THE PORTUGUESE LANGUAGE
You don't fala portugues? Here's what you should know.
ORIGINS AND INFLUENCESPortuguese is one of the major languages of the world (the sixth most spoken language worldwide), spoken by about 200 million people on four continents. It belongs to a group of languages called "Romance" or "Neo-Latin" that evolved from Latin, the language of Latium in Ancient Italy, or more specifically, the city of Rome.
After the Roman invasion, Latin gradually became established in the Iberian peninsula and finally replaced the native languages. When the country of Portugal was founded, it adopted its own particular Romance, which was essentially Portuguese, as the national language. Further to the north, the region of Galicia (Spain) where the same Romance was spoken, remained politically subjugated to the kingdom of Leon and Castile, and even today Galician remains a regional dialect, under the official hegemony of Spanish.
There was always great regional variation in Latin vocabulary, depending on each region's position with respect to Rome. The Iberian provinces were somewhat on the sidelines, and did not receive many of the lexical changes that were constantly created in Rome by the urban masses' need for expression. Portuguese and Spanish maintain, for example, the traditional Latin verb comedere (comer in both Portuguese and Spanish), meaning "to eat", while Italy and France adopted the new term manducare, which became mangiare and manger.
Another example is the Latin word for "cheese" (caseus), from which developed the Portuguese queijo and Spanish queso. In France and Italy however, caseus was replaced by formaticus, derived from forma, which was connected with a new process of making cheese. From this term evolved the French fromage, and Italian fromaggio. Factors like these explain why Portuguese and Castilian (Spanish) are the most similar of all the Romance languages.
The other groups that settled in what is now Portugal over the centuries had little effect on the language, although there is still a small number of words that go back to Celtic times (such as ontem, meaning "yesterday" which has the same origin as the Scottish Gaelic an d, and esquecer, meaning "to forget"), a few words of Germanic origin (such as roubar, meaning "to steal," and guerrear, meaning "to wage war"), and about five hundred words introduced in Moorish times, especially those starting with the "al" prefix, such as almofada ("pillow").
During the Age of Discovery, when Portugal established an overseas empire, the Portuguese language was heard in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Under regional influences, it absorbed a small number of words like jangada ("raft") of Malay origin, and chá ("tea"), of Chinese origin. The Portuguese discoveries also had the opposite effect, and there are numerous Portuguese words in other languages, including in Japanese (see the list below on the right; FYI: although some believe that the word for "thank you" in Japanese -- "arigato" -- comes from the Portuguese "obrigado," linguists have refuted that to be untrue).
Other languages that have influenced Portuguese include French, due to the infiltration of French manners and customs in Portugal during the tenth and eleventh centuries, when Frenchmen went to Portugal as pilgrims, courtiers, statesmen, scholars, and soldiers of fortune to help fight the Moors. There were also influences of Provençal, a language from the south of France, with words such as rua ("street"), similar to the French rue.
In Lisbon, Porto, most of Algarve, and other main tourist destinations, English is spoken fairly widely. Still, learning just a few simple Portuguese words certainly enhances a visit to Portugal. The Portuguese are proud of their language and do not take kindly to being addressed in Spanish by foreigners, so visitors should take a little time to become familiar with some basic Portuguese vocabulary.
PRONUNCIATION AND UNDERSTANDING PORTUGUESENOTE: The rules given below refer to Portuguese as spoken in Portugal. Some of them don't apply to Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation.
At first the Portuguese language can seem difficult to understand, since as one of the Romance languages derived from Latin, one expects it to be close to the resonant rattle of Spanish or the Romantic cadences of Italian. Instead, its closed vowels and shushing consonants sound closer to an Eastern European language. But knowledge of Spanish, Italian, or French does help to decipher the written word.
Having an idea of French pronunciation helps to pronounce nasalized vowels, which are indicated by a tilde (~) over them or are followed by "m" or "n." The Portuguese word for wool, lã, therefore sounds roughly like the French word lin. Also helpful is knowing that the suffix "-ção" is the equivalent of the English "-tion," so informação is "information," and nação is "nation," for example. These words form their plural by changing the suffix to "-ções" (so nação becomes nações).
The cedilla under the "c" serves exactly the same purpose as in French -- to transform the "c" into a "ss" sound in front of the vowels "a," "o," and "u" (Açores, Graça, etc.).
The accent usually falls on the next-to-last syllable (Fado, azulejos, etc.), except when there's an acute accent to indicate the proper pronunciation (sábado, república, está, etc.).
As in other Romance languages, things are either masculine or feminine, with most masculine nouns ending in "o" and most feminine ones ending in "a."
For further study, please check out our General Dictionary and also our specialized Portuguese Food Dictionary.
Or click here for information about learning Portuguese in Lisbon, Brazil or the UK.
Finally, for a marvellously complete resource for studying the language, see Russell Walker's Learning Portuguese website.
Useful Portuguese Words and Phrases
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