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Introduction

Bem vindo – Welcome

Portuguese, português or língua portuguesa, belongs to the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family. It is a widely-spoken macrolanguage and one of the world’s largest languages, ranking sixth after Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic. Ethnologue estimates the worldwide population of first-language speakers of Portuguese at around 204.3 million people, while other estimates place the number at 215 million (Nationalencyklopedin).

After the Roman conquest of the Iberian peninsulaVulgar Latin replaced the local languages. Along the Atlantic coast, it gradually evolved into Galician-Portuguese. After the incorporation of Galicia into Spain and the independent development of Portugal, it split into Galician and Portuguese.

South Africa mapIn the 14th-6th centuries, Portuguese spread to many regions of Asia, Africa and America. By the 16th century, Portuguese had become a lingua franca in Asia and Africa where it was used for colonial administration, trade, and communication between locals and Europeans. Some Portuguese-speaking communities in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia preserved the language even after they were isolated from Portugal. Some of the latter eventually developed into Portuguese-based creoles.

Status

Portuguese spread worldwide in the 15th and 16th centuries as Portugal created a far-reaching colonial and commercial empire spanning countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. Today, Portuguese and Portuguese-based creoles are official, de-facto official, or co-official languages of Brazil (203 million), Portugal (10.8 million), Mozambique (24.7 million), Angola (24.4 million), Guinea-Bissau (1.7 million), East Timor (1.2 million), Macau (588,000), Verde Islands (538,500), São Tomé and Príncipe (190,400). Note that the above numbers are population estimates, not the actual number of first- and/or second-language speakers in these countries.

In 1986, Portuguese became an official language of the European Union (EU). In 1996, the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries (CPLP) was created to promote cooperation and cultural exchanges among the member countries and to create a Portuguese standard.

Click here on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Portuguese is spoken in the U.S.

Dialects

Portuguese is a pluricentric language, i.e., one that has two standard spoken and and two standard written standards. There are two main groups of dialects: those of the Iberian peninsula (European Portuguese) and those of Brazil (Brazilian Portuguese). The differences between the two involve pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Portuguese varieties spoken in Africa and Asia are closer to those of Portugal than those of Brazil.

European Portuguese is divided into Northern and Southern varieties. The prestige norms are based on the Southern variety as spoken in the capital of Lisbon.  The prestige norms of Brazilian Portuguese by-and-large follow those of European Portuguese. Although standard written Brazilian Portuguese was originally based on standard European Portuguese, there are differences between the two involving spelling, lexicon, and, to a lesser extent, those involving grammar.

Structure

Sound system

The sound system of Portuguese features a complex vowel and a relatively simple consonant systems.

Vowels

Portuguese has the richest vowel system of all Romance languages. It includes monophthongs, diphthongs, and triphthongs, with some differences between the vowel systems of European and Brazilian Portuguese.

The two vowel charts below are based on Wikipedia. Nasal vowels are marked by a tilde. Nasalization is the result of the lowering of the velum, or soft palate, which allows air to escape through the mouth and the nose during the production of the sound.

Nine monophthongs of European Portuguese
Unrounded
Rounded
i, ĩ
ɯ
u, ũ
e, ẽ
o, õ
Open-mid
ɛ
ɐ, ɐ̃
ɔ
a
  • /ɛ/ = e in bed
  • /ɯ/ = no equilvalent in English
  • /ɐ/ = has no equivalent in English
  • /ɔ/ = vowel in thought

 

Seven monophthongs of Brazilian Portuguese
i
u
e
o
Open-mid
ɛ
ɔ
a
  • /i/ = e in tree
  • /e/ = vowel in play
  • /ɛ/ = e in bed
  • /a/ = bat (some dialects)
  • /u/ = boot
  • /o/ = boat
  • /ɔ/ = bog

 

Consonants

Stops voiceless
p
t
k
voiced
b
d
g
Fricatives voiceless
f
s
ʃ
voiced
v
z
ʒ
ʁ
Affricates voiceless
voiced
Nasals
m
n
ɲ
Lateral
l
ʎ
Flap

ɾ

  • /p, t, k/ are not aspirated, i.e., they are produced without a puff of air, as in English.
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /ʒ/ = s in vision
  • /tʃ/ = ch in chat
  • /dʒ/ = j in job
  • /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
  • /ʎ/ = ll in million
  • /ɾ  has a number of realizations depending on the variety.

 

Stress
Primary stress may fall on any of the three final syllables of a word, but mostly on the last two. The final syllable is usually stressed when it contains a nasal, a diphthong, or a close vowel. Some vowels tend to change their quality in unstressed positions.

Grammar

The grammar of Portuguese is Latin-based. As a result, it exhibits many similarities to the grammar of other Romance languages.

Nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns

  • Portuguese nouns are either masculine or feminine. Masculine nouns usually end in -o, -e, or a consonant, feminine nouns usually end in -a. There are some exceptions.
  • There are no case markings.
  • There are two numbers: singular and plural. Plural is formed by adding -s.
  • Adjectives and pronouns agree with the nouns they modify in gender and number.
  • Definite and indefinite articles agree with nouns in gender and number, e.g., o carro ‘the car’ — os carros ‘the cars’, a casa ‘the house’ — as casas ‘the houses,’ um carro ‘a car’ — uns carros ‘cars’, uma casa ‘a house’—umas casas ‘houses’.
  • Prepositions contract with articles, e.g., de + o = dode + a = da.

 

Verbs

  • Verbs agree with their subjects in person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular, plural).
  • Pronoun subjects are normally dropped since the verb endings carry information about person and number, e.g., canto ‘I sing’.
  • There are three regular conjugations that can be identified by the infinitive ending, for instance, cantar ‘to sing’, comer to eat’, rir ‘to laugh’. There are also many irregular verbs.
  • There are three tenses (present, past, future). Compound tenses are formed with the auxiliary verbs ser ‘to be’ or haver ‘to have’.
  • There are four moods: indicativeconditionalsubjunctiveimperative.

 

Word order
The most common order in Portuguese is Subject- Verb-Object. Adjectives follow the nouns they modify, e.g., casa branca ‘white house’.

Vocabulary

Portuguese vocabulary, for the most part, is derived from Latin with some borrowings from German, Arabic, as well as from Asian, Amerindian, and African languages with which Portuguese explorers and settlers came into contact. Today, English is the major source of borrowings, primarily in the area of science, politics, and technology.

Below are some common Portuguese words and phrases.

Hello Olá
Good bye Tchau
Please Por favor
Thank you Obrigado (masculine), obrigada (feminine)
Excuse me Desculpa
Yes Sim
No Não
Man Homem
Woman Mulher

 

Below are the numerals 1-10 in Portuguese.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
um
dois
tres
quatro
cinco
seis
sete
oito
nove
dez

Writing

Written materials in Portuguese date back to the late 12th century. Literary works appeared in the 13th and 14th centuries. Portuguese is written with a modified version of the Latin alphabet which is given below.

A a
B b
C c
D d
E e
F f
G g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
O o
P p
Q q
R r
S s
T t
U u
V v
W w
X x
Y y
Z z

 

Below are some notable features of Portuguese orthography:

  • k, w, y are only used for writing borrowed words, e.g., Darwin.
  • ç = [s], e.g., direção ‘direction’
  • The letter h after consonants indicates palatalization, e.g., ninho ‘child’ is pronounced as [ninyo].
  • Brazilian Portuguese uses an umlaut over the letter ü to indicate diaeresis, i.e., that it is pronounced as a full vowel rather than part of a diphthong, e.g., freqüencia ‘frequency’.
  • Acute accent over the vowels í, é, á, ó, ú and circumflex accent over â, ê, ô indicate that the vowel is stressed.
  • Grave accent over à indicates the contraction of two consecutive vowels in adjacent words, e.g., a + aquela = àquela.
  • Tilde over the vowels ã and õ represents nasal vowels before other vowels, at the end of words, or before a final -s. It usually coincides with the stressed vowel, unless there is an acute or circumflex accent elsewhere in the words, e.g., direção ‘direction.’
  • -am, -em, -ém, -âm, -en, -én represent nasal diphthongs at the end of words or before final -s.
  • ou is pronounced as [o].

 

Modern Portuguese has two orthographic standards: one for Portugal, and one for Brazil. The most notable difference between the two orthographies is that in Brazil the first c in cc, cç, ct, and the first p in pc, pç, pt were eliminated since they are not pronounced. Below are some examples.

Portugal and Africa Brazil English translation
acção ação ‘action’
contracto contrato ‘contract’
óptimo ótimo ‘great’

 

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights in Portuguese

Declaração Universal dos Direitos Humanos
Artigo1
Todos os seres humanos nascem livres e iguais em dignidade e em direitos. Dotados de razão e de consciência, devem agir uns para com os outros em espirito de fratemidade.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Did You Know?

English has borrowed a number of words from Portuguese. A few of them are listed below.

English word from Portuguese
cobra cobra ‘serpent’
dodo doudo ‘fool, simpleton’, an insult used by Portuguese sailors to the awkward bird they found on Mauritius
emu probably from ema ‘crane, ostrich’
fetish fetiço ‘charm, sorcery’

 

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Portuguese?
Portuguese is considered to be a Category I language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.

16 Responses to Portuguese

  1. bavarinho

    The numbers of Portuguese speakers are not really accurate. First of all, Portugal does not have 10.000 inhabitants but 10 million. Additionally, 30 % of the 20.000.000 Angolans are Portuguese native speakers, while probably the majority of population can communicate in Portuguese in some way.

     
  2. John

    And there are 260 million native and secondary Portuguese speakers in the world.
    After the 2014 world cup and 2016 olympics in Brazil, the number of secondary Portuguese speakers will triple or quadruple.

     
  3. John

    How do I know this will happen? For starters, the demand for learning Portuguese in the United States is already greatly outnumbering the supply of schools and teachers…and this considering that the United States is a country of over 300 million people. Reasoning and logic reveals that there must be a very high number of Americans who want to learn Portuguese. These webpages explains this phenomenon very well:
    http://languagemagazine.com/?page_id=3630
    http://livemocha.com/blog/2012/05/29/trends-in-business-what-languages-are-top-employers-requiring-of-new-hires/
    http://streetsmartbrazil.com/portuguese-rise/
    http://www.middleburyinteractive.com/blogs/post/could-portuguese-be-the-language-of-the-future
    http://www.hothousemedia.com/ltm/ltmbackissues/nov09web/nov09direction.htm

    Thank you for your interest. Happy reading!

     
  4. John

    Also, in the articles you will notice that the Chinese as well, are very interested in teaching Portuguese language – Portuguese is still co-offically spoken in Macau, China.

     
  5. Sandy

    Apparently the Portuguese language instruction is even greatly popular in Spain!

    http://www.pagef30.com/2011/11/languages-on-rise-in-spain-portuguese.html

    For Spaniards to be this gung ho about Portuguese says a quite a lot.

     
  6. Ramom Vilela

    LOL, Brazil don’t have 163 million people, but 203 million

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thanks. The 2014 estimate is 202.5 million.

       
  7. Fernando

    There are lots of errors in this article.
    First, the number of 164 million for Portuguese speakers in Brazil is ridiculous. Perhaps if you wrote this 20 years ago this would be correct.
    I really doubt that “The dialects of Iberian Portuguese are better studied than those of Brazilian Portuguese”. From where did you take this? Brazilian Portuguese is by far more popular and overall, in your article, Brazilian Portuguese is very underrepresented. There is so much diversity of the Portuguese language inside Brazil that your article looks rather poor.
    Ninho means “child” in Spanish, but in Portuguese it means “nest”.
    Review your article and correct those gross mistakes.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Your critique is well taken but you should learn to use a polite way of communicating your thoughts. A nasty tone usually does not deserve the dignity of a response.

       
  8. Alex

    A very interesting article. However, I would like to make a correction. Brazilian Portuguese has 7 vowels which occur in stressed positions (i a e ɛ o ɔ u) plus 3 unstressed vowels (ɐ ɪ ʊ), making a total of 10 vowel (not counting the 5 nasal ones). For instance, the word ”bonito” is pronounced as /bʊ’nitʊ/ in most dialects, just like the word cama is pronounced /’kɐmɐ/. Few people say those words as /bo’nito/ or /kama/ in Brazil (perhaps only people from the southernmost part of the country like Porto Alegre or Florianopolis).

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thanks. We are working on revising the Portuguese page.

       
  9. Irene Thompson

    The enrollments in Portuguese in US institutions of higher learning as last officially surveyed by MLA (Modern Language Association) and published in 2010 were:
    2002 4,894
    2006 10,267
    2009 11,371
    Regretfully, it remains on the list of the Less Commonly Taught Languages in the U.S.

     
  10. Francisco

    Things are changing. Portuguese is becoming a language of great interest for Americans for numerous reasons particularly trade with Brazil. The US and Brazil are major economic trade partners. Here is a little something of interest. Many Americans do not realize that in south Florida Portuguese in now the language of business, even more than Spanish. In a few years Portuguese will be as commonly spoken in south Florida as Spanish…maybe even more.

    Portuguese is the 5th most natively spoken language in the world….with more native speakers than even French! Portuguese is spoken in 5 continents officially. And the Chinese are doing a huge amount of trade with ALL of the Portuguese speaking countries/territories – 10 in all.

    The 2016 summer Olympics will be hosted in Brazil, and that means even that millions of people worldwide will now become more interested in the Portuguese language because they will realize that it is an international language of great economic importance now and in the future. Portuguese speaking Angola is now referred to as the Brazil of Africa because its economy is booming (rich in natural resources such as: gold, diamonds, oil, etc., etc.) Portuguese speaking Mozambique is not far behind for the same economic reasons. Portuguese is also rising in Asia/Oceania Macau, China, East Timor, Oceania, and it is still spoken by thousands in the former Portuguese colonies of Goa, Daman and Diu in India. There are 400,000 Japanese Brazilians living in Japan, and Portuguese is being taught there, and there a numerous tv and radio stations in Portuguese.

    The CPLP (community of Portuguese speaking nations) is an important international organization that even hosts its own Olympic games for all of the Portuguese speaking countries – – like the English Commonwealth games.

    There are 260 million Portuguese speakers in the world and that number is quickly increasing day by day. The only true international languages in the world today are: English, French and Portuguese by virtue of their widespread geographical global reach. Not even Spanish can be considered international since it is pretty much limited to central and south America in terms of where it is spoken officially. In todays world, a language spoken officially across the globe is what makes a language Portuguese a beautiful romance language of great importance today and for tomorrow!

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Spanish is the world’s second largest language, after Mandarin Chinese, with over 400 million speakers. Portuguese is the sixth largest with around 215 million (150 million of whom speak Brazilian Portuguese), based on CIA Factbook, but probably a few million more. French does not make the top 10 list. It is an overstatement to say that the only true international languages in the world today and English, French, and Portuguese. You need to define what you mean by “international”. See our page on international languages.

       

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