Italian vs Spanish Language – What are the differences?

Italian and Spanish are both Romance languages developed out from Latin. The two linguistic entities share an extensive vocabulary and even their verb conjugations follow similar rules.

Memorising the words and their spelling can be tricky, however, especially for a novice learner, given that some of words are written similarly or in exactly the same way. What’s more, the meaning of these words can differ despite looking the same, which can result in some rather embarrassing mistakes as we will see below.

So, without further ado, here are the five main similarities and differences between Italian and Spanish. We hope this list will prove helpful to those learning both languages!

spanish vs italian

5 Similarities Between Italian and Spanish

1. Connection between Romance languages

Comparative linguistics has proven that Italian and Spanish are among the Romance languages with the strongest bond. Indeed, it’s quite impressive how the two languages overlap due to their shared Latin foundations. Parts of the lexicon, verbs conjugations, and phrase construction come as a unique block that is almost identical. Moreover, they have a lexical similarity that scores over 80%.

But as we will see next, these similarities do not always guarantee an easier path to learning. Indeed, false friends and huge semantic differences can easily dash a student’s expectations.


2. The alphabet is the same (with some exceptions)

Castilian shares the same alphabet as Italian except for the ñ [ɲ] which has the same pronunciation as gn in Italian. This is a sound that does not exist in English, and it can be particularly hard to learn. The sound is common in Italian, but does not have a proper letter in the alphabet – rather it is a compound of two letters: g + n

You can find it in gnomo (gnome), maligno (malignant) or bagno (bathroom). In Spanish, by comparison, is a real letter and is used for words such as mañana (day or tomorrow), baño (bathroom), caña de cerveza (a glass of beer).

Double LL [ʎ] is a Castilian sound familiar both in Italian and Spanish, but this sound is made of compound letters. In Italian is formed by linking g + l = gl, such as in maglia (shirt) or paglia (straw). In Spain it is produced with the double ll such as in caballo (horse). In this case too, English speakers will have a hard time producing the correct pronunciation.

Finally, [x] in Spanish is generally used when pronouncing the letter ‘j’, but also ‘h’, and it looks like an aspirated ‘h’ in English, but stronger and deeper. You can find it in jamón (ham), ojo (eye), and jardín (garden). The Italian language doesn’t have it, nor does English. This sound is originally rooted in Arabic and was imported during colonisation in the past.


3. Italian and Spanish spelling is regular

Differently from English, which is an irregular language, Italian and Spanish are read as they are written. Therefore, phonemes and graphemes coincide and you can spell almost any word just by knowing how that letter is pronounced, because they always follow the same pattern. 

To better understand this aspect, let’s look at an example: the English word ‘anxious’ /ˈæŋkʃəs/ isn’t pronounced as it is written. However, the same word in Italian and Spanish: ‘ansioso’ [anˈsjoso] is read exactly as it is written.


4. Pronouns can be implied

In both Italian and Spanish, pronouns can be avoided. Therefore, I go back home, in Italian is: (io) torno a casa, and in Spanish: (yo) regreso a casa. It is implied from the verb conjugation, and is not mandatory as in English.


5. Definite articles

Spanish and Italian differentiate definite articles based on the genre and number of the noun that they precede. Unlike English which only uses the article ‘the’, the two Romance languages use the following articles:

LanguageItalianSpanish
Masculine singularIlEl
Masculine singularLo/
Feminine singularLaLa
Masculine pluralILos
Masculine pluralGli/
Feminine pluralLeLas

These articles agree with the nouns that follow. Therefore, it is necessary to know the genre and number required by the noun you’re going to use. 


5 Differences between Italian and Spanish

1. Cognates? No, false friends!

Although the two languages share part of their vocabulary due to their shared Latin ancestry and historical cultural exchanges, today many of these words have diverged in meaning. 

These are known as false friends, or in other words, words that look similar in two or more languages, but have a different meaning. Here are a few common examples in Italian and Spanish:

Vaso

Vaso /’vaso/ has the same pronunciation both in Italian and Spanish. What changes is the meaning linked to the word. In Italian, it refers to a vase or a pot you can use for flowers or decorations. In Spanish, it means glass, and therefore, if you’re visiting Spain, you could ask for a glass of water: un vaso de agua por favor (A glass of water please) with this word. But in Italian, you should use: un bicchiere d’acqua per favore.

Officina vs. Oficina

The two words look pretty similar, right? But their meaning is completely different. An officina in Italy is a workshop or a garage where you can have your car repaired. The Spanish word instead, oficina, is used for an office. As you can see, this word also has much in common with the English one because etymologically it derives from Latin: officium, which originally meant performance of a task (Oxford language definition).

Burro

Burro is the Italian word for butter. But be careful not to ask for burro in a Spanish bar, as the bartender will think you’re crazy. After all, it’s not common for someone to ask for a donkey in a bar!

Contestare vs. Contestar

The Italian verb: contestare, has the same meaning as the English word to contest or to challenge. For instance, “L’Unione Europea intende contestare le misure adoperate nelle politiche sull’innovazione” (The European Union intends to challenge the measures taken with regards to innovation policies).

By contrast, the Spanish word contestar means to answer an e-mail, the phone, and so on. 

Imbarazzata vs. Embarazada 

These two false friends could get you into deep trouble. In Italian, imbarazzata, expresses the condition of being embarrassed or ashamed whereas embarazada in Spanish means to be pregnant!

These are just a few examples, but there are dozens more to be aware of. In short, always look up new words, even if you come across some that look like cognates. They may well be false friends in disguise!


2. Italian words hardly ever end with a consonant

This is a big difference that not only differentiates Italian from Spanish, but also Italian from English and many other European languages. Indeed, endings in Italian are characterised by vowels that define genre and number.

For this reason, borsa (bag) becomes borse in the plural. The Spanish word bolsa (bag), on the other hand, becomes bolsas. Therefore, like the English language, it adds an -s to the end of the word to form the plural.

There are some exceptions in Italian, such as loanwords like camion (truck) which do end in a consonant and whose ending do not change in the feminine or plural, but they are rare.


3. Possessives

The Italian language, contrary to Spanish and English, uses articles with possessives. For this reason, if in Spanish you say: mi madre estaba en mi oficina (my mother was in my office), in Italian it would be: mia madre stava nel mio ufficio (literally: my mother was in the my office). As in English, Spanish does not use the article before a possessive, while Italian does.

4. The use of conditional tense

The conditional is generally applied in the same way in both languages. But there are two main differences to take into consideration:

  • To express a future action that depends on a past verb:
    • Italian: compound conditional (Antonio mi disse che sarebbe venuto)
    • Spanish: simple conditional (Antonio me dijo que vendría)
    • Translation: Antonio told me that he would come.
  • To express probability:
    • Italian: compound future (Saranno state le 8 di mattina quando è tornato)
    • Spanish: simple conditional (Serían las 8 por la mañana cuando llegó)
    • Translation: It must have been 8 o’clock when he came back.

The use of indicative future

The use of the indicative future tense is different between Spanish and Italian. Here is a list of how they differ:

Italian uses the future, and Spanish does not, in order to:

  • Create conditional clauses referring to the future (Spanish uses the present tense)
  • Introduce temporal clauses with “when” (quando), but also “until” (finché) and “as soon as” (appena) pointing at a simultaneous action in the future (Spanish uses the subjunctive)

Quando avrò i soldi, comprerò una macchina.
Cuando haya el dinero, compraré un coche.
When I have the money, I’ll buy a car.

  • To form sentences that indicate doubt or probability introduced by the adverb “perhaps/maybe” (forse).

Forse inizia/inizierà la prossima settimana.
Quizás empieza/empiece la semana que viene. (Spanish uses the subjunctive)
Perhaps it will start next week.


Conclusion

This is just a taster of the main similarities and differences to be aware of at the beginning of your language learning journey. The future, conditional and subjunctive tenses are probably the most difficult to understand in Italian and Spanish, and even once you reach a more advanced level, it is easy to make mistakes.

As we’ve seen, just because two languages belonging to the same linguistic group, does not mean that they are similar in every respect. On the contrary, sometimes such closeness can pose huge problems when distinguishing one from the other, and this is certainly the case with Italian and Spanish.

About the author: Fabio Guarino
As a Linguist and Language Specialist, working as a Freelance Content Writer and SEO Marketer allows me to combine my passions and interests with my career. My favourite thing about working with languages is playing with words. And this is something I’ve always dreamed about since I started to wander the globe and study languages.


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