The influence of Spain in Southern Italy: some similarities between Spanish and Neapolitan

The English poet and scholar John Donne once said: “no man is an island”. By that, he meant that people are interconnected. Since languages are a human expression, we could say that “no language is an island!”

Every language is, in some way, related to one or more languages. Why are there similarities between different languages? They evolve through encounters and conflicts between people and cultures. They are shaped through human contact.

Italy and Spain have been in close contact throughout history. They have gone through battles, conquests, dominations, alliances... As a result, they had a big role in each other's cultures and languages.

The presence of Spanish loanwords in the Italian language is an impressive linguistic phenomenon. An even stronger influence can be observed in the southern Italian dialects: the similarities between Neapolitan and Spanish are in some cases uncanny.

Some Neapolitan words sound more like Spanish than Italian! This seems a mysterious enigma, but it isn’t: the reasons are, as we will explain later, simply historical.

The city of Naples

Some hispanisms in Neapolitan

Linguists have found many Neapolitans words which are related to similar Spanish words.

Throughout this article, there will be greater emphasis on those words which are used to discuss social life and behaviour. Keep in mind: they are not the only ones!

Grammatical similarities between Neapolitan and Spanish

The Spanish rule affected the grammar of Neapolitan as well. Even with regard to the grammar, Neapolitan is somewhat different from Italian, but on many occasions, it aligns with Spanish.

Neapolitan and Spanish: historical explanations

The similarities between Neapolitan and Spanish are nothing but an outcome of the deep and long lasting relationship between Spain and the regions of Southern Italy, which constitute the former Kingdom of Naples.

The Spanish rule in Naples, the “capital” of the Kingdom, lasted about four hundred years: from the mid 15th century to the mid 19th century. During this period, many Spanish people passed through Naples, and they managed to implant their culture, habits, language and even ways of thinking in there.

The Bourbons and Aragoneses dynasties have had the strongest impact during the Neapolitan cultural and linguistic shaping process. Firstly, they literally changed the features of Naples: a number of monuments, castles, and streets are there as a result of the Spanish rule.

More importantly, while transforming the city, they never left their native culture and languages behind. Some Spanish kings and viceroys didn’t even learn Italian while ruling the kingdom!

Their courts were often composed of compatriots, and only sometimes a few Neapolitans were allowed to work in the administration. It goes without saying that Spanish was the language they used to communicate.

Not only this! Spanish acquired a special status outside the court as well: among the upper classes and the élite. By adopting the ruler’s language, local people intended to show loyalty and fondness to the king.

Through the Spanish rule, Spanish people and Southern Italians formed some sort of bond. It’s exactly this bond that explains the similarities between their languages, cultures, and in some way, their behaviour.

Spanish people and Southern Italians are twins

Have you ever believed that a Spanish person you had just met was Italian, and vice versa? Spain and Italy are commonly considered to be cousins. This relationship is even more intimate between Spanish people and Southern Italians: they are just like twins!

The linguistic similarities definitely play an important role, but that’s not all!

Their affinity can be found in other aspects as well. Generally, they also share a similar culture and way of living. They tend to stay relaxed and avoid rushing too much. Have you ever heard of the controra?

In the South of Italy, this term is used to refer to those two hours that separate the morning from the afternoon. Roughly from 14:00 to 16:00, people usually take a break from work, escape the hottest hours of the day, and have a siesta (a sort of nap).

Isn’t siesta a Spanish word? Yes, and it’s the best translation of controra! These two terms refer to the same concept. It’s not a coincidence, but the result of a cultural resemblance.

Passionate and outgoing, they treasure their sentimentalism in music. Flamenco and The Neapolitan Music are structurally different. However, these two kinds of music are characterised by the same pathos. The sounds and the lyrics aim to arouse a variety of emotions: sadness, anguish, joy, anger...and more!

So, next time you will mistake a Spanish person for an Italian one (more specifically a Southern Italian) and vice versa, you know why that happens!

It’s as simple as that: as it has always happened in history, the imposing presence of some foreigners caused the dissemination of their language and culture among locals. The result is a fascinating incorporation of one identity into the other.