Iberian Duet

Stephen Henighan

The assumption of mutual comprehensibility between speakers of Spanish and Portuguese creates a culture of mutual ignorance.

Few languages that are as similar as Spanish and Portuguese have speakers who regard each other with such indifference. The modern forms of both languages, their structures descended from Latin and their vocabularies nourished by Classical Arabic, evolved in northern areas of the Iberian Peninsula and moved south during the Middle Ages. Their spread accompanied the re-conquest of Iberia from the Moors, who had occupied the peninsula’s southern half since 711. Colonialism carried Spanish and Portuguese overseas, where they developed Latin American, African and Asian outposts. Today Spanish is the official language of twenty countries and Portuguese of nine countries. In addition, both languages are spoken by significant immigrant communities or remnant colonial populations in countries where they are not official. Eight hundred million people speak one of these two languages as either a native or a very good second language. When a speaker of Spanish meets a speaker of Portuguese, the question arises: can they understand each other?

On the page, the two languages’ vocabularies look similar. The heart is el corazón in Spanish and o coração in Portuguese. The infinitives of most common verbs are similar or identical. Yet in their spoken forms Spanish and Portuguese differ. Spanish is a rigorous, phonetic language whose letters are pronounced in the same way in every situation; Portuguese vowels, and even some consonants, are capricious, their sounds altering according to their position. Spanish has five vowel sounds; Portuguese, according to most linguists, has thirteen. The Portuguese of Lisbon, in particular, is a thick-tongued, closed-mouthed slur that can sound more Slavic than Latin. In The Winter in Lisbon, the Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina sends his protagonist to Portugal, where “he learned that when they spoke to him quickly, Portuguese was as indecipherable as Swedish.” It is easier for a speaker of Portuguese to understand a speaker of Spanish than the reverse. To the Portuguese ear, Spanish sounds over-enunciated; to the Spanish speaker, Portuguese is a blurry parody. Yet the softness of Portuguese, accentuated by its archaic grammar—more complicated than that of Spanish—exerts an irresistible charm. “At the risk of offending or dismaying my many friends who speak Spanish,” wrote Gregory Rabassa, the English translator of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “I must admit here and now that I prefer Portuguese, especially in the Brazilian oral mode with all its unique sounds and rhythms.”

Whether in Europe, Latin America or Africa, communication between speakers of the two dominant Romance languages cannot be taken for granted. On the border between Portugal and Spain, I heard a Portuguese security guard explain to a Spanish tourist that the attraction he wished to visit was closed. The guard repeated the word “closed,” fechado (in Spanish it is cerrado), three times without the tourist understanding what he was saying. The tourist was haughty, the guard dismissive. When goodwill exists on both sides, communication works better. In an upmarket Buenos Aires café, I watched in fascination as four elegant businessmen, two Brazilian and two Argentinian, discussed the importation of Brazilian merchandise into Argentina. One of the Brazilians would make a presentation in simplified, hyper-correct Portuguese. A pause would ensue while the Argentinians consulted with each other. A reply would then be delivered in an equally wooden, unnatural Spanish. By each returning to the textbook form of their language, the two sides were able to negotiate.

It is common, particularly in Brazil, for Spanish speakers to be interviewed on Portuguese-language television without subtitles or translation. The reverse rarely occurs: Portuguese is normally translated for Spanish-speaking audiences. An audience that is well educated or knowledgeable may find such intervention superfluous. When the Mozambican novelist Mia Couto spoke at a literary festival in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2013, he was accompanied onstage by an interpreter. After a few minutes, audience members began to shout, asking the interpreter to stop translating: the Colombian audience understood Couto’s Portuguese without difficulty. Bad blood, by contrast, stymies cross-linguistic conversation. I once watched a Uruguayan soccer player being interviewed on Brazilian television. The player received questions in Portuguese and replied in Spanish. The discussion rolled along, until the interviewer asked why Uruguayan soccer teams had a reputation for dirty play. “I don’t understand your question,” the Uruguayan said. “I don’t understand Portuguese!”

The assumption of mutual comprehensibility creates a culture of mutual ignorance. Long having deemed it unnecessary to study each other’s languages, speakers of Spanish and Portuguese know less than one might expect of one another’s cultures. Spanish intellectuals evince blank looks at the mention of the major writers of nineteenth-century Portugal; the Portuguese know more about the literature of France than that of Spain; few Spanish American writers are well informed on contemporary writing from Brazil or Lusophone Africa. But in the last decade, these barriers have begun to yield: in 2005, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva decreed that every Brazilian schoolchild would study Spanish; Alfaguara, the conglomerate that dominates Spanish-language publishing, now also publishes in Portuguese; the translation of literature between the two languages has slowly increased. Study is necessary because cross-linguistic conversation is bedevilled by false friends. In Spanish a desk is an escritorio, but in Portuguese an escritório is an office, which in Spanish is an oficina, which in Portuguese means a garage.

In spite of these snares, the two languages sometimes engage in a disorderly mingling known as Portuñol. In the 1980s, this indiscriminate blending of Portuguese and Spanish was spoken by Cuban teachers, doctors and soldiers in Angola and by Chilean exiles in Mozambique. Today Portuñol is used by Brazilian evangelical preachers to convert Bolivians and Peruvians; it is heard in certain border regions of Spain and Portugal, and is strongest along Brazil’s southern border with Uruguay and Argentina. This South American version of Portuñol has been used to write novels; it features prominently in the 2008 road movie Carmo, Hit the Road. Yet Portuñol remains a regional oddity. Meaningful conversation between speakers of the two major Iberian languages, as between all cultures, will not flourish from an assumption of sameness, but from an understanding and appreciation of difference.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.


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