Portuguese Language

General Overview
Area of distribution and Number of Speakers

Portuguese (Português or Lingua Portuguesa) is a Romance language spoken in Portugal, Brazil, and Portuguese colonial and formerly colonial territories (Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tomé, Goa, Macau, East Timor). Galician, spoken in northwestern Spain, is often considered a dialect of Portuguese.

The number of speakers is estimated to be near 190,000,000 by the end of 1999.

Origin and History

After the Roman conquest of the Iberian peninsula the Vulgar Latin replaced virtually all local languages. In the territories along the Atlantic coast it gradually evolved in what is technically known Galician-Portuguese language. Later, following the incorporation of Galicia into Spain and the independent development of Portugal, this language split in Galician and Portuguese branches.

Written materials in Portuguese date from a property agreement of the late 12th century (the so called Auto de Partilhas), and literary works appeared in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Standard Portuguese is based on the dialect of Lisbon. Dialectal variation within the country is not great, but Brazilian Portuguese varies from European Portuguese in several respects, including several sound changes and some differences in verb conjugation and syntax; for example, object pronouns occur before the verb in Brazilian Portuguese, as in Spanish, but after the verb in standard Portuguese. The four major dialect groups of Portuguese are Northern Portuguese, or Galician, Central Portuguese, Southern Portuguese (including the dialect of Lisbon), and Insular Portuguese (including Brazilian and Madeiran). Portuguese is often mutually intelligible with Spanish despite differences in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary.


The phonetic system of the Portuguese language is extremely rich.

In standard Portuguese it consists of 9 simple vowels, 5 nasalized vowels, 2 semivowels, 25 simple diphthongs, 4 nasalized diphthongs, 5 simple triphthongs, 4 nasalized triphthongs, 21 consonants, or a total of 75 entities. Unstressed vowels are reduced. The nasalization is indicated in the orthography by m or n following the vowel (e.g., sim yes, bem well) or by the use of a tilde (~) over the vowel (mão hand, nação nation).

The consonants have almost the same value as in other Romance languages, with some variation from region to region. The most important variations are that rr is generally alveolar in Portugal and frequently uvular (as in French) or guttural in Brazil, and that sounds corresponding to English [ch] and [dj] do not exist in Portugal but are found in Brazil represented by ti and di. Lh corresponds to Spanish ll (as pronounced in Latin America) and Italian gl. Nh corresponds to Spanish ñ and Italian / French gn. Ch and j are pronounced as in French. The dental character of the consonants d, t, n, and l is more pronounced in Portuguese than in English, because in Portuguese pronunciation the tongue tends to touch the base of the upper teeth.

The linking together in spoken Portuguese of syntactically related words in a sentence accounts for the variation in the sound of a number of consonants. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the case of the sibilant consonants s and z.

Accent is free and may fall on the ultimate, penultimate or antepenultimate syllable. Its place is recognizable from orthography. As compared with the accent of Classical Latin, it shows a tendency to move towards a syllable containing -r.

Historically, Portuguese has avoided the pan-Romance diphthongation (see the Occurrence of Diphthongs Replacing Stressed Short Vowels in Romance Languages).

As in Spanish the Latin consonants p, t, c between vowels are voiced to b, d, g in Portuguese, cf.:

CL apotheca (th=t) store-room => Port. bodega tavern.
See also the Development of Latin Intervocalic p and t in Romance Languages.

The intervocalic -d- and -g- disappear, cf.:

CL cadere to fall => Port. cair,
CL legere to read => Port. ler,
while the intervocalic -b- tends to become v, cf.
CL habere to have => Port. haver.
The consonant clusters ct, lt are transformed to it, cf.:
CL octo eight => Port. oito,
CL multu(m) much, many => Port. muito.
See also the Results of Palatalization of Consonant Clusters.

The clusters cl, fl, pl are palatalized to ch, cf.:

CL clamo (I) call => Port. chamo,
CL flama flame => Port. chama,
CL ploro (I) weep => Port. choro.
The clusters ali, eli, ili, oli, uli are transformed to alh, elh, ilh, olh, ulh, cf.:
CL alium garlic => Port. alho,
CL filius son => Port. filho,
CL mulier woman => Port. mulher etc.
The clusters mr is divided by epenthetic -d- and become mbr, as in:
VL memorare to remember => Port. lembrar (with distant dissimilation m-m => l-m).
The Latin l is often replaced by r at an occlusive consonant:
ML sclavus slave => Port. escravo,
ML ecclesia church => Port. igreja.
The words beginning with s- followed by a consonant (s impure) receive a prothetic e-, cf.:
CL stare to stand => Sp. estar.
A distinctive feature of Portuguese, compared with the other Ibero-Romance languages, is the loss of the intervocalic l and n, cf.:
CL coelum sky => Port. céu,
CL persona person => Port. pessoa.
The forms of the definite article o, a are due to the intervocalic position of the l in such syntactical combinations as de-lo and de-la of the, from which have resulted the contracted forms do and da, and by a redivision of the compound, d'o and d'a.

A word ending in l in the singular loses the l in the plural due to its intervocalic position, cf.:

sol sun => sóis.
See also the Phonology of Spanish.


Portuguese retains many grammatical forms no longer found in other Romance languages.

The future subjunctive and future perfect subjunctive, for example, remain in use.

As in old forms of Spanish, the endings of the future and the conditional in modern Portuguese may be detached from the stem to permit the interpolation of the object pronoun. On the other hand the compound tenses are constructed with the verb ter (Latin tenere, Spanish tener to have, to hold) as an auxiliary verb instead of haver (Latin habere, Spanish haber to have; in Spanish used only as an auxiliary verb).

Portuguese is the only Romance language with a personal or inflected infinitive. For example, partir to depart may be conjugated partir|eu for me to depart or that I may depart.

In addition to the compound pluperfect, Portuguese has also a simple one developed from the Latin pluperfect; thus the pluperfect of amara means I had loved in addition to the conventional I would love.

A great number of nouns have the distinctive endings of a for the feminine form and o for the masculine form, corresponding to Latin nouns of the first and second declensions, respectively. The sign of the plural in Portuguese is regularly -s.


The core of the Portuguese vocabulary is inherited from the Vulgar Latin. With the development of the literary tradition there were introduced thousands of words from Classical Latin. A very small number of words are derived from Iberian (Lusitanian), Celtiberian, and Phoenician.

The invasions of the Suevi introduced a few Germanic words, amongst them the name of Coimbra (in Gmc. Conimbriga).

Like Spanish, Portuguese has borrowed a lot of words from Arabic, and like the other modern European languages, its vocabulary contains also a great many words of French and Greek origin.

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