People sometimes notice similar words in the Italian and Spanish languages. Although they’re clearly distinct languages, they belong to the same language family. If you speak Spanish well enough to keep up a conversation in Spanish, does that mean you can also keep a conversation in Italian? Not necessarily, although if you already understand Italian, it’ll be easier for you to learn languages in the same family, including Spanish. This is a great reason to study Spanish if you’re an Italian speaker!
A Brief History of the Romance Languages
When you see the word “Romance” in regard to languages, think “Romans,” as in the ancient Roman people who spoke Latin. The 35 modern Romance languages that are considered living languages, including Spanish and Italian, are descended from the Vulgar Latin. “Vulgar” in this case means “common or everyday.” Vulgar Latin was the language of the common people, as opposed to the written Latin language used by scholars and the aristocratic class, which was called Classical Latin.
The Roman Empire broke apart starting around the 5th century C.E. Between the 6th and 9th centuries C.E., the independent countries that developed from the former Roman Empire began to develop the individual Romance languages that became the ancestor-languages of the modern Romance languages. These modern languages include Catalan (spoken in the region of northern Spain around Barcelona), French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.
Although both Italian and Spanish are Romance languages, they are classified as belonging to different sub-families. Both belong to the same Italo-Western branch of Romance languages that also includes French and Portuguese. Then the Itero-Western branch splits off into the Proto-Italian branch, which includes the “main” Italian language and Italy’s regional dialects such as Sicilian and Venetian, and the Western Romance branch proper, which includes Spanish, Spain’s regional dialects, French, France’s regional dialects, and Portuguese.
Of all the Romance languages, Spanish and Italian are considered two of the most “conservative,” a term used in this case to mean that the language’s characteristics remain close to the characteristics of Vulgar Latin. Italy’s Sardinian dialect is considered by linguists to be the closest living language to Vulgar Latin.
Yet even though Spanish and Italian have a common root and branch off from the same “family tree,” the languages are different enough that they’re not mutually intelligible. That is, if you speak only Spanish, you won’t understand a person who speaks only Italian, although you may be able to pick out a similiar-sounding word here or there. (An example is the word for water: acqua in Italian, agua in Spanish.) The languages have some similar features, such as gendered nouns that are either masculine or feminine, but the vocabularies diverge widely.
Around the world, Spanish is spoken by more than 470 million people and Italian by another 60 million people. So, if you study Spanish, you’ll have almost 500 million more people to keep a conversation with. It’s easier to learn languages if you know one or more languages in the same family, so if you know Italian or one of its dialects, you can study a little and have a conversation in Spanish in weeks or even days.