguese.
|Spanish (English)||Portuguese (English)|
|Lunes (Monday)||Segunda-feira (Second weekday)|
|Martes (Tuesday)||Terça-feira (Third weekday)|
|Miércoles (Wednesday)||Quarta-feira (Fourth weekday)|
|Jueves (Thursday)||Quinta-feira (Fifth weekday)|
|Viernes (Friday)||Sexta-feira (Sixth weekday)|
|Sábado (Saturday)||Sábado (Saturday)|
|Domingo (Sunday)||Domingo (Sunday)|
I have been living in Portugal for 6 months now and I still need to do calculations in my head when somebody refers to Quarta.
In Portuguese, interrogative pronouns do not have accent marks. In Spanish, they do (quién, por qué, qué, cuándo, cuál).
¿Quién es ese hombre? (Spanish)
Quem é esse homem? (Portuguese)
Who is that man?
Did you also notice that there’s no question mark at the beginning of the question in Portuguese? That’s right, they are omitted, as are initial exclamation marks.
Apart from lexical differences, Spanish and Portuguese grammar, although similar, also involve obstacles for people who speak one to learn the other.
The Spanish language has three forms for singular definite articles:
- Masculine el
- Feminine la
- Neutral lo
It also has three corresponding third-person pronouns:
- Él (he)
- Ella (she)
- Ello (it)
Portuguese has only two forms in both cases.
- Masculine o
- Feminine a
- Masculine ele
- Feminine ela
Some words that are masculine in Spanish are feminine in Portuguese and vice versa:
|el color (color)||a cor|
|el dolor (pain)||a dor|
|el viaje (journey)||a viagem|
|la leche (milk)||o leite|
|la nariz (nose)||o nariz|
In Portuguese, you put a definite article before somebody’s names. So to say “Pedro left” in Spanish, you’ll say Pedro salió, and in Portuguese o Pedro saiu.
In Portuguese, you’ll also put a definite article before possessive adjectives and pronouns. In Spanish, you only do it before possessive pronouns.
Need a refresher on possessive pronouns in Spanish? Check out How to Use Possessive Pronouns in Spanish to Express Ownership.
- Possessive Adjectives
A tua casa
- Possessive Pronouns
In Brazilian Portuguese, you can place the definite article before the possessive pronoun.
There are many more differences in grammar, but let’s leave them for another day.
Let’s look at differences in spelling next. Since Spanish and Portuguese evolved from Latin, many letter combinations have a counterpart in the other language.
Here are some rules about spelling that will help you guess the word in Portuguese if you already know Spanish and vice versa.
-ón and -ão
The Spanish words that end in -ón end in -ão in Portuguese:
-ll and -ch
Spanish -ll changes to -ch in Portuguese:
-ñ and nh
Spanish –ñ turns to Portuguese -nh
You’ll be happy to discover that there are many more combinations like this that help you guess the correct form of the word in the other language.
Are you impressed with how much you’ve learned? Similarities and differences between Spanish and Portuguese are interesting topics. Familiarity with these nuances will help you immensely in learning either language.
Are you a Portuguese speaker? Do you want to try yourself and see how much you can understand and say in your first Spanish class? Sign up for a free class with one of our professional, native-speaking teachers from Guatemala and compare Spanish and Portuguese!
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