When I first heard from Tiago asking about guest posts, my first reaction was a pang of jealousy. Tiago, after all, spent some time bouncing around Brazil, and is now living in Cartagena, the heart of the Colombian Caribbean.
After I got his post, however, my reaction was quite another. I am honored to include here his wonderful text about the difference between Spanish and Portuguese, and the surprises and hilarious pitfalls of moving between the two languages. This is a must-read for language lovers and speakers of Spanish and/or Portuguese.
Spanish vs. Portuguese: What’s the Difference?
Many people with some experience with these two languages hold that there are very few differences, and sometimes even go so far as to claim that they are more like different dialects of an underlying Iberian lingua franca than two completely separate tongues (they are, in fact, both in the language group called West Iberian).
This view has its merits, especially when you consider that what we know today as “Spain” is really more of a confederacy of various regions with their own distinct cultures and languages. What we call simply “Spanish” is really Castilian, the particular dialect of the Kingdom of Castile, which over several centuries was the driving force behind the expulsion of the Moors from the peninsula and the unification of the numerous Iberian kingdoms into the Spanish state.
Seen from this point of view, tiny Portugal can seem like just another one of these mini-kingdoms that just happened to not join its neighbors, and its language the local dialect of just another regional outpost of Iberian civilization.
The reasoning behind underestimating the differences between the two languages isn’t limited to history. The modern listener upon first exposure will immediately notice the broad similarities and even sometimes identical words and phrases between them.
Take the following sentences, where the first, bold line in each pair is in Spanish and the second is in Portuguese, taken from Gramática Esencial de Español by Manuel Seco by way of Wikipedia:
Spanish: Pero, a pesar de esta variedad de posibilidades que la voz posee, sería un muy pobre instrumento de comunicación si no contara más que con ella.
Portuguese: Porém, apesar desta variedade de possibilidades que a voz possui, seria um instrumento de comunicação muito pobre se não se contasse com mais do que ela.
S: La capacidad de expresión del hombre no dispondría de más medios que la de los animales.
P: A capacidade de expressão do homem não disporia de mais meios que a dos animais.
S: La voz, sola, es para el hombre apenas una materia informe, que para convertirse en un instrumento perfecto de comunicación debe ser sometida a un cierto tratamiento.
P: A voz, sozinha, é para o homem apenas uma matéria informe, que para se converter num instrumento perfeito de comunicação deve ser submetida a um certo tratamento.
S: Esa manipulación que recibe la voz son las "articulaciones".
P: Essa manipulação que a voz recebe são as "articulações".
Anyone can see even without any knowledge of either language that the similarities are striking and the differences minor.
I would estimate from my personal experience living in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Curitiba for about 3 cumulative years and the last 5 months living in Cartagena, Colombia that about 70% of the two languages is essentially the same, conferring upon their respective speakers a significant degree of mutual intelligibility which, combined with their similar histories and cultural backgrounds, makes it easy to dismiss the differences as insignificant.
But try taking this attitude onto the streets of Latin America and testing it in an actual conversation or two and you will be in for a rude (though occasionally hilarious) awakening.
The problem with discounting the differences is that the 30% that is significantly different is not composed of obscure dictionary terms no one ever uses. I have found that it is precisely the most commonly used words and day-to-day expressions that vary the most, a fact that is not apparent in the relatively sophisticated phrase I cited above.
Although big fancy words like globalização (globalización in Spanish), confabular (confabular), and hipertensão (hipertensión) may be nearly the same in the two languages, some of the most common day-to-day words will really throw you for a loop: cadeira (chair) is silla, esquecer (to forget) is olvidarse, and mas (but) is pero. 30% may not seem like a lot, but unless you are a college professor or newspaper editor you will spend most of your time swimming in this soup of bizarrely divergent terms.
I suspect that the reason for this, although I’m sure there must be an official linguistic explanation somewhere, is that common words are used more often and are therefore more subject to improvisation, evolution, and adaptation to local influences and customs, a process that surely must have occurred in the widely varying environments of the Iberian Peninsula. Add to this the explosion of Iberian culture across the vast expanse of the Americas and the process is only accelerated.
But enough theory, let’s get to some examples. I think you’ll see that in practice the similarity of these two languages can be as much a curse as it is a blessing, as it gives one a self-confidence to use untested words when a little self-doubt would be more in order.
My first inkling that learning Spanish would be more challenging than I first thought arose in Bogotá, when I saw restaurants advertising food they claimed was exquisita, which in Portuguese means “strange” but in Spanish means “exquisite.” I was amused to see at the bottom of the menu a request for propina, which means “tip” in Spanish but is often understood as “bribe” in Brazil (where the words gorjeta or serviço are used instead). Although I’m sure many Brazilian politicians would argue that the basic principle is the same.
I was surprised to learn that the tráfico in Bogotá was bad during the day but fine at night – in Portuguese this word has come to be synonymous with the traffic of drugs and Brazilians are therefore more likely to use the word trânsito. In Colombia they have different words with dangerous connotations: more than once I ordered una Coca (“Coke” in Brazil) at a restaurant only to get directions to the nearest crack house (coca is synonymous with “cocaine” in Colombia).
After hearing of several people who had mysteriously turned into “rubber” (borracha in Portuguese), I eventually discovered that borracha in Spanish means drunk. And imagine my dismay when a friend asked if he could fill my “toilet bowl” with rum, only to discover that vaso in Spanish usually means “cup” (although the meanings are interchangeable in both languages, Brazilians usually use copo).
After we sorted out the misunderstanding and had a good laugh, I was shocked to see that my friend was offended at me telling him he was “funny” and that his girlfriend was “nice,” not realizing that engraçado in Spanish is “greasy” and simpática is “average-looking” (only in Colombia, I believe).
My first month in Colombia I spent in Bogotá, taking Spanish classes every day with the hope of taking the edge off my ignorance. But just as I thought I had things under control with the slow-speaking, somber cachacos (people from Bogotá) I moved to the city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, where things got far, far worse. People from the coast – they’re called costeños – are famous for having their own slang and for improvising on the fly, which led to a whole new series of misunderstandings in my continuing attempt to survive on my own in Colombia.
The words apelido and sobrenome in Portuguese (nickname and last name) have exact equivalents in Spanish, except for the minor detail that the meanings are reversed, which almost led to my official identity card reading “Tiago Alexander El Gringo.” I was often struck by small yet crucial differences like this one that seemed to have been invented by someone specifically to mess with Portuguese-speakers.
Adding to the difficulty of navigating the minefield that is learning Spanish as a Portuguese speaker is the fact that Hispanic people are very polite – they generally won’t correct you, especially as a foreigner with all the extra respect that brings. The end result of this, however, is that usually by the time you realize where the next mine is located, you’re already been blown up for some time.
During my first week living with a Colombian family in Cartagena, I attended a birthday party at a cousin’s house where the entire extended family had gathered to celebrate. I was a little nervous and wanted to make a good first impression, and tried hard to make conversation despite my insecurity with the language.
I wasn’t sure if the word cabelo in Portuguese (hair, plural) had an equivalent in Spanish (it does: cabello) but I had heard the word pelo before (hair, singular, in both languages). I thought I was being terribly clever when I simply made the word plural – pelos – and used it repeatedly in the charming story of my first haircut in Colombia that I recounted to the entire family. That is, until I was told afterwards that pelos in Spanish means “pubes.” I had told 25 strangers a story about getting my pubes cut.
Even when words or expressions are identical or very nearly the same, you’re not necessarily in the clear. Every language has different possible meanings for many words, depending on the context. Spanish and Portuguese very often have different contextual requirements even when everything else is the same, which like a stone at the finish line can trip you up just as you think you’re safe.
A few weeks after the previous incident, when I was finally able to show my face in public again, I ran out of dental floss. I knew the word for “string” (hilo) and the word for “dental” (dental) and I figured putting the two together would allow me to be understood. Considering that hilo dental is nearly identical to the Portuguese version fio dental, I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
I figured wrong. I set about checking around at the various mini-stores in the neighborhood, not wanting to go all the way to the supermarket for this one item. After asking at 4 or 5 neighborhood stores as well as asking the neighbors if they knew where I could find hilo dental, I was told by one kind gentleman that the word I should use is seda, since hilo dental in this region refers to a Brazilian string bikini. The whole neighborhood now thought I was looking to buy a string bikini.
The ironic part of this episode is that in Brazil we also use this expression to refer to string bikinis, but the context has to be very specific for it to be interpreted that way. Not on the Colombian coast: apparently here string bikinis are very much on everyone’s mind, and this is assumed to be the intended meaning. Even with the potential linguistic pitfall clearly known to me, a slight shift in contextual standards caused me to fall straight into it.
Another huge factor that must be taken into account is the difference in pronunciation between Spanish and Portuguese, which is impossible to perceive through the written word.
Portuguese (and I’m talking about the Brazilian version specifically here) has an African rhythm that is far more apparent than the corresponding indigenous influence in Spanish, owing mostly to Portugal’s greater reliance on (and mixing with) African slaves whereas Spain could count on larger numbers of European colonists and stricter rules against miscegenation.
This rhythm is apparent not only in words borrowed directly from African languages – such as batuque (dance to percussion), marimbondo (wasp), moleque (kid), or pipoca (popcorn), among countless others – but also in ordinary words that undoubtedly existed in Portugal but were given an African flavor in their South American colony.
Brazilian Portuguese words ending in the letter –o are pronounced as if they ended in a –u, which gives them a more African sound. Its syllables display greater variation in emphasis, whereas in Spanish the syllables are emphasized more equally. This tendency, combined with its much greater number of vowel sounds, gives Portuguese an undulating flow reminiscent of an African instrument, with its high notes and low notes interspersed with the varying pitches of diphthongs, tripthongs, and nasalized vowels.
Spanish, on the other hand, sounds more European and reflects the society in which it was born, even today when it has spread to the far corners of the Earth. When I hear it, even in the fun-loving and spontaneous atmosphere of the Caribbean where I currently live, I hear monarchy; I feel the martial tone of a very hierarchical society divided by class and by social function. The sharp distinction between the respectful “Usted” for superiors and “tú” for everyone else persists, although it is on the decline, and the much more extensive use of reflexive verbs suggests an indirectness and deference characteristic of a top-down society.
Some people seem to think that pronunciation doesn’t really matter when it comes to Spanish and Portuguese, that it is merely a stylistic afterthought with no bearing on meaning. This view is reinforced by the huge variety of accents within each language itself, with Caribbean Spanish speakers complaining that the Chileans are “totally unintelligible” and Paulistas making fun of their caipira (hillbilly) countrymen. But don’t be fooled. While in theory the accent isn’t supposed to carry the primary meaning, in practice pronunciation can have a major effect on meaning, or at least on perceived meaning.
I work for a microfinance non-profit called Opportunity International and one of my main activities is going into poor neighborhoods and interviewing clients about their lives and businesses. Recently I sat down with a woman to talk about her meat-selling business and get an idea of the challenges and opportunities she is confronted with.
The meeting quickly took on a somber tone as she told me of her greatest challenge at the moment: los gatos (the cats). She told me that the cats were huge and getting bigger every day. That they were destroying her business and threatening to drive her into bankruptcy. She said that all the businesses in the neighborhood were threatened by the cats, that they had had meetings and sought help for ways to defeat them but that to date all their efforts had been useless.
By this point I was crouched up on the chair crying for my mommy and trying not to piss my pants just at the thought of these vicious, gargantuan cats marauding through the neighborhood looking for new victims. After about 20 minutes and some perplexed questions I was gently informed that she hadn’t said los gatos at all, but rather los gastos (the costs), which I had misunderstood due to the costeño tendency to not pronounce the letter s. In this case, both gatos and gastos are identical in every way in both Spanish and Portuguese, but the smallest pronunciation quirk had completely changed the meaning of the entire story for me.
There are a number of other differences between Spanish and Portuguese, and the few things I have mentioned here are really just scratching the surface. Not to mention the fact that the potential misunderstandings vary according to what version of each language you are talking about. I am coming from a background of São Paulo Portuguese and coastal Colombian Spanish, but the regional dialects and vocabularies present in each language provide for virtually infinite combinations, each with its own accompanying “loss in translation.”
To summarize, yes, the two languages are similar, and if you speak one you will have a much easier time (and only occasionally harder time) understanding and learning the other. But this is neither an excuse to be complacent when in another country nor a justification for denigrating the wonderful qualities of either. The goal in any case should be to appreciate the unique forms and expressions of each on its own terms, whether you are a tourist, a student, an expatriate, or just a curious spectator. That’s the kind of appreciation that translates directly into any language.
-Tiago Forte, tiagoforte.com