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Portuguese language history

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Portuguese language facts

Oi! Você fala português?

It is a curious truth that, of all the major languages, Portuguese seems to suffer the most from a permanent case of mistaken identity.

This is largely down to its closeness, both linguistic and geographical, to the big brother of the Romance language family: Spanish.

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However, Portuguese is no ‘minority language’. It is the seventh most natively-spoken language in the world, with 220 million mother-tongue speakers, and a grand total of 260 million speakers. Mirroring the history of English, Portugal is no longer the epicentre of the Lusophone world, accounting for just 5% of speakers. The reach of the language is enormous, spanning four continents – Europe, South America, Africa & Asia.  In addition to large diaspora communities across Europe and the Americas, you’ll find the Portuguese language in Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tome & Principe, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese financial hub of Macau, in coastal Indian territories like Goa, and of course, the burgeoning powerhouse that is Brazil. Many are stunned to hear that thanks to the sheer scale and population of Brazil, Portuguese is actually the most widely-spoken language in South America, and the second-most in Latin America after Spanish.

As with other Romance varieties, speakers enjoy a varying degree of mutual intelligibility with related languages. Oddly enough, this is not always reciprocal; Portuguese speakers tend to understand Spanish speakers reasonably well without special training, whereas the reverse is rarely true.

There is also the novel phenomenon of portunhol  - a portmanteau of português and espanhol referring to a contact code used in the border territories of South America, where speakers of these two distinct languages can accommodate to conduct a reasonably fluent conversation.

However, you should beware of relying on your Spanish conversation should you take a trip to Rio de Janeiro. Portuguese can be very distinctive! It has grammatical quirks like a future subjunctive mood and a personal infinitive construction, as well as countless ‘false friends’ to stumble on. For example, aceitar means ‘to accept’ in Portuguese, but ‘to lubricate with oil’ in Spanish, while the noun propina means ‘a tip’ in Spanish, but ‘a bribe’ in Portuguese. Clearly, madness can ensue without a top translator.

READ MORE: 5 Football Phrases You'll Hear in Brazil

Roots of the Portuguese Language

The term ‘Lusophone’, meaning Portuguese-speaking, derives from the province of Lusitania, the Latin name for the Western Iberian Peninsula that was incorporated into the Roman Empire in the 3rd century BC. The Latin lingua franca was spread by invading legionaries and the traders who accompanied them. It was adopted by the pre-Roman population, who subsequently became citizens of the Empire. The catalyst in Latin ‘becoming’ the various Romance languages arguably came with the so-called ‘Barbarian Invasions’ of the 5th-8th centuries, and the ensuing collapse of the Roman Empire.

The Arab conquest of Iberia greatly influenced the Spanish language, and Portuguese didn’t escape either.  This is particularly true of the south of Portugal, as shown by the etymology of the popular holiday region o Algarve (Arabic < al-gharb ‘the west’) and the city Albufeira (Arabic < al-buhera ‘castle of the sea’). Portuguese also developed alongside, and retains very close cultural and linguistic links with Gallego, the dialect of the Spanish province of Galicia.

The language is officially speaking one of the oldest and most venerable institutions in Europe; in 1290 King Diniz established the first Lusophone university in Lisbon (compare with Cambridge in 1209), and simultaneously decreed that the ‘vulgar language’ was to be known as Portuguese and to be used in preference to Latin.

The 15th & 16th centuries were a golden age for the pioneering seafarers and explorers of the Portuguese Empire, which at this point truly ruled the global roost as the kingdom spread its language, culture and business around the world. Through trade it became a prestigious lingua franca of Asia, as successive kings of Sri Lanka sought to gain fluency in it.

One of the stranger cultural associations that arose from this is the link between Portuguese and Japanese. Jesuit missionaries in Japan compiled the Nippo Jisho (1603), an early Japanese-Portuguese dictionary, containing some 30,000 translated words. This was the first ever dictionary coupling of Japanese with a European language. This foreshadowed the close relationship between Japanese and Brazilians that came about through waves of migration in both directions. Japan has some 400,000 Portuguese speakers, while Brazil has an ethnic Japanese population of 1.5 million. Brazil is a country that surprises you at every turn; it transpires that one of the best spots in the world for an authentic sushi meal is São Paulo!

The legacy of the Portuguese Empire’s erstwhile influence is pervasive. Even English as today’s global lingua franca has many tell-tale signs of Portuguese influence. Our verb ‘to embarrass’ arrived via French and Spanish from the Portuguese embaraçar. The word ‘creole’ derives from the verb criar (‘to create’), while the slang term ‘savvy’ comes from the present tense verb sabe (‘he/she/it knows).

So whether it’s for the culture, the tourism, or the business opportunities, we at Today Translations think it’s worth getting savvy with this beautiful and fascinating language.

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