Both Spanish and French are part of what we call the Romance language family, meaning that they are siblings in the larger Indo-European language family, having both evolved from Latin. Because of this, Spanish and French share significant similarities, specifically when comparing vocabulary root-words.
During the spread of the Roman Empire which spanned 500 years, the Latin language spread all throughout Europe, as well as parts of North Africa and Asia. During this time Latin was adopted as the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. Of course most of the newly Roman-conquered land did not previously speak Latin, but rather Gaelic, Aramaic, and Germanic languages- among many others. All of these local languages would go on to leave their geographically specific mark on the Latin language that was being enforced.
It is important to note that the style of Latin spoken by the often under-educated soldiers was not formal Latin, but rather a form of Latin commonly referred to as ‘Vulgar Latin’. This more informal Latin, which was more causal in nature, was particularly conducive to influence from other languages, especially when so many of its speakers at this time were new Latin speakers.
So, for languages that share such an intimate history and whose main populations of speakers still live side by side to this day, just what are the differences between Spanish and French?
In this article we will outline the following topics:
- When Spanish and French became Distinct Languages
- The Similarities Between The Spanish and French Language
- The Differences between The Spanish and French Language
When Spanish and French Became Distinct Languages
Prior to the Roman invasion of modern-day France and modern-day Spain, there were several languages spoken in the region. Spain was home to speakers of ancient Iberian and ancient Basque, while France had more Celtic influence from the Gauls and Belgae. The effects of these different linguistic roots on the Latin that was introduced can be seen in modern-day French and modern-day Spanish today.
As much influence as the Latin language obviously had at the time, Latin also took many borrowed words, particularly from the Celtic languages spoken in France. In the third and fourth centuries, encroaching Germanic tribes from the East of modern-day France had a strong influence on the Latin being spoken in that region. Because of these strong influences, some argue that Old French was the first Romance language to distinguish itself as it’s own language distinct from Latin.
Spain did not experience the same agents of change influence that France did. In fact, many of the pre-Roman languages of the area were completely overtaken by Latin, and have been forgotten. Spain had the added benefit of being geographically isolated due to its extensive coastline and the Pyrenees Mountains on the French-Spanish border. Due to the slightly more isolated nature of Spain, we can see today that Spanish has more Classical (official) Latin influence, while French has more Vulgar Latin influence.
It is because of these geographical, cultural and linguistic differences that Spanish and French were able to evolve independently from Latin, becoming their own distinct languages.
We can see how some of these differences have impacted modern-day Spanish and French. A good example of this is the verb ‘to do’ which is facere in Classical Latin, and fare in Vulgar Latin. The Spanish translation is hacer, which is more similar to Classical Latin, while the French faire is closer to Vulgar Latin.
The Similarities between The Spanish and French Language
Spanish and French are still both Romance languages with Latin origins, and as such share substantial similarities. For example, there is significant overlap of Latin-based root words. In fact, the lexical similarity between the two languages is 75%, which is quite high. Lexical similarity measures the mutual intelligibility of languages, the higher the score, the more chance of it being understood by speakers of either language.
- Vocabulary: There are hundreds upon hundreds of examples of similar Latin root words, one of which is the word for sleeping. This translates are dormir in both French and Spanish, and are pronounced nearly identically. This comes from the Latin word dormientes.
- Sentence Structure: Word order is the same for both French and Spanish. They both employ a Subject-Object-Verb word order, whereas English uses a Subject-Verb-Object order. An example of this is in English we say Bob drank water, rather than Bob water drank.
- Verbs: There are extended similarities in the way verb conjugation functions in both French and Spanish, for example both use a standard structure of yo/je (I), tú/tu (you), el/il & ella/elle (him & her), vosotros/vous (formal or plural you) and ellos/ils ellas/elles (plural him & her)
- Gender: Both French and Spanish employ the use of gender to classify all nouns, whereas English does not do this. For both Spanish and French, the gender of a noun may alter the structure sentence around it.
The Differences between the Spanish and French Language
Despite their significant similarities, French and Spanish are still languages unique unto themselves, although many of these differences are subtle and difficult to navigate for those who are not native or near native speakers of both French and Spanish.
- Vocabulary: While the Latin root words may share similarities, there are a few major differences, specifically in the more commonly used words. For example, “To be” can be translated to either ser or estar in Spanish, while French only has one word for to be, être. “To have” is similar, which could be haber or tener in Spanish, but only avoir in French.
- Sentence Structure: While both languages employ a Subject-Verb-Object word order, in Spanish you don’t need to explicitly state the subject in certain contexts. For example, ‘I eat apples’ would simply be como manzanas (eat apples) in Spanish, whereas the verb conjugations for ‘to eat’ implies the subject, ‘I’ in this case. In French this is grammatically incorrect, je mange des pommes where it is important to include both the subject ‘I’ (je) and the pronoun des (the).
- Verbs: Despite a similar basic structure, certain tenses are more heavily used in Spanish, such as preterite and subjunctive imperfect.
- Gender: While both Spanish and French employ the use of gendered nouns, many words which are considered feminine in one, are considered masculine in the other. For example, the word for color which is masculine (el color) in Spanish and feminine (la couleur) in French.
As you can see, for every similarity French and Spanish share, there are multiple differences. Even more confusing, many of these differences are very subtle in nature, and it is easy for French speakers to make mistakes when speaking Spanish and vice versa.
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