A Few Words

Know Your Languages: Portuguese – Two Dialects With A Rich History

Posted by Michael Gray & Renato Pontes on Jan 14, 2015 5:53:00 PM

population-of-brazil-2014Approximately 215-220 million people speak Portuguese as their native tongue and there are upwards of 260 million total speakers of the language worldwide. Portuguese is usually ranked as the sixth most spoken language on Earth, the third most spoken European language of the Southern Hemisphere. Portuguese, a romance language, is the sole language spoken in Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Príncipe. It holds co-official language status in Macau (China), East Timor and Equatorial Guinea. It is one of the official languages of the European Union and is the most spoken language in all of South America (just ahead of Spanish). The very first language museum, the Museum of the Portuguese Language, was opened in 2006 in São Paulo, Brazil, which is home to the largest number of Portuguese speakers in the world.

Significant Portuguese-speaking immigrant communities are beginning to pop up all around the globe. Some countries where this has been documented are Andorra, Australia, Bermuda, Canada, France, Namibia, Paraguay, South Africa, Switzerland, Venezuela, and many locations within the United States as well. Some states in the U.S. include Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York.

According to UNESCO estimates, Portuguese is the fastest growing European language in the world after English and is slated as having the highest potential for growth as an international language in southern Africa and South America. Estimates indicate that by the year 2050, there will be upwards of 335 million speakers of Portuguese in the world, an increase of more than a 50%.

What is known as Modern Standard European Portuguese is based on the dialect of Portuguese spoken in and around the cities of Lisbon and Coimbra, both located in central Portugal. On the other hand, Modern Standard Brazilian Portuguese is based on the Portuguese spoken in the area including and surrounding the city of Rio de Janeiro, located in southeastern Brazil. Portuguese-speaking African countries prefer to speak the Standard European Portuguese. Because of this, Portuguese has two primary dialects: the Brazilian and the European.


Some aspects of the language found in many of the Brazilian dialects are exclusive to South America and are not found in Europe. In formal writing, the written Brazilian standard differs from European Portuguese when it comes to spelling, lexicon and grammar. However, the most significant difference between European and Brazilian Portuguese is in phonology and prosody. For example, vowel sounds are very different. Those speaking Brazilian Portuguese tend to open the vowels and pronounce them fully, while European Portuguese tend to reduce vowels. Unaccented vowels are often reduced to the point of being dropped from speech entirely. Furthermore, European Portuguese has greater phonetic variety: Brazilian Portuguese has two fewer vowel phonemes than that of European Portuguese. Finally, in Brazilian Portuguese, speakers omit mute consonants, whereas European Portuguese continue to use them.

The majority of the Portuguese lexicon is derived from Latin. Due in large part to Portugal’s participation in the Age of Discovery, it has adopted loanwords (words borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language without translation) from all over the globe, including words with Germanic, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, South American, French and English origins. Correspondingly, Portugal has had a noticeable influence on other languages, providing loanwords to many languages, including Indonesian, Malay, Manado Malay, Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese, Bengali, Hindi, Swahili, Afrikaans, Japanese, English, Lanc-Patua (spoken in northern Brazil), and Sranan Tongo (spoken in Suriname). The word for bread in Japanese is “pan,” from the Portuguese “pao,” (and not from the Spanish “pan,”) for example.*The Romanization of Chinese was heavily influenced by the Portuguese language, particularly regarding Chinese surnames. One example of this is Mei. During the years 1583-1588, Italian Jesuits Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci created a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, which became the first ever European-Chinese dictionary.

Experts suggest some apparent differences in lexicon between Brazilian and European Portuguese are not really differences. In Brazil, the common term for carpet is tapete. And, in Portugal, it is alcatifa. However, many dialectal zones in Portugal use tapete and other areas in Brazil use alcatifa. This applies in several such apparent differences, except in newer terms, such as ônibus in Brazil, which is autocarro in Portugal. A conversation between an Angolan, a Brazilian and a Portuguese from very rural areas flows very easily. The most exotic Portuguese dialect is vernacular São Tomean Portuguese, because of the interaction with local Portuguese Creoles, but even with this one there are no difficulties when talking to another person from another country.


Language standardization efforts are being made across all eight Portuguese-speaking countries. The Orthographic Agreement (OA) aims to strengthen the role of the Portuguese language internationally and to guarantee linguistic uniformity among the eight member states of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). One of those reforms includes a single spelling system. Although the OA was signed in 1990, it has only been in force in Brazil since January 2009 and in Portugal since May 2009.

Portuguese is classified in the West Iberian branch of the Romance languages. Portuguese and other romance languages, such as Italian and French, are not mutually understandable, although they do share sizeable similarities in both grammar and vocabulary. Educated Portuguese, Brazilians, Spaniards and Spanish speaking Latin Americans typically understand one another with little to no difficulty.

Due to Brazil’s rapidly growing economy and its economic and geographic closeness to the United States, learning Portuguese is an attractive opportunity for many people, most notably language students. Brazil currently has the world’s seventh largest economy and is rapidly growing, with an important role in global markets such as agriculture, energy and manufacturing.

Additionally, Brazil is preparing to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, which is expected to bring the country and the Portuguese language greater cultural attention on an international scale. Combined with the international interest gained from the country’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup, the likelihood is that increasing interest in learning Portuguese will come from many young Americans who are eager to learn a new language, further increasing its role as a global language.


* Source: "List of Japanese Worlds of Portuguese Origin." Wikipedia. 

Topics: Know Your Languages

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