Portuguese is one of the most popular languages on Duolingo—in early 2022 it returned to the global top 10—and it's spoken by more than 250 million people around the world! It’s the official language of 10 countries and territories on 4 continents.
While you may associate Portuguese with Port wine and Rio de Janeiro, its influence is more widespread. But how did Portuguese make it across the globe?
Sail with us through the history of the Portuguese language—from sailors looking for Finisterra (the Edge of the World), to conquest, cultural mixing, and global spread. Adiante!
The early origins of Portuguese
Portuguese is a Romance language, like Spanish and French, and so it owes its linguistic origins to Latin: There’s evidence of Romans in Iberia—the peninsula that modern-day Portugal shares with Spain, Andorra, and Gibraltar—as early as 218 BC.
But Portuguese started long before that! There were many languages spoken in Western Iberia before the Romans arrived, and there are traces of these non-Romance languages in Portuguese to this day. Today, there are about 1,500 Portuguese words that came from the different Celtic groups that inhabited the region, including the Celtici, the Gallaeci, and the Lusitanians (where the word Lusitano "a Portuguese person" comes from!):
- carro (car), from Celtic karro
- menino/menina (child), from Celtic menno
A new Latin dialect survives invaders
With the fall of Rome in the 5th Century CE, Germanic tribes like the Suevi and the Visigoths made their way West, settling in the Iberian Peninsula.
At this point, the region was populated by speakers of a particular dialect of Latin as well as the languages of the Celts, Lusitanians, and now the Germanic tribes. The evolving dialect of Latin soon adopted local pronunciations, words, and grammar and became a variety called Galician-Portuguese. This new dialect included some very non-Latin words that have stood the test of time and are still used in Portuguese today:
- guerra (war), from Gothic wirro)
- roupa (clothes), from West Germanic rauba
In the 8th century CE, the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula—these were Arabic speakers hailing from North Africa. They conquered the Celtic-Germanic-Lusitanian-Roman (whew!) communities, and Arabic was formally adopted for official and governmental purposes—although most of the non-Muslim population continued to speak Romance dialects like Galician-Portuguese. For the next five centuries, these diverse groups interacted and shared their cultures… and mixed their languages! About 400-800 words in Portuguese come from Arabic, including:
- açúcar (sugar), from as-sukkar
- garrafa (bottle), from ḡurfa
- xadrez (chess), from šaṭranj
Portuguese sets out on its own
During the reign of the Moors, Galician-Portuguese was written down for the first time, and its use was widespread. In fact, it was used as the language of lyric poetry in Christian Hispania, which means that medieval Iberian bards sung in a language that modern-day Portuguese speakers would understand!
The many dialects of Galician-Portuguese grew increasingly distinct, and new languages emerged: Portuguese in the west of the Peninsula, Galician in Galicia in northern Spain, and Fala in western Spain.
More big moments were ahead for Portuguese: Portugal declared independence from León (in modern-day Spain) in 1143, and in 1290 the University of Lisbon was created and the Portuguese King Diniz ordered Portuguese to be used instead of Latin whenever possible. Portuguese had become the de facto language of the kingdom—and was ready to take on the world.
Portuguese reaches every continent
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal's seafaring explorers set out to conquer the world: They seized Ceuta in north Africa, discovered Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa, crossed the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and established a direct naval route to India. And in 1500, the Portuguese set foot in Brazil, which was named Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross—although not quite an ilha!).
Now with well-traveled routes from Europe to South America, Africa, and south Asia, the Portuguese also sent their language around the world. In the 16th century, Portuguese had effectively become the lingua franca—language used between people who don't speak each other's language—in Africa and Asia. It was used for colonial administration and trade, as well as for communication between local officials and Europeans of all nationalities. In Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), many kings learned Portuguese, and the language eventually made its way to Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia as well.
The Portuguese you know—and love—today
Portuguese continued to grow and evolve everywhere it was spoken, whether as a lingua franca or as the community's main language. During the Renaissance, scholars and writers borrowed many words from Classical Latin and Ancient Greek, increasing the complexity of the Portuguese lexicon. In 1536, Fernão de Oliveira published his Grammatica da lingoagem portuguesa in Lisbon, the first Portuguese grammar.
Although Portuguese has roots in the Iberian Peninsula, Brazil became the flagship of the Portuguese language around the world, especially after its independence in 1822. About 200 million of all Portuguese speakers are Brazilian, and Brazilian Portuguese is the most recognizable and widespread of the Portuguese dialects. It's also the language of futebol, samba, and carnaval!
Brazilian poet Olavo Bilac described the beauty of this global language in his renowned poem Língua Portuguesa: Última flor do Lácio, inculta e bela—the last flower of Latium (historical region of Roma), simple and beautiful. 💐
From Portugal to Finisterra… and beyond!
From a small, provincial dialect in the northwestern Iberian Peninsula, to a cosmopolitan mix of Celtic, Latin, Germanic, and Arabic languages, Portuguese today has become one of the most spoken languages in the world and the biggest language in the Southern Hemisphere. But we could always use one more! Combinado? 😉