Portuguese feels like soft Italian

Saturday, December 01, 2012

There is a famous chart often cited about lexical similarity, that can be seen here. It shows the lexical similarity between a number of Romance languages, showing the shared vocabulary ranging from a low of 71% (Romanian and Spanish) to a high of 89% (Italian and French, or Spanish and Portuguese). English and French and German are in there as well but we won't discuss those. The high lexical similarity plus similar grammar between Spanish and Portuguese are often used to show the two as fraternal languages, and indeed they are, but in learning and using them I can't shake the impression that Portuguese and Italian feel more closely related than they are usually given credit for.

Here are the three major ways in which Italian and Portuguese always come across as two close siblings in my mind:

  • Pro-drop languages are Spanish, Portuguese, Italian. French is the exception here.
  • Languages with 'standard' Western European pronunciation (distinguishing between v and b, j and g before e and i like j or zh, s between vowels like z, etc.) are French, Portuguese, Italian. Spanish is the exception.
  • Languages using frequent contractions of prepositions, articles and the like are also French, Portuguese and Italian, with Spanish being the exception having only del and al.
  • There are some other areas such as Portuguese losing epenthesis (Portuguese espada sounds like 'shpada), and Portuguese and Italian having fewer diphthongs than Spanish (sempre not siempre, vento not viento). 
  • The possessive: mi amigo and mon ami vs. il mio amico and o meu amigo (article + possessive + noun).
  • Consonant change over time, especially words that begin with f, where Spanish is again the exception. Filho and figlio and fils and... hijo. Folha and foglio and feuille and hoja. Oftentimes it almost feels like a differenze linguistiche rage comic comparing vocabulary between the four.

So why 'soft' Italian? Because of all the voiced consonants where Italian is unvoiced (d vs. t is a big one), plus the swallowed vowels, written doubled consonants are not pronounced, and prevalence of the sh sound.

This is more than anything a personal impression, and I do not mean to attempt to claim Portuguese and Spanish as more distant relations than they are. The big difference between Portuguese and Italian is the way the plural is formed, which today made me wonder what a Portuguese with Italian plurals would look like. So here it is from the bottom right of pt.wikipedia.org:

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