French and Italian: are they similar or very different languages?

French and Italian are both Romance languages, which means that they are derived from Latin, which was the language of the Roman Empire.

As Italian is related to Latin, and French is also related to Latin, it is not surprising that Italian and French are similar languages.

Part I: The Similarities between French and Italian

First of all, French and Italian are similar in their general reputation. For some reason, possibly connected to history or culture, French and Italian are known as languages of love.

French and Italian are languages with a melodic pronunciation, and it is not surprising that many great operas were written in these languages.

For example, one of the world’s most famous operas, La traviata (by Giuseppe Verdi), is sung in the Italian language. Another famous opera, Carmen (by Georges Bizet) is sung in French.

Similarities in vocabulary between French and Italian

Linguists use the concept of lexical similarity to measure how close two languages are in terms of their vocabulary.

The lexical similarity coefficient is a value on a scale from 0 to 1 (with 0 meaning a completely different vocabulary and 1 meaning a complete overlap in vocabulary)

Given their common origin, it is not surprising that French and Italian are languages with a high degree of lexical similarity. In fact, the lexical similarity coefficient between French and Italian is 0.89

For the purpose of comparison:

Here are some examples of verbs which are similar between French and Italian (and quite different from their English translations):

Table: Examples of verbs which are similar between French and Italian
French Italian English
manger mangiare to eat
dormir dormire to sleep
parler parlare to speak
penser pensare to think
vivre vivere to live
finir finire to finish
vouloir volere to want
venir venire to come
prendre prendere to take
perdre perdere to lose/miss

There are also many nouns which are similar between French and Italian (and very different from their English translations). Most of these come from a common Latin word.

Table: Examples of nouns which are similar between French and Italian
French Italian English
journal giornale newspaper
lait latte milk
porte porta door
ciel cielo sky
arbre albero tree
jour giorno day
hier ieri yesterday
demain domani tomorrow
hôpital ospedale hospital
homme uomo man
lit letto bed
pain pane bread
pied piede foot
cuisine cucina kitchen
ami amico friend

It is easy to find many adjectives as well, which are similar between French and Italian. Most of these are words that have been around for centuries and originate from a common Latin term.

Table: Examples of adjectives which are similar between French and Italian
French Italian English
grand grande big
nouveau nuovo new
jeune giovane young
bon buono good
tard tardi late
chaud caldo hot
froid freddo cold
plein pieno full
triste triste sad
gentil gentile kind
timide timido shy
haut alto high
pauvre povero poor
facil facile easy

4 key grammatical similarities between French and Italian

As far as grammar is concerned, the two languages display a certain connection.

Gender and number agreement

French and Italian are gender and number-based languages. Not only are nouns either feminine or masculine, and either singular or plural, but even adjectives that refer to a noun will agree in gender and number.

Informal register

Subject pronouns in French and Italian work in a similar way. In particular, both languages use the second-person-singular subject pronoun (which is «tu» in both Franch and Italian) to address somebody in an informal way.

Adverbial pronouns

In both French and Italian grammar, there are the so-called «adverbial pronouns». They are easier than they sound: they are just tiny words, and their job is to replace pieces of a sentence. In fact, they just want to make it easier for you! Here are some examples:

Present Perfect tense

To express actions that happened in the past, both French and Italian speakers prefer using the Present Perfect tense(Passé Composé and Passato Prossimo) instead of the Past Simple, which is much more frequently used in English.

Part II: How different are French and Italian?

In spite of some relevant similarities, the two Romance languages are quite different! The weight of the difference depends on the learning goal you set for yourself. If you aim to become somewhat fluent, then differences should be acknowledged and faced.

5 key grammatical differences between French and Italian

Formal register

As mentioned, when you are talking to a friend, you can use «tu» both in French and Italian. In formal speech though you must use specific formal pronouns.

The French subject pronoun used to speak to someone you don’t know is «vous». Please note: «vous» is also the second person plural subject pronoun (you).

Italian speakers choose «lei», which you may know for being the third person feminine singular subject pronoun (she).

Explicit vs. Implicit subject

In the previous example, you may have noticed that the subject «lei» is in parentheses ... there’s a reason for that:

Unlike French, Italian is a null-subject language: While in French, or even in English, the subject must be explicitly expressed in a sentence, in Italian that’s not necessary. In other words, the subject can be left out, it is implicit.

An Italian sentence where the subject is explicitly expressed sounds, most times, redundant. The only instances in which the subject must be specified is to give it some emphasis or to avoid misunderstandings.

Here’s an example of when the Italian subject needs to be specified:

The position of the direct object pronouns

Another difference lies in where the direct object pronoun is placed in a sentence. In English, these pronouns are positioned right after the verb (“I want to meet him”). Would you be surprised to find out that neither French nor Italian act in the same way?

In many cases, both in Italian and French the direct object pronoun is placed before the verb:

However, there’s always a “but”!

In Italian, when a sentence contains a phraseological or modal verb, the direct object pronouns are attached to the infinitive form of the verb. In French, they are always found right before the verb, regardless of the verb type.

Negative sentences

You may already know that when it comes to negative sentences, French is particularly distinctive. Well, Italian has got its own special features too...but these don’t involve negative form construction.

Usually, in French, negative sentences are formed by adding “ne” before the verb and “pas” after it. On the contrary, Italian chooses the easy path: it only takes a “non” before the verb to create a negative sentence:

The partitive article

Undefined quantities are usually introduced by partitive articles. For instance, In English, these would be “some” and “any”. What about French and Italian?

The two languages employ them not exactly in the same way. In both languages, partitive articles are used, but while in French they are mandatory, in Italian they are not.

In fact, in Italian, you would see these particles much less frequently!

Differences in vocabulary between French and Italian

Though there are many similar vocabulary words between French and Italian, there are also some words which are completely different between these two languages.

Some of these differences occur for vocabulary words which are very commonly used.

Here are some examples of verbs which are very different between French and Italian:

Table: Examples of verbs which are not similar between French and Italian
French Italian English
aller andare to go
acheter comprare to buy
se réveiller svegliarsi to wake up
rêver sognare to dream
tomber cadere to fall
entendre sentire to hear
jouer suonare to play
pleurer piangere to cry
marcher camminare to walk
appeler chiamare to call
expliquer spiegare to explain
casser rompere to break

Examples of nouns which are very different in French and Italian:

Table: Examples of nouns which are not similar between French and Italian
French Italian English
pomme mela apple
pomme de terre patata potato
citrouille zucca pumpkin
œuf uovo egg
boeuf manzo beef
rue strada street
voiture automobile car
maison casa house
vélo bicicletta bike
canapé divano sofa
enfant bambino child
tante zia aunt
argent soldi money

Examples of adjectives which are very different in French and Italian:

Table: Examples of adjectives which are not similar between French and Italian
French Italian English
petit piccolo small
mauvais cattivo bad
heureux felice happy
vide vuoto empty
proche vicino near
doux morbido soft
ancien vecchio old
moche brutto ugly
mince magro thin
fade insipido bland
têtu testardo stubborn
fâché arrabbiato upset

Spelling and Pronunciation

Grammar and vocabulary are certainly important areas to investigate when it comes to detecting differences between Italian and French.

However, pronunciation and spelling differences can represent a tough obstacle for Italian and French speakers trying to converse!

Vowel system: French counts 12 oral vowels, and 4 nasal vowels (voyelles nasales). In Italian, instead, there are only 7 vowels. Doesn’t this point give you an idea of how complicated French pronunciation can get?

Italian vowels:

French oral vowels:

French nasal vowels:

The “R” sound: Together with the nasal sounds covered above, French is known for its peculiar “r” sound. Its pronunciation is guttural, whereas in Italian there is no such sound. Similar to Spanish, the Italian “r” is called a rolled “r”.

Phonetic and non-phonetic language: Last but not least, Italian is considered a phonetic language, which means that each letter corresponds with a single sound.

Of course, exceptions are always just around the corner! But when compared to English, or better, to French...you would definitely feel comfortable giving Italian the definition of phonetic language!

As you may have guessed, French is far from being a phonetic language. Its spelling doesn’t match the pronunciation: a letter can be pronounced in different ways. But that’s not all...some letters are not pronounced at all!

Without going into details, in French we can distinguish three main categories of silent letters:

For example:

(Please note: once again, exceptions are to be carefully taken into account!)

Is French or Italian harder to learn?

It turns out that the differences are substantial. Italian and French speakers who don’t know each other’s languages in depth can probably only have limited conversations. In linguistic terms, this means that French and Italian are not mutually intelligible.

Nonetheless, it is true that knowing one of the two can be of big help if you intend to jump into the other later on.

If that is the case, where to start? which one is harder to learn?

That is definitely a tricky question and there is no universal answer to it. It depends on many factors, such as your relationship with the language, and your motivation. Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself:

In other words, it is crucial to find out more about your inclinations and preferences. After all, nothing is too hard when you really love what you’re doing!

Still, there are a few points to keep in mind when it’s time to choose between the two:

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