Learn about Portuguese language

1.1. The Romanic Portuguese

The Portuguese language, which evolved from spoken Latin, developed on the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula (now Portugal and the Spanish province of Galicia) included in the province the Romans called Lusitania . When the Romans invaded the peninsula in 218 B.C., the people living in the region adopted Latin, the Roman’s language. From then until the ninth century, all spoke Romance, a language representing an intermediate stage between vulgar or common Latin and modern Latin languages, which include Portuguese, Castilian, French and Galician.

From 409 AD to 711, the Portuguese vocabulary adopted many new words used by invading Germanic tribes. Among these were roubar (to steal), guerrear (to wage war), and branco (white). The effects of the Germanic migrations on the spoken language was not uniform and broke the linguistic uniformity of the peninsula. Over a period of time, this rupture led to a differentiation of the regional languages.

Beginning in 711, when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula , Arabic became the official language, although the vast majority of the population continued to speak Romance. Arabic words that entered the Portuguese language during the Moor occupation included arroz (rice), alface (lettuce), alicate (pliers), and refém (hostage).

The period between the ninth century, when Latin-Portuguese documents first appeared, and the 11th century is considered one of linguistic transition. A few Portuguese words appear in local Latin texts, but Portuguese (more specifically Galician-Portuguese, its forerunner) was spoken only in Lusitania .

1.2. The Galician-Portuguese language

When Christians started to reconquer the peninsula in the 11th century, the Arabs were expelled to the South, where the contact between Arabic and Latin created the Mozarabic dialects. Galician-Portuguese became the spoken and written language of Lusitania . The first regional official documents and literary texts that were not in Latin were written in Galician-Portuguese. These included the Cancioneiros (collections of medieval poems) da Ajuda , da Vaticana and Colocci-Brancutti , now in Lisbon ‘s National Library.

As the Christians advanced southward, the northern dialects interacted with the Mozarabic dialects of the South, producing a Portuguese which was different from the Galician-Portuguese. The separation between the Galician and Portuguese languages, which began with Portugal ‘s independence in 1185, was consolidated after the Moors were expelled in 1249, and also by the defeat in 1385 of the Castilians, who sought unsuccessfully to conquer Portugal . The literary prose in Portuguese appeared in the 14th century, with Crónica Geral de Espanha (1344), and Livro de Linhagens (Book of Lineages), by Dom Pedro, Count of Barcelona.

1.3. Archaic Portuguese

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, when Portugal established an overseas empire, the Portuguese language was heard in Asia, Africa, and the Americas . Under regional influences, it absorbed words like jangada (raft), of Malay origin, and chá (tea), of Chinese origin. During the Renaissance, the inclusion of Italian expressions as well as erudite Greek words made Portuguese a more complex and malleable language. The publication of Cancioneiro Geral de Garcia de Resende in 1516 marked the end of this period of consolidation in which Archaic Portuguese was used.

1.4. Modern Portuguese

Portuguese entered its modern phase in the 16th century when the first grammars defined Portuguese morphology and syntax. When Luis de Camões wrote Os Lusíadas , in 1572, the language was already close to its current structure of phrases and morphology. From then on, linguistic changes have been minor. When Portugal was under the domination of Spain , from 1580 to 1640, Castilian words such as bobo (fool) and granizo (hail) were absorbed into the language. French influence during the 18th century changed the Portuguese spoken in the homeland, making it different from the Portuguese spoken in the colonies.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Portuguese vocabulary absorbed new contributions. Words of Greco-Latin origin, reflecting technological advances, were added to the language. Such words included automóvel (car) and televisão (television). This was followed by English technical words from medical, astronautical, and computer sciences, such as checkup and software . The onrush of new words led to the creation in 1990 of a commission of representatives of the various Portuguese-speaking countries. Its goal was to create a uniform technical vocabulary and avoid the confusion that was occurring when different words were used to describe the same objects.

2. Portuguese Language in the World

Around 250 million people speak Portuguese throughout the world today. Portuguese ranks sixth among the most spoken languages in the world (third among the western languages, after English and Castilian) and is the official language of seven countries: Angola (11 million inhabitants), Brazil (185 million), Cape Verde (346,000), Guinea-Bissau (1 million), Mozambique (16 million), Portugal (11 million), and São Tomé and Príncipe islands (126,000).

In 1986, Portuguese became an official language in the European Union (EU), formerly the European Economic Community, when Portugal was admitted to the organization. As a result of the Mercosul agreements that created the Southern Latin American Common Market, who includes Brazil , Portuguese is being taught as a foreign language in the other member countries. In 1996, was created the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries (CPLP in Portuguese). The purpose of this community is to increase cooperation and cultural exchanges among the member countries, to create a uniform Portuguese standard and to spread the language.

In the vast noncontiguous areas of the world where Portuguese is spoken there are differences and variations in the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary (this is the case with every living language). Though we cannot deny these differences, they are not sufficient to challenge the basic structure of the language. Despite its history, Portuguese continues to maintain its considerable cohesion among its many variations.

When we study the forms which the Portuguese language has assumed in Africa, Asia and Oceania , we must distinguish two varieties, the Creole ones and the non-Creole ones. The Creole varieties were the result of contacts established beginning in the 15th century with indigenous languages. The Creoles, more than dialects, must be considered as languages derived from Portuguese because of the important differences between them and the Portuguese mother tongue.

2.1. The Portuguese Language in Europe

In the western part of the Iberian Peninsula, where Galician-Portuguese was spoken, we find three large language groups with well-defined phonetic characteristics, mainly concerning the way the sibilants are pronounced – utilization or not of the same phoneme in roSa (rose) and paSSo (step) or in Cinco (five) and Seis (six):

  1. Galician dialects;
  2. Northern Portuguese dialects; and
  3. Central-Southern Portuguese dialects.

The border between the two Portuguese dialects noted above crosses Portugal from the northeast to the southeast. It should also be noted that a few Portuguese regions have their own peculiar phonetic characteristics. These include the northern region that takes in part of Minho and the Douro seaside; an extensive area of Beira-Baixa and the Alto-Alentejo, primarily in the central-southern part of the country and also the Algarve in the central-southern area.

The dialects spoken in the archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira represent an extension of the mainland Portuguese dialects. These could be included in the central-southern group. The exceptions are the islands of São Miguel and Madeira, which, independent of each other, are moving away from the central southern norm by adding peculiarities, a few of which are also found on the mainland.

2.1.1. The Galician

Several linguist and intellectuals defends the linguistic unity of Galician-Portuguese until today. According to this point of view, the modern Galician and Portuguese languages would be parts of a same linguistic system, with different written norms (as British and American English or European and Brazilian Portuguese). The official position in Galicia , however, is to consider the Portuguese and the Galician as autonomous languages, even if they share some characteristics.

Other information about Galiza and the modern Galician language are available in the following addresses:

  • Institute of Galician Language of the University of Santiago de Compostela , supporter of a Galician orthography very influenced by the Castilian one.
  • Page about the reintegrationism, movement which defends the adoption of an orthography close to the ancient Galician-Portuguese and to the modern Portuguese.
  • Vieiros, a venue for communication and information about Galiza.
  • Ciberirmandades da Fala, which further the usage of the Galician language on the Internet.

2.2. The Portuguese Language in the Americas

2.2.1. History of the Portuguese Language in Brazil

When Portugal first colonized Brazil, a process that began with discovery in the year 1500, Tupi, or more precisely the Tupinambá, one of the languages of the Tupi-Guarani family spoken by Indians who lived on the Brazilian seacoast, was used along with Portuguese as the general language of the colony. This was primarily because the Jesuit priests studied and taught the Tupi language. In 1757, Tupi was banned by royal decree, although the language had already been overwhelmed by Portuguese spoken by the large number of immigrants from the mother country. When the Jesuits were expelled in 1759, Portuguese became the language of the country. However, Portuguese inherited words associated with flora and fauna from indigenous languages. Among these words were abacaxi (pineapple), mandioca (manioc flour), caju (cashew), tatu (armadillo), and piranha, the voracious fish, as well as proper and geographic names.

The Portuguese language in Brazil received a new source of contributions with the influx of African slaves. The African influence came primarily from the Iorubá spoken by slaves from Nigeria . Some of these words also found their way to Europe . Iorubá contributions derived from words connected with religion and the Afro-Brazilian cuisine. From the Angolan Quimbundo language came words such as caçula , meaning the youngest child, moleque (a street child), and the dance samba .

During the 18th century, other differences between the American and European Portuguese developed. At that time Brazilian Portuguese failed to adopt linguistic changes taking place in Portugal produced by French influence. The Brazilian Portuguese remained loyal to the pronunciation used at the time of its discovery. However, when Dom João, the Portuguese king, and the royal entourage took refuge in Brazil in 1808 (when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal ), his presence helped to re-approximate the Portuguese spoken in the cities to the Portuguese of Portugal.

After Brazilian independence in 1822, Brazilian Portuguese became influenced by Europeans who had migrated to the central and southern parts of the country. This is the reason one finds in those areas variations in pronunciation and a few superficial lexical changes. These changes reflect the nationalities settling in each area.

In the 20th century, the split between the Portuguese and Brazilian variants of Portuguese heightened as the result of new words for technological innovations. This happened because Portuguese lacked a uniform procedure for adopting such words. Certain words took different forms in different countries. For example: in Portugal one hears comboio , and in Brazil one hears trem , both meaning train. Autocarro in Portugal is the same thing as ônibus in Brazil , both meaning bus. At the beginning of this century, the nationalism and the individualism of the Romantic movement began promoting the creation of a language norm based on the Brazilian version of the Portuguese language. In 1922, the Modernists reintroduced this argument, promoting a need to break with traditional Portuguese models and to adopt the Brazilian speech pattern. This opening by the Modernists led to the successful adoption of the Brazilian norm in literature.

2.2.2. Brazilian Dialectal Zones

The common Brazilian speech is more consistent throughout the country than what is spoken in Portugal . This surprises many people, considering that Brazil is such a large country. Comparing the various Brazilian dialects with those of the Portuguese spoken in Portugal leads us to conclude that they are fusions of different inflectional forms of the mother tongue. Almost all the regional traits or characteristics of the standard Portuguese in Portugal are present either in the standard Brazilian Portuguese or in some dialect in Brazil.

Because there is a lack of complete scientific data describing the differences between various regional dialects spoken in Brazil , we cannot classify them in the manner that the dialects of continental Portuguese were classified. There is a proposal for classifying the Brazilian differences along pronunciation lines, a methodology that is similar to the one used to classify European Portuguese. This method is based on vowel pronunciation (for example, pEgar (to take) can be pronounced with an open or closed “e”) and speech cadence. According to this proposal, it is possible to distinguish two groups of Brazilian dialects: those of the North and those of the South. In the dialect of the North, one can also distinguish two varieties: the Amazonian and the Northeastern. In the South, we find four varieties: Bahian, Fluminense, Mineira, and Sulina.

Sobre Charles Bernstein

Poeta e professor, nascido em 1950 em Nova Iorque, onde vive, é uma das principais forças das letras norte-americanas. Autor de vários livros de poesia e de crítica literária, é o co-fundador e co-editor de PennSound, o maior arquivo de leituras de poetas do mundo todo e do pioneiro Electronic Poetry Center. No Brasil, publicou o livro Histórias da guerra em 2008. Para ele, “a poesia é alguma coisa em longo prazo”. Nome de alcance mundial, ele afirma que o melhor suporte para sua poesia é o diálogo: “Tenho tido a sorte, desde quase o primeiro momento, de contar com bons companheiros”.