Romance languages

I was watching a travel show about Italy last night and I noticed alot of the words the Italians used were very close to Spanish words I know (4 years of HS Spanish).

Well duh, they both come from Latin of course. But I’m curious about people who are native Romance language speakers.

Can French and Spanish speakers understand each other pretty well? Italian and Spanish? How closely are these related?

Have any of you been able to use your knowledge of one Romance language to “make do” when travelling to a different Romance-language country? If you speak one Romance language does another Romance language make more sense to you than a Germanic language like English?

Well, I’m not a native Spanish speaker, but I’ve picked it up pretty well. Now when I watch subtitles or closed captions with French or Italian or Portuguese, I can make it out about 25% of the time, compared with maybe 0.001% of the time before learning Spanish. I think it’s ironic that French seems easier than Portuguese which is easier than Italian which is the cause of this whole mess.

Is that supposed to mean that Italian is more-Romance than other Romance languages? If that’s what you’re saying, it’s not a sound statement from a scientific perspective.

My understanding is that there is a dialect continuum throughout the Romance-speaking portions of the Iberian peninsula, France, and Italy (which would leave out the Basque, Breton, and Italo-German areas). So adjacent dialects of any of the languages will be more mutually intelligible, and less proximate dialacts will tend to be less mutually intelligible.

In fact, it might be the case that the divisions of the Romance languages along national lines into French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian is wholly unsupportable. There are dozens of language groupings in this spectrum – Emiliano-Romagnolo, Ligurian, Lombard, Piemontese, Venetian, French, Picard, Zarphatic, Franco-Provençal, Friulian, Ladin, (Rhaeto-) Romansch, Catalan-Valencian-Balear, Auvergnat, Gascon, Languedocien, Limousin, Provençal, Shuadit, Asturian, Miranda Do Douro, Caló, Extremaduran, Ladino, Castilian (Spanish), Fala, Galician, Portuguese.

Of course, you’re probably just wondering about the standardised (news broadcast) dialects of these languages, so nevermind.

From my generalized, limited knowledge of Latin, French, Portuguese and Spanish (and English), Spanish is the language that appears (written and spoken) the most similar to Latin, IMO.

My mom was bilingual French and my dad bilingual Portugese, and they could understand the gist of each other’s sentences often.

In spoken form, not very well. You can guess a lot of words and with a little effort you can come up with a pidgin conversation. There’s a Brazilian canteen close to where I live, when I go there I talk in a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, French and Japanese. We manage to have conversations this way.

In written form, it’s much easier to understand another Romance language because similarities between words are more obvious. I’m thinking of applying to a university in Barcelona, and when I checked their homepage, I never bothered clicking on the “English” link. The site is in Catalan, I have never even looked at a Catalan textbook and I can understand probably over 90% of what is written there. However, when I was in the south of France this summer, and happened to hear people speaking Catalan, I couldn’t make out any of what they were saying.

The degree of mutual intelligibility of Romance languages depends quite a lot on how well you know them, and which languages you are talking about, and whether you have exposure to multiple Romance languages. I speak Spanish, and have studied some French (although I’ve never been fluent in French), and have dabbled on occasion in Italian (and sung choral pieces in Latin). Catalan is pretty easy for a Spanish speaker to read, especially if you’ve ever studied older literature in Spanish. I haven’t had much chance to hear it spoken, though.

When studying in Spain, some of us took a weekend trip to Portugal and couldn’t understand a damn thing most of the time, although we did alright reading, and the ones who had also studied a second Romance language generally had an easier time. I understand Brazilian Portuguese much better than Iberian Portuguese. I can fake Italian passably well at a basic level, but then I’ve had more exposure to it. But those who went to Galicia while we were studying in Spain said it was almost impossible to understand the rural spoken dialect there. And I sure have a hard time figuring out Romanian, even in print. Italian and Spanish speakers probably have an easier time understanding each other than either group has understanding French speakers, because the sounds of spoken Italian and spoken Spanish are much more similar to each other than either one is to French, and the spelling of Italian and Spanish is much more regular and phonetic.

So in short, it depends.

Acsenray got it right with the continuum thesis. Same goes for German (High and Low and everything inbetween) and Dutch.

The one exception might be Romanian which is farily isolated and has picked up a lot Slavic words. Romanian: the red-headed step child of the Romance Language Family.

Eh… wouldn’t Catalan be closer to the Castilian spectrum than Provençal?

Anyways… spoken, it is difficult to understand a whole conversation. You can understand a word here and there, but unless it’s simple or they’re talking slow (which they don’t), a Spanish speaking person with no knowledge of French would understand little of French. Italian and Portuguese are a bit easier, but again if the speakers are talking normal pace (meaning fast and using contractions and joining syllables) it is hard.

Reading it’s different. I never had Italian or (and until last semester) French classes, but I could understand more of what they wrote than what they said.

Eva, from what I gather, Iberian Portuguese is difficult for a foreigner with some Portuguese knowledge to understand, while Brazilian Portuguese is easier (depending on the state). I’ve heard Iberian Portuguese in songs… it reminds me of the Spanish equivalent, Castilian Spanish.

That’s not something I have personal expertise in, but according to this site, these are all within the Ibero-Romance branch of the Gallo-Iberian branch of the Western branch of the Italo-Western branch of Romance languages. The three subgroups here are East Iberian (which includes Catalan), Oc (which includes Provençal), and West Iberian (which includes Castilian Spanish). So, in some sense, they’re equidistant. Additionally, each subgrouping has differing numbers of members, so it’s not necessarily very easy to tell how close to one another are just from a list.

Brazilians understand prety well Spanish. In South America we use a pidgin we call Portunhol (or Portuñol) that everibody more or less undestands.
Italian is a little more difficult, but we can understand pretty well written Italian and a little less the spoken language.
The more different from Portuguese is French, even the written language is not so easy.
Anyway, all of this languages are much easier for us than the Anglo-Germanic ones.
Acsenray is only partially right with his theory. Italy is farthest away from the Iberic peninsula than France, but Italian is more similar to Portuguese and Spanish than French, but my knowledge of French has made for me easier to speak Italian than it would be if I only spoke Portuguese or Spanish.

I speak fluent French and Italian, and bad Spanish (speak a little English too !), and In answer to the original question - can a speaker of one romance language understand another romance language - I’d have to say no.

Have you ever heard a Texan talking to a Glaswegian ? And they both speak English…

As others have said, knowledge of one Romance language makes learning the next one easier, but these languages are only similar in the same way that Danish Dutch or German are similar to English.

Italian and French are probably the two closest in the standardized batch, in that an accurate word for word translation from one to the other will actually be comprehensible - similar grammar and sentence structure. Spelling is pretty different though…

Spanish and Italian have similar sounds, but you can’t do word for word - syntax is pretty different, expressions are different, different use of prepositions, word order, subjunctives etc. My tiny experience of Catalan (and Ibizenco) leads me to believe that it’s most closely related to French.

As regards the geographical continuum of regional languages - this primarily concerns Spain - in my experience there is no widespread (if any) use of Occitan, Provençal etc with the notable exception of Mediterranean islands - Corsica, Sardegna, Sicily etc

Gotta add though - IMO none of the Mediterranean Romance languages is structured anything like Latin (don’t know about Romanian) - German and Russian seem to be the big winners in that category !

Nope. Catalan is actually much closer to Occitan languages (including Provencal) than to Castillan. AFAIK, it even used to be included in the Occitan family.

Ah, thanks, clairobscur. I was referring, though, to the fact that the poster placed placed Provençal closer to Castilian Spanish, rather than Catalan. I wouldn’t have asked this if he/she had placed the order between Provençal and Castilian Spanish.

Of course, this comes from me thinking that the poster had a specific order in placing the groups, rather than just more or less random.

Actually, Sardinian is held to be one of the closest to Latin, though this particular dialect seems far more reminiscent of modern Italian or Spanish. Other dialects, however, have greater phonological similarity to Latin, in that the consonant clusters are not as simplified, e.g. you would have something like adject- rather than agget-.

FWIW, Romanian has adopted a number of Slavic words, but is said to be the only Romance language retaining case inflections on nouns, though very much simplified compared to Latin.

Has there been any kind of research as to why German for instance has something like Latin grammar, but less Latin rooted vocabulary - where Italian eg has retained the Latin rooted words but considerably simplified the grammar ?

Or am I attributing some non-existant cause and effect here ?

As others have said, it all depends.

I found that when I learned a (very) little Italian, I could understand a fair bit of Spanish.

On the other hand, I have a friend who studied Spanish at University and lived for a while in Madrid - and she thinks she can’t understand any Italian.

I think the difference here is mostly in expectations - like native speakers, because she speaks Spanish so well, she only thinke she is understanding Italian if she gets the same level of comprehension. I, on the other hand, know I’m not very good, and I’m just looking to be better than your average Brit (or American) on holiday.

Indeed. Sorry, I misread your question.

acsenray, I guess I was being more tongue-in-cheeck than making any actual claims. My non-scientific reasoning of blaming Italian is that it’s geographically spoken in Italy, where Latin presumably evolved into modern Italian.

Like Jovan, I really meant the simularities in the written language by my reference to closed captions and subtitles. I can’t make out a thing the French (or French Canadians) say!

In Portugal people told me they understand the spanish when they speak, but the spanish are not able to understand them.

Spanish & French & Italian are damn similar. It’s like reading the Canterbury Tales - seems to be nonsense until you see it written down. Chaucer said “ki-nict” for “Knight”, but he wrote it “k-n-i-g-h-t”. Similarly, the spanish propensity for pronouncing “V” as “B” can confuse and amaze - but the words are similar enough in writing.