Whether you are a Hispanic learning Italian, an Italian learning Spanish, or another language speaker that has confused both languages sometime in their life, you have probably noticed that both these languages are pretty similar. And not German-English similar, but like extremely similar. Actually, Italian and Spanish are so much alike that if a Hispanic goes to Italy and speaks slowly to an Italian in Spanish, the Italian will probably totally understand what they are saying, and that goes both ways.
A lot of people who are not very in touch with both languages often wonder if they are the same, and while they are indeed very similar they are not the same at all.
However, no one can deny how similar they really are. You might wonder why this happens and the answer is, as a matter of fact, quite simple, they are both romance languages, which means they come from the same language: Latin. But that is not the only reason, there are a lot, but you can narrow it down to three main ones.
Reason number 1: They are romance languages
The fact that Spanish and Italian are both Romance languages means that they are derived from Latin (as previously mentioned). Latin was the language of the Roman Empire. In the 5th century, this empire collapsed, as you might know if you paid attention in history class. With this collapse came the Proto-romance shifts in the different regions that became separated, which turned into different dialects, and later on into different languages.
Since they are both romance languages, and they evolved similarly up to some point, they grammatical structures and words tend to be similar to each other. The vowel system and phonological evolution of both languages ended up being very similar. But, by now you are probably wondering if they are similar because they come from Latin, then why can’t French people understand Spanish speakers the way Italians do?
The thing is, if we only get into the fact that they are similar because they come from Latin, then French, and Portuguese should be pretty similar to them too. And in fact, they are. On a grammar level, Portuguese is much more similar to Spanish than Italian. Similarly, Italian is much more similar to French. So, why is it that Spanish speakers can hold a conversation with Italian speakers without having to switch languages, and there is no way you understand a French person, as much of an effort as you make. The reason lies in many aspects and evolution of the languages.
Reason number two: They have much more similar phonetics
Spanish and Italian evolved similarly on a phonetical level. This is because they haven’t gone through so many shifts in the language. First of all, Italian is the most conservative romance language, meaning it is much more similar to Latin than the others. This is because, being home to the Vatican City and therefore the only place on earth where Latin is spoken regularly, Italian did evolve but remained with similar sounds to its roots. Spanish has gone through some shifts further than Proto-Romance, this is what made the mid-vowels collapsed together meaning there is only one sound for each vocal, while Italian still makes a difference between higher and lower versions of each vocal. Spanish has a five-vowel system and Italian has a seven-vowel system (French has about 12). The differences between each language are predictable and sound very similar and the differences are usually only in back vowels.
On the consonant side, you also get Italian being very conservative since it has what is known as intervocalic stops, which are characteristic of Latin. The eastern half of the Roman world kept them, while the western half didn’t or mostly didn’t since they went through a process called lenition, which is kind of a softening. The originally voiced stop between vowels was turned into approximants and was eventually lost. Spanish only went through one round of lenition, remaining more similar to Italian. An example of this is the word safe, in Latin, it is “securum”, in Italian “sicuro”, in Spanish “seguro”, and in French “sûr”. See how it loses the consonant?
So, phonetically speaking, the reason why Italian and Spanish are much more similar and people who speak only one tends to understand the other, is because they have rather old-fashioned phonetics.
Reason number three: they share a heritage and cultural similarities.
But now, let’s get into a deeper part of this. Why did they evolve more closely than the other languages? And why did they remain more conservative? Well, if you hadn’t guessed already, the answer lies in religion and culture. It all comes down to the relationship between Latin America, Spain, and Italy, or more specifically (and accurately since Italy didn’t really exist back then) the Vatican. During the time of colonization, Spain was particularly favored by the Pope. This comes from the fact that Spain and Italy are both very Catholic nations, which were strongly influenced by the Vatican.
So, since Spanish holds a very close relationship with the Catholic religion (which at the time was only predicated in Latin) mutated a lot less as a language than other, and remained archaic as Italian. Nowadays Spanish has variations related to colonization which makes a lot of nouns non-comprehensible for Italian speakers, however, the overall structure remains understandable.
Also, since both countries grew so similar culturally because of the Catholic religion the basic things one and another need to communicate with each other (nous) are similar and sound similar.
So, now you know, the reason why Spanish and Italian are so similar has to do with cultural, historical, phonetical, and geographical factors. Because the Italian people and the Hispanic people share a heritage.