Tag Archives: mutual intelligibility

Spanish versus Portuguese

I owe my readers an apology. In my previous post I promised to write several posts about the Spanish of Cervantes. Instead, my recent days have been devoted to annoying grownup stuff (car trouble, health insurance wrangling), happy grownup stuff (visiting my grandchildren), and also sending out “blast” emails about my book. All important, yet distracting.

This makes it even more awkward that my first post since promising Cervantes is, instead, about Portuguese! But I couldn’t resist, and you’ll see why.

My “blast” emails have given me the chance to reconnect with some friends and family I haven’t been in touch with for a while. One childhood friend wrote back, “I have been studying Portuguese and this has made me wonder about why Spanish is so much more complex.” In direct contrast, a cousin of my husband’s asked, “when will you do [a book] on Portuguese, in my opinion a more difficult and mysterious language?”

I hate to disappoint both my old friend and my cousin-in-law, but I have never studied Portuguese and have no idea how it compares to Spanish in difficulty. I do know some interesting factoids about the difference between the two languages:

  1. It’s easier for Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish than the other way around (the topic of an earlier post);
  2. The future subjunctive, an Iberian invention, is more frequent in Portuguese than in Spanish, where it’s only seen in legalese;
  3. Spanish and Portuguese both have the ser/estar contrast, but permanent location is expressed with ser in Portuguese, versus estar in Spanish.

However, none of these factoids has anything to do with the relative difficulty of the two languages. Perhaps some readers will write in and help with this question. Please!

In the meantime, anyone interested in Portuguese is recommended to read the delightful “not just a physics memoir” Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman. Its chapters on Feynman’s time in Brazil show how learning a foreign language can open unexpected doors.

The lopsided mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese

After the second World War, my grandmother’s family scattered all over the world. My grandmother had already immigrated from Poland to the United States. Her youngest brother ended up in Vienna. Her three sisters, who didn’t look Jewish, managed to survive the war hiding in plain sight in Poland, then married conscripted French laborers and moved to France. Her two brothers immigrated to Brazil.

As a result, our occasional and joyous get-togethers with the extended family were a linguistic smörgåsbord featuring Polish, Yiddish, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. In particular, our Brazilian cousins spoke Portuguese to me and my father, and we spoke Spanish to them. At the time, I had the impression that our Brazilian cousins could understand our Spanish much better than we understood their Portuguese. This impression has stuck with me in later encounters with Portuguese speakers.

This isn’t just my own observation; ask any Spanish speaker, and you’re likely to hear the same thing. It’s also echoed in linguistic literature, most notably by eminent Spanish scholar Ralph Penny: “speakers of Spanish understand at least some of what is said in Portuguese, and the Portuguese speakers will understand a good deal more of what is said in Spanish” (Variation and Change in Spanish, p. 14).

I’ve only found one study that addresses this question systematically. Florida International University professor John B. Jensen had Portuguese and Spanish speakers (all from Latin America, and none expert at the other language) listen to passages in the other language, then answer comprehension questions in their own language. Comprehension in each direction hovered at around 50%. The Portuguese speakers were more successful than the Spanish speakers at interpreting what they heard, a difference that was slim yet statistically significant.

To find out why, I checked in with my great friend (and Portuguese expert) Bonnie Wasserman. She suggested that the main factor was the greater complexity of the Portuguese vowel system. Compared to Spanish’s economical five-vowel system, Portuguese has more core vowels and also a set of nasalized vowels. For example, where Spanish has a single vowel /o/, Portuguese has three: /o/ as in avô “grandfather” (this is closest to Spanish /o/), /ɔ/ as in avó “grandmother” (similar to the au of caught), and nasal /õ/ as in onda “wave” (the n is not pronounced). Spanish speakers can become confused if they fail to pick up on these subtle differences.

A second factor is rhythmic. While Spanish is more stacatto, with each word pronounced individually, Portuguese words are more connected. This makes it harder for Spanish speakers to pick out familiar words when heard in context.

Related discussions are herehere, and here.

[Update from 4 Aug: Here‘s a post about mutual intelligibility in English that includes a list of references about mutual intelligibility in general (search on “Subtirelu”)].