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The Portuguese Language

Origins and evolution

Originating in northern Portugal and the northwestern region of Galicia in Spain, Portuguese is an Indo-European language derived from Latin. The language evolved from the form of Latin spoken by the Gallaeci, the Lusitanians, the Conii and the Celtici peoples living on the Iberian Peninsula approximately 2000 years ago. The Portuguese language expanded its influence all over the world during the 1400s and 1500s as Portugal labored to establish its colonial empire, which eventually stretched from Brazil to portions of India, in addition to Macau in China and the island of Timor, to the north of Australia. A number of Creole languages based on Portuguese surfaced around the world, particularly in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, where contact between the Portuguese language and native languages gave rise to these Creole forms. For example, the island of Sri Lanka used a Creole language known as Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole as its exclusive lingua franca for almost 350 years.

Given that Portuguese is a Romance language, most of its vocabulary is based on Latin; however, Portuguese also bears the influence of over 800 words that came about through contact with the Moors during the Middle Ages. A multitude of loanwords was later incorporated through exposure to various African and South American indigenous languages during the period of colonization. English, French, German and even Japanese have contributed to the lexicon of modern Portuguese.

Although Portuguese and other Romance languages share a number similarities in terms of grammar and vocabulary, Portuguese is not mutually intelligible with them. With the exception of Galician, which is very closely related to Portuguese, some formal study of basic grammar and vocabulary is normally required before Portuguese speakers can reasonably comprehend those languages, and vice versa. Native speakers of Portuguese generally understand clearly enunciated standard Spanish; however, most Spanish speakers will not fully understand Portuguese without formal education.

Where is Portuguese spoken?

These days, Portuguese is ranked sixth among the world’s major languages, with around 250 million native speakers. In addition, it ranks as the third most spoken European language behind English and Spanish. Even though Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in the Americas, approximately 50% of South America’s population speaks the language. Portugal’s former colonies in Africa continue to utilize Portuguese as the lingua franca. Portuguese is an official language in the following nations:  Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor (co-official language with Tetum), Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Macau (co-official  language with Cantonese Chinese), Mozambique, Portugal, and São Tomé and Príncipe. There are also significant communities of Portuguese speakers in various regions of the United States and Canada, as well as Argentina, France and Japan.

Portuguese in the world

Portuguese and Spanish are recognized by UNESCO as the fastest growing of the European languages. In addition, with the expansion of Portuguese’s influence in South America and southern Africa, the language presents great growth potential as an international language. Since Brazil joined the South American trade bloc Mercosul (Spanish: Mercosur), the study of Portuguese as a foreign language has been on the rise in Spanish-speaking partner countries such as Argentina.

Several international organizations include Portuguese as an official language including the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, the European Union (EU), Mercosul, the Organization of American States (OAS), the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI), the Union of South American Nations, and the African Union. In recent times, members of the Portuguese community have pushed to make Portuguese an official language of the United Nations, though nothing has come of the campaign to date.

Portuguese Dialects

Portuguese features two main groups of dialects: Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese. Due to historical reasons, the dialects of Asia and Africa are more closely related to those of Portugal than the Brazilian dialects; however, in some aspects of their pronunciation, they are more suggestive of Brazilian Portuguese.

The primary differences between Portuguese dialects are rooted in accent and vocabulary, though some grammatical differences exist, especially in the dialects’ most colloquial forms. It is important to note that Portuguese-based creoles spoken in various parts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas are separate languages in their own right, which should not be confused with actual Portuguese.

Nearly all of the 200 million inhabitants of Brazil, plus Brazilian immigrants living abroad in the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal, Canada, Japan and Paraguay speak and write the Brazilian Portuguese dialect. Brazilian Portuguese’s cultural influence in other parts of the Portuguese-speaking world increased significantly toward the end of the 20th century, as Brazilian music and soap operas gained popularity.

Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese

The differences between standard Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese are comparable to those found between standard American English and British English; however, the differences between standard Brazilian Portuguese and its informal spoken vernacular form are quite startling, despite the fact that vocabulary and most grammar rules remain unchanged between the two forms.

It’s also worthwhile to note that a number of spelling differences exist between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese. Most of these differences stem from “silent” consonants, which over time have been dropped from Brazilian Portuguese but persist in other forms. Linguists are currently working to unify spellings in Portuguese through the development of orthographic reforms.

 

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