This month, we will take a break from our usual format and present some interesting linguistic information about Italian’s relationship to its sister languages. We will try to answer a question that has been posed to linguists many times: What language is closest to Italian in structure, and which is easiest for Italians to understand?
It’s important to keep in mind that linguistics is a science. No science is 100 percent perfect, though there are some scientists who may not agree with that statement. You might disagree with the answer below to the question on Italian and its sister languages, especially if you understand Italian and another romance language.
Why do linguists say that the romance languages closest to Italian are French or Romanian, when Italian is sometimes classified in the same subgroup of romance languages, but Italians understand Catalan and Spanish better?
Here is the answer as presented by linguists: Linguists understand the history and DNA of languages in depth, and they are usually correct with their theories. Moreover, it is a common experience that the external similarity of any person with a second cousin can be greater than the similarity with the brother. In relationship to the structure of romance languages, Spanish and Portuguese are “second” cousins to Italian while French and Romanian are “first” cousins.
In the family of languages, the five most important Latin languages are Portuguese, Spanish, French, Romanian and Italian. For those comparing the idioms of that group, the most similar to Italian are written French and spoken Castilian Spanish. And the greater similarity of written French to Italian, compared to Castilian Spanish, proves the accuracy of the judgment of linguists on “proximity”.
There can be no doubt, in fact, that the “langue d’oil,” the form of medieval French spoken north of the Loire, generally characterized by the use of oïl to mean “yes,” formed the basis of modern French. It was very similar to Florentine Italian speech, and it was the phonetics, the Italian one conservative, the French one very heretical that, as both developed, created a difference so far apart in their spoken format, that they no longer appeared to be sister languages.
As for Castilian, it is commonly agreed among polyglots that a Spaniard and an Italian can easily converse, each speaking their own language and understanding each other almost completely. This is because those two languages are very similar to their Latin mother tongue not only in terms of lexicon, but also in the phonetics.
As for Romanian, the truth is, that listening to it, an Italian understands little or nothing. However, this result is based on the fact that the Romanian lexicon has undergone a great mix with Hungarian and other Slavic languages and even to an extent with Turkish. This has not affected basic structures of Romanian which has remained true to the group of romance languages. In short, linguists insist DNA does not lie, but the bottom line is a Spaniard and an Italian can easily converse, and a Frenchman and an Italian may not find that to be the case. However French structure and grammar are much more similar.
Below are two examples in the five major Romance languages. As you look at them you can see where the vocabulary and format are much closer between Italian and French then the other languages. Romanian is the next closet translation.
English: I would like to eat.
Italian: Vorrei mangiare.
French: Je voudrais manger.
Romanian: Aș vrea să mănânc.
Spanish: Me gustaría comer.
Portuguese: Eu gostaria de comer.
Where do you live?
Italian: Dove abiti?
French: Où habites-tu?
Romanian: Unde locuiţi?
Spanish: Dónde vives?
Portuguese: Onde você mora?