Portuguese Language History

Portuguese Language History

Portuguese, a modern Romance language, is the official language of over 240 million people, making it the sixth-most spoken language in the world. Portuguese spread from its home in the Iberian Peninsula through conquest and colonization to become the official language of nine countries across the globe, with the majority of speakers (190 million) found in the fast-growing country of Brazil. Though it shares the same Roman roots as Spanish and French, Portuguese developed into a global language in its own right.

The Early History of the Portuguese Language

The Iberian Peninsula, or what is now Portugal and Spain, was settled by the Lusitani, a Celtic tribe, in the 1st millennium BCE. The ancient Romans first arrived to the Iberian Peninsula in 218 BCE, bringing with them trade, culture, and Latin. It would take the Romans until 26 BCE under the Emperor Augustus to conquer the western part of the peninsula.

Over the centuries, the native language of the Lusitani disappeared under the weight of the Latin influence. The Roman province of Lusitania, which included most of modern-day Portugal, became an integral part of the Roman Empire. As the centuries passed, the Roman Empire began to collapse and the cultural and linguistic uniformity of the region broke down. The Iberian Peninsula was invaded by barbarian tribes such as the Suevi and the Visigoths, whose Germanic languages influenced the Portuguese vocabulary, especially in military terms.

The Moors of North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE. They brought Arabic and used it as an administrative language in ruling over the conquered regions. Beneath the surface, however, the budding Romance (from ‘Roman’) language of Portuguese continued to be used by the common people. When the Moors were eventually overthrown by the Christians, little of Arabic remained except for about 900 words added to the Portuguese lexicon.

Portuguese Comes Into Its Own

Portuguese as a distinct language only began to emerge around the 9th century CE. This embryonic form of Portuguese came from the Galicia, now part of Spain, and was widely used for poetry and songs. With Portugal’s independence in 1143 and the expulsion of the Moors completed in 1249, Galician-Portuguese became the spoken and written language of Lusitania. In 1290 the king of Portugal decreed that Portuguese, until then known as the “Vulgar language,” should be used instead of Latin. In 1296 Portuguese was adopted by the Royal Chancellery. Over the next two centuries its use was extended from poetry to writing law and official documents.

With the dawning of the Age of Exploration, Portuguese sailors, soldiers and missionaries led the way. Under the influence of Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal developed trading posts and colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Portuguese became a commonly used language in Asia and Africa for colonial administration, trade, and communicating between local officials and Europeans of all nationalities. Its association with Catholic missionaries led it to be called Cristão (“Christian”) in many places. Today this colonial legacy can still be seen in Portuguese-speaking communities in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia, and in Portuguese words that have entered the vocabulary of Japanese, Swahili, and other languages. Read more about Portuguese language dialects.

Modern Portuguese

Portuguese entered its modern form in the 16th century when early lexicologists defined its morphology and syntax. Over the past few centuries, the type of Portuguese spoken in its home country and in its colonies, especially Brazil, has diverged. French influence on Portugal was especially strong during the 18th century, while Brazilian Portuguese absorbed vocabulary from American Indian and African languages. Unlike Spanish or French, Portuguese does not have an international body of language regulators to maintain its purity, but both Portugal and Brazil have their own national language regulators.

Looking ahead, the Portuguese language is only expected to become more widespread. Brazil’s predominance in South America has led the neighboring countries of Uruguay and Argentina to mandate its study. The Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa are expected to have a combined population of 83 million by 2050, and 335 million people will speak Portuguese worldwide.  Read more about types of Portuguese translations.

Official Portuguese-Speaking Countries

Portuguese is the official language of the following countries, listed by population:

  • Brazil (190 million)
  • Mozambique (21 million)
  • Angola (12.5 million)
  • Portugal (11 million)
  • Guinea-Bissau (1.5 million)
  • East Timor (1 million)
  • Equatorial Guinea (1 million)
  • Cape Verde (400,000)
  • São Tomé and Príncipe (200,000)

In addition, Portuguese is an official language in Macau, a special administrative region of China (pop. 400,000).

Read more about Brazilian business etiquette. 

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