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Portuguese belongs to the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family. It is spoken in Portugal, Brazil, and in the Portuguese colonial and formerly colonial territories of AngolaMozambiqueCape VerdeSão Tome e Principe,Guinea-BissauGoaMacau, and East TimorEthnologue estimates the worldwide population of first-language speakers of Portuguese at around 180 million people.

After the Roman conquest of the Iberian peninsulaVulgar Latinreplaced 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. It was used for colonial administration, trade, and communication between locals and Europeans of all nationalities. Some Portuguese-speaking communities in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia preserved the language even after they were isolated from Portugal. Some of these languages eventually evolved into Portuguese-based creoles. At the same time, Portuguese words entered the vocabulary of widely spread languages, e.g., pan ‘bread’ in Japanese borrowed from Portuguese pão, sepatu ‘shoe’ in Indonesian borrowed from Portuguese sapato, and meza ‘table’ in Swahili borrowed from Portuguese mesa.

Portuguese spread worldwide in the 15th and 16th centuries as Portugal created a far-reaching colonial and commercial empire, spanning from Brazil in the Americas to Macau in China. As a result, Portuguese is now the official language of several independent countries and is widely spoken as a second language in many others.

Today, Portuguese is the national language of Portugal (10 million speakers), Brazil (164 million), Angola (58,000),Cape Verde Islands, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique (30,000 first-language speakers; about 30% of the population speak it as a second language). It is spoken as a first language in different parts of the world by an estimated total of close to 180 million first-language and 15 million second-language speakers (Ethnologue).

Portugal 10,000 official language
Brazil 163,153,389 official language
Cape Verde Islands 15,000 official language
France 750,000 no status
Guinea-Bissau no estimate official language
Mozambique 30,000 1st language and 6 million 2nd language speakers

In addition, a number of Portuguese-based Creoles are spoken around the world. Originally spoken over a wider area, Portuguese-based creoles are presently spoken by over a million people in São Tomé e Principe, Cape Verde Islands, and Guinea-Bissau. Elsewhere in the world, they are almost extinct.

Sãotomense 70,000 São Tomé e Principe
Kabuverdianu 926,078 Cape Verde Islands
Crioulo, Upper Guinea 392,350 1st and over 600,000 2nd language speakers Guinea-Bissau

In 1986, Portuguese became an official language of the European Union (EU). In 1996, the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries (CPLP in Portuguese) 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.


Portuguese is a pluricentric language, i.e., it has two standard versions, in both spoken and in written forms.

There are two main groups of dialects: those of the Iberian peninsula and those of Brazil. The differences between the two involve pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Portuguese varieties spoken in Africa and Asia are closer to those of Portugal than of Brazil. The dialects of Iberian Portuguese are better studied than those of Brazilian Portuguese. Standard Portuguese of Portugal is based on Southern dialect as spoken in the Portuguese capital Lisbon. Although standard written Brazilian Portuguese was originally based on standard European Portuguese, there are differences between the two involving spelling, lexicon,spelling, and to a lesser extent grammar. In addition, Portuguese has given rise to Portuguese-based creoles in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.


Sound system
Since Portuguese spoken in Portugal differs from Portuguese spoken in Brazil, the differences between the two have to be taken into account in describing the sound system. Overall, Portuguese has one of the largest vowel inventories of all Romance languages and a relatively simple system of consonants.

Portuguese has one of the richest vowel phonologies of all Romance languages, with 9 oral vowels in European Portuguese and 7 oral vowels in Brazilian Portuguese.The vowels charts for the two varieties of Portuguese which are given below are based on Wikipedia.

Oral vowels of European Portuguese


Oral vowels of Brazilian Portuguese
  • Nasal vowels are produced with a lowered velum, or soft palate, causing the air to escape through both the nose and the mouth. Oral vowels are plain vowels produced without nasalization.
  • The oral vowels /i, e, ɐ, u, o/ have nasal counterparts. Nasalization makes a difference in word meaning.
  • /i/ = beet
  • /e/ = bait
  • /ɛ/ = bet
  • /a/ = bat (some dialects)
  • /u/ = boot
  • /o/ = boat
  • /ɔ/ = bog
  • /ɯ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ɐ/ has no equivalent in English


Stops voiceless
Fricatives voiceless
Affricates voiceless
  • /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
  • /ʁ/ has a variety of realizations depending on the dialect.

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.

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


  • 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 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 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.’

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

Portuguese word Borrowed from
roubar Germanic raubon ‘to rob’
saga Gothic saega ‘saga’
xerife Arabic sharif ‘noble’
alcova Arabic al-qobbah ‘the vaulted chamber’
manga Malay mangga ‘mango’
cha Mandarin Chinese cha ‘tea’
banana possibly Wolof banana

Below are some basic words and phrases in Portuguese.

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.



Written materials in Portuguese date back to the late 12th century. Literary works appeared in the 13th and 14th centuries. Today, 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
English translation

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

Declaração Universal dos Direitos Humanos
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?

Portuguese words in English
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’



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.

13 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:

    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!

    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.


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