The differences between Spanish and Portuguese may seem obvious to an untrained ear, but there are plenty of important phonetic, graphic and grammatical differences, too, even though both are romance languages with Latin roots. But where do these differences come from and why have similar languages spoken in two neighbouring countries become increasingly distinct over time?
The international influences underlying the origins of Spanish and Portuguese
Before revealing more about the languages and cultures that have influenced the development of Spanish and Portuguese, it is worth clarifying something: Spain is home to many languages, in addition to the official Spanish language. The national language of Spain is Castilian Spanish, which has been spoken by the country’s political and cultural elite for many centuries.
In addition to Castilian speakers, Spain is also home to Basque, Catalan and Galician communities. When examining the differences between Spanish and Portuguese, however, we’re referring to the differences between Castilian Spanish and Portuguese.
Castilian Spanish has been profoundly influenced by Arabic, from which it has inherited many terms. This influence is owed to the trade relations Spain historically entertained with Arab countries and the prolonged Arab rule over Spain. During this rule, which lasted nearly 800 years, the Arab world greatly influenced Spanish culture in general and not just the language.
When it comes to pronunciation, Spanish is more similar to Italian, which is why Italians have less difficulty understanding the language. Given the similarities between Italian and Spanish, some people think it is not always necessary to request professional Spanish-Italian translation services. This couldn’t be further from the truth, especially when people need official or important documents translating.
Portuguese on the other hand has been profoundly influenced by French, from which it has borrowed several terms and the pronunciation of many words. That being said, Portuguese has also been influenced by African languages spoken by slaves in Portugal’s overseas colonies.
It's also worth emphasising that differences between Spanish and Portuguese are often more apparent in spoken language as certain words (despite being written the same way) are pronounced very differently.
Why is Portuguese spoken in Brazil while Spanish is spoken in the rest of Latin America?
In 1494 – just two years after Christopher Columbus’ voyage – Spain and Portugal (the leading naval powers of the Western world) made an agreement in the presence of the Pope: the world would be divided into two halves along the Raya meridian, which passes west of the Cape Verde Islands into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Tordesillas Agreement allowed Spain to import Christianity into all lands to the west of the Raya and Portugal into all lands to the east. This explains why Spanish is spoken in much of South America, except for Brazil. That being said, the Portuguese repeatedly ignored the Tordesillas division and conquered many territories, and in 1750, Spain was forced to recognise Portuguese rule over Brazil.
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