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.
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!
Accasamiento - Casamiento: The Neapolitan term accasamiento is likely derived from the Spanish casamiento. In both languages, it means marriage. You might think that the Italian version resembles one of the two: surprisingly the Italian translation is matrimonio!
Ammuinare - Amohinar: The Neapolitan verb ammuinare is incredibly similar to the Spanish amohinar. These words can have different meanings, depending on the context. However, they both can mean to vex/to annoy.
Butteglia - Botella: In this context, it is important to remember that the “ll” sound in Castilian resembles the Italian “gl” sound. Knowing that, we notice that they have similar pronunciations. Both the words mean bottle.
Buffettone - Bofetón: A big, resonant slap hurts. Neapolitan and Spanish people use analogous words to refer to it: respectively buffettone and bofetón.
Crianza - Crianza: Spanish people would say buena o mala crianza. Neapolitans definitely agree. What does this mean? The closest translation would be good and poor manners. During the Spanish rule, Neapolitans learned both ways of behaving. From their rulers, they picked up the gallant gestures: they were fascinated by their courteous and obsequious way of living. However, there are also a few negative habits that they have incorporated: the inclination to swear on the heart of God, the passion for prostitutes, and the disregard for human life.
Guappo - Guapo: A guappo is for Neapolitans a thug, someone who is bold and arrogant. The kind of bad boy who seems to be unrivaled. However, many times it’s all appearance: perhaps behind that guappo façade, there’s a fragile and vulnerable heart. Neapolitans have a word for this fake guappo: “guappo ‘e cartone” (cardboard guappo). But what about the Spanish guapo? It means primarily handsome. Yet, according to the RAE (Real Academia Española) the term can also mean pendenciero or perdonavidas: a troublemaker, a bully. Do you notice any resemblance?
Nenna/Ninno - Nena/Niño: Now forget about villains, both real and fake! A cute Neapolitan way to refer to someone we love is nenna for females and ninno for males. Similarly, in Spanish you would say nena for females, and niño for males. In both languages, these words mean respectively little girl and little boy.
Pelea - Pelea: The difference between the Spanish pelea and the Neapolitan one, is that while the first is an actual fight, the latter is just an excuse to fight. It is said that someone wants to find a pelea. They are looking for a reason to start a fight.
Sguarrare - Desgarrar: Again, similar meaning and pronunciation. This verb means in both languages to lacerate, to rip apart. There’s nothing like this in Italian, so here’s another proof of the distinct relationship between Naples and Spain.
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.
Tenere - Tener: Although not grammatically correct in Italian, Southern Italians, and mainly Neapolitans, often use the verb tenere (to hold, to keep) instead of avere (to have). It is very common for them to say “tengo fame”, or “tengo sonno” (I am hungry, I am sleepy). In standard Italian, the correct verb is avere. So, if you are learning Italian, you should say “ho fame”, and “ho sonno”.
In Spanish the verb tener means to have, so it is grammatically correct to say “tengo hambre” and “tengo sueño”. Neapolitan people have literally given to the verb tenere a meaning that comes from the Spanish tener! It seems they distanced themselves from Italian and got closer to Spanish.
Chiamare a mia sorella - Llamar a mi hermana: The so-called accusativo preposizionale is another interesting proof of the bond between Spanish and Neapolitan, and other regional languages spoken in the South of Italy.
In Italian, it is not grammatically correct to say “ho chiamato a mia sorella”. In fact, that “a” before the name of the person represents an alarm bell: it says “Hey, I’m from the South of Italy and my dialect is interfering with my Italian!”
They might know that the right sentence in Italian would be “ho chiamato mia sorella”, but still… it is totally normal to mix languages sometimes!
More importantly, it’s exactly thanks to that “a” that we can verify the Spanish-Neapolitan liaison. Without any doubt, in Spanish you can say: “he llamado a mi hermana”, given its grammatical accuracy.
Un poco: In Italian it is preferable to use the abbreviation of “un poco” (a little): un po’. But guess what? Many people from the South tend to use the full version, un poco. Although correct, it sounds odd!
Spanish people would be comfortable with it, since in Spanish there is no abbreviation of “un poco.”
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.
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.