It’s commonly known that Spanish and Portuguese are mutually intelligible; that is to say, a speaker of one language can generally understand the other without special effort. As a native English speaker, this idea has always fascinated me. In doing some research of my own, I found a concept called lexical similarity, which is the measure of degree to which the vocabularies of two languages overlap. In other words, how many cognates exist between them. On this scale, 100 corresponds to complete overlap of vocabulary, whereas 0 signifies that there are no words in common. Compared to English, the closest languages would be German with 0.60 lexical similarity followed by French with 0.27 (or 0.56 depending on the measurement). To my surprise, Portuguese and Spanish share a 0.89 lexical similarity, high enough to be considered dialects of the same language. Nevertheless, they still remain classified as separate languages. This made me wonder just how similar Spanish and Portuguese truly are and if these similarities can also be observed in their respective cultures. Luckily, I recently had the chance to travel to Porto for the weekend with my friend Adam, and I had the opportunity to make my own observations and come to my own conclusions.
When I first stepped off the plane in Porto it was pouring. However, by the time we had taken the metro to the city, the rain had subsided to a light but constant drizzle that reminded me of Oviedo. After checking into the hostel, we decided to walk around for a bit. Although a bit counterintuitive, I felt oddly comfortable walking around the now dark and rainy city as it felt familiar. Everything from the light and consistent rain to the way the narrow streets snaked through steep hills to the way residential districts blended with commercial ones reminded me of Spain. Furthermore, as I took a step back I could look down the hills to see the steeples of old churches and cathedrals dotted in among the Spanish roof tiles. I would definitely agree that between Porto and the cities of northern Spain there is more than an 0.89 similarity.
As the week went on, we had plenty of opportunities to talk with people from Porto whether that be in bars, restaurants, or in our hostel. For me, it was relatively easy to communicate with people given my prior knowledge of Spanish. Ordering at a restaurant or bar was fairly simple as I just needed to change the pronunciation and a bit of the vocabulary of what I would normally say to be understood. I could also generally understand what was being spoken back to me with a bit of effort. However, the real challenge came for me when I was hanging out by myself in the lounge area of the hostel. I was trying to get the TV to work when two guys started to help me speaking Portuguese. As they didn’t speak any English, they asked if I spoke Portuguese to which I responded I only spoke Spanish. This led to a fifteen minute conversation with them where I would speak to in Spanish and they would respond in Portuguese. At first it was fairly easy to understand them, but the more I showed that I understood, the faster they would speak. By the end I was understanding about half of what was being said. If I were a native Spanish speaker, perhaps it would have been different, but as far as spoken conversation I would definitely say Spanish and Portuguese mark below 0.89.
From the way they looked to the way they dressed to the way they prefer light beer to the way they take a nap around 2:00pm, Spaniards and Portuguese people are very similar. The biggest difference I observed was the cuisine. Although they are both largely centered around meats and starches, the Portuguese do not share the Spanish aversion to sauces and spice. The most famous dish in Porto, Francesinha, best exemplifies this difference. Although technically a sandwich, Francesinha looks like nothing of the sorts. It is made with layer upon layer of steak, spicy sausage, ham, and cheese sandwiched between to slices of bread, topped with a fried egg and then covered with melted cheese. On top of that, they pour a rich spicy tomato and beer sauce and serve with french fries. The sandwich is so drenched in sauce that it is served in a bowl rather than a plate. One of my favorite parts of the trip, we went twice to get this famous sandwich. As far as food goes, I would say Spain and Porto would score just below 0.89 similarity.
All in all, I would say that Portugal and Spain are very similar in both language and culture. The interesting thing about language is that it tends to be a reflection of culture, and in this case holds true. To anyone studying abroad in either country, traveling to the other can be a fun and easy way to experience something new without going too far outside your comfort zone.