The challenge of Portuguese

With the World Cup taking place in Brazil, some linguistic thoughts may settle on the Portuguese language, spoken officially by all and natively by the vast majority of Brazilians, despite their marked ethnic diversity.

Brazil’s huge population means that this fact alone makes Portuguese one of the most spoken and written languages on the globe. Yet its geographical restrictiveness (alongside some complexities) make it one of the least known by outsiders.

Portuguese in fact has its origins in the Spanish region of Galicia, on the northwest of the Iberian peninsula. During the Reconquista, as Christians speaking languages of Latin origin moved south, they split into five and subsequently three vertical linguistic channels – Galician to the west, Castilian in the middle, and Catalan to the east. While those who remained in the northwest gradually came to merge with the Castilians and others (subsequently including the Catalans) to form “Spain”, those who moved south retained a separate kingdom named for its port, hence Portugal. Adventurous and coastal, they soon kept going, founding colonies in Asia and the Americas, the largest of which became Brazil.

Printing (which solidified Standard languages) was developed at a time when the Portuguese language was in the middle of a sound shift (similar to the one which English had to render pronunciations such as “name” or “fight” from words whose spelling still reflects older pronunciations), giving it a considerably more complex phonology (marked by considerably more complex written accents) than Spanish. Portuguese also allowed significant later spelling reforms to reflect more modern pronunciation (unlike French, Spanish or English), thus making it “look” somewhat distinct – consider Portuguese atenção versus French attention, Italian attenzione or Spanish atención. 

Portuguese not only looks but sounds very different. Firstly, there are the distinctive “slushing” <s> sounds at the end of words or before vowels (although this is more noticeable in Portugal than in Brazil); then there are the nasals, so that bem-vindo ‘welcome’ sounds more like ‘beng-veendu’. Portuguese did, however, retain the initial /f/ often lost in Spanish (probably due to the latter’s contact with the Basques, whose language lacks it), e.g. falar ‘to speak’ versus Spanish hablar.

Grammatically, although I never like to say any one language is “easier” than another, Portuguese is also less accessible than Spanish, with the maintenance of tenses and moods lost in Spanish (e.g. the future subjunctive), wider and unique use of the infinitive, and complex word order of pronoun particles (which itself often varies between Brazil and Portugal). There is also a tendency, as in Irish coincidentally, to avoid “yes” or “no”, instead repeating the verb (Tens a bola? Tenho! ‘Do you have the ball? I have.’)

It is perhaps for these reasons, alongside the (marginally) wider spread of Spanish, that although mother-tongue Portuguese speakers are actually as numerous as mother-tongue Spanish speakers in South America, Spanish is far and away the better known language externally. However, just as the World Cup is offering the opportunity to discover the real Brazil (away from just the stereotypical samba and beach-football), it may also offer an opportunity for some of a linguistic bent to discover its language too!


4 thoughts on “The challenge of Portuguese

  1. […] Four Western European national languages (which between them have around 200 million mother-tongue speakers in Europe and even more than that in the Americas) are descended from Latin – Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Of these, it is no surprise that Spanish and Portuguese have multiple common traits not shared with the others, although Portuguese is somewhat more challenging for a variety of reasons (discussed here). […]

  2. […] as a proficient speaker of Spanish and maybe French, there is an obvious window to Italian and Portuguese. I now visit Italy relatively frequently, find I can get by for everything from ordering meals to […]

  3. […] version of Bocelli’s performance, the lyrics are provided subtitled in both Italian and Portuguese. Both of these languages are derived from Latin and, although both are closer to Spanish than to […]

  4. […] I do speak a little rusty Portuguese (otherwise I could not write this), having spent some time over several years near Lisbon in my […]

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