Italian and Spanish: Language Similarities and Differences

Italian and Spanish are Romance languages which means that they evolved from the Latin which was spoken in the Roman empire. The term “Romance” itself comes from the Latin adjective “rōmānicus” which means “Roman”.

The Roman Empire, at its pinnacle, ruled over the entire Mediterranean region, including the areas that would eventually become Italy and Spain.

After the fall of the Roman empire, Latin continued to be used, but it gradually evolved into different dialects in different parts of the former empire. These dialects eventually produced the Romance languages which are spoken today, including Italian and Spanish.

Vocabulary comparison between Italian and Spanish

Both in Italian and in Spanish, a large part of the vocabulary words come from Latin, which explains why there are many similar vocabulary words between these two languages. Here are some examples:

Table: Similar vocabulary words between Spanish and Italian
English Spanish Italian
life vida vita
happy feliz felice
love amor amore
water agua acqua
world mundo mondo
heart corazón cuore
truth verdad verità
week semana settimana
party fiesta festa
month mes mese
friend amigo amico
how much cuanto quanto

Here are some more examples of vocabulary words which are similar in Italian and in Spanish:

Table: more similar vocabulary words between Spanish and Italian
Spanish Italian English
vivir vivere to live
ayudar aiutare to help
abrir aprire to open
cuando quando when
padre padre father
mano mano hand
evitar evitare to avoid
verde verde green
perder perdere to lose
sentir sentire to feel
casa casa house
correr correre to run
mar mare sea
cual quale which

Since Spanish and Italian are different languages, not all of their vocabulary words are similar. Here are some examples of vocabulary words which differ significantly between Spanish and Italian:

Table: Examples of Spanish and Italian vocabulary words which are very different
English Spanish Italian
day día giorno
to work trabajar lavorare
to search buscar cercare
money dinero soldi
boy chico ragazzo
to want querer volere
rain lluvia pioggia
old antiguo vecchio
to call llamar chiamare

The influence of Arabic on the Spanish language

The Spanish language has been influenced by Arabic, particularly during the time of the Moorish rule in Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries. This influence is noticeable in Spanish vocabulary, which contains many words derived from Arabic. It has been estimated that 8% of the words in a Spanish dictionary can be traced to Arabic.

This explains some of the vocabulary differences between Spanish and Italian as illustrated in the examples below:

English Italian Spanish
carrot carota zanahoria
blue blu azul
oil olio aceite
rice riso arroz
basil basilico albahaca

Vocabulary false friends

In the context of language learning, the term “false friend” refers to a pair of vocabulary words from different languages which look alike and yet have completely different meanings.

Here are some examples of Spanish-Italian vocabulary “false friends”:

Spanish Word Italian Word
esposar (to handcuff) sposare (to marry)
caldo (clear soup) caldo (warm, hot)
vaso (drinking glass) vaso (vase, jar)
guardar (to keep, to save) guardare (to look at)
bruto (brutish, stupid) brutto (ugly)
aceite (oil) aceto (vinegar)
subir (to go up, to upload) subire (to endure, to suffer)
burro (donkey) burro (butter)
hacienda (ranch, farm) azienda (company, business)
estero (estuary) estero (foreign, foreign countries)
salir (to go out, to leave) salire (to go up, to mount)
seta (mushroom) seta (silk)
timo (a swindle, a scam) timo (thyme)
loro (parrot) loro (they)
carta (a letter) carta (paper)
gamba (a shrimp) gamba (a leg)

Additional similarities and differences

Pro-drop languages

Italian and Spanish are both what linguists refer to as pro-drop languages. This means that pronouns can be omitted (dropped) when they can be inferred from the context.

For example, the phrase “I love you” translates to “ti amo” in Italian and “te quiero” in Spanish. Note the absence of the subject pronouns (“yo” in Spanish and “io” in Italian) which can be inferred from the form of the conjugated verb.

Italian and Spanish differ in this respect from languages such as English or French where omitting the subject pronoun would generally lead to a grammatically incorrect sentence.


In Spanish, the letters ‘b’ and ‘v’ are pronounced the same. Linguists refer to this phenomenon as betacism. In contrast to Spanish, standard Italian pronounces the letters ‘b’ and ‘v’ differently.

Formal and informal pronouns

When addressing a person in English the pronoun “you” is used in both casual and formal situations. In contrast, Italian and Spanish are languages in which different pronouns are used depending on the level of formality.

The Spanish pronoun “tú” and the Italian pronoun “tu” are used when addressing a person informally. In formal language, the Spanish pronoun “usted” and the Italian pronoun “lei” are used instead.

Since the Italian word “lei” also corresponds to the third person feminine singular (she), it is oftentimes capitalized when used as a formal pronoun, to distinguish it from its other usage.

The lexical similarity coefficient

Lexical similarity is a number which linguists calculate to see how similar two languages are in terms of their vocabulary.

The lexical similarity between Italian and Spanish is 0.82 (the range of possible values for lexical similarity is from 0 to 1, with zero meaning no similarity, and one meaning complete similarity).

As a means of comparison, the English-German lexical similarity is 0.60. Also the Italian-French lexical similarity is 0.89, which means that Italian vocabulary is slightly closer to French than it is to Spanish.

To continue exploring the vocabulary similarities between Italian and Spanish, see these lists of the 1000 most common Italian words and the 1000 most common Spanish words.