The History of the Portuguese Language

Portugal , one of the smaller European countries, occupying about a sixth of the Iberian Peninsula, has given rise to one of the world’s great languages, spoken in Brazil (and therefore by over half the inhabitants of South America) and used as a lingua franca in the former Portuguese colonies in Africa and Asia.

Portuguese belongs to the Romance group of languages, the product of the early Romanization of the largely Celtic peoples who had spread across the Pyrenees during the first millennium BC. They dominated the Western seaboard until the Romans succeeded in subduing the major tribe, the Gallaeci, towards the end of the 2nd century BC. The name ‘Portugal’ comes from Portus Cale, a major pre-Roman and Roman settlement at the mouth of the Douro.

After five centuries of Roman rule the Iberian Peninsula was overrun by East Germanic tribes responding to land shortage due to climatic changes and population pressure and triggered by the advance of the Huns. They reached Spain in 409 AD. During this period of the Barbarian Migrations, the Suebi occupied the southern part of the Roman province of Gallaecia to the north of the Douro and expanded into the province of Lusitania (central Portugal), eventually controlling most of the Iberian Peninsula until the Visigoths were brought in to check them. Control by the descendants of the Germanic tribes endured until the Muslim invasion of 711. Throughout this time the area that was to become Portugal retained major administrative boundaries that broadly reflected the earlier Roman provincial organization.

Traditionally Portugal’s emergence as a separate kingdom is dated from 1139, when Afonso Henriques, Count of Portugal, began using the title of king after defeating the Muslims at the battle of Ourique. His title was formally conceded in 1179 when he placed Portugal under the protection of the Holy See.

Evidence for a distinctive Portuguese language goes back to the 9th century AD but its modern form is considered to have begun to emerge in the 16th century. A landmark event in this process was the publication in 1516 of Cancioneiro Geral by Garcia de Resende (1470-1536). This massive compilation contained work by over two hundred authors, in both Castilian and Portuguese, whose work spanned the second half of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. It covered a wide range of themes: love poetry, satire, epigrams, religious and epic-historical verse. The author’s aim was to celebrate contemporary and past Portuguese achievements, and the Cancioneiro Geral marks the transition between mediaeval and classical Portuguese literature.

Modern Portuguese, in common with other European languages, created many new words based on classical Latin and Greek, and also borrowed freely from other Romance languages such as French and Italian and its large neighbour, Spain. A number of English words such as beef and football have also entered the language, which is unsurprising given the historical connections between England and Portugal. Significant English involvement dates back to the 12th century but was given formal recognition by the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, which cemented a binding alliance between the two countries.

Portuguese contains much evidence of its past. Obviously as it is a Romance language most of its older words have a Latin origin and in fact few have survived from any pre-Roman languages. However there is a significant Arabic contribution reflecting six centuries of Arabic control until the completion of the Reconquest of Portugal by Afonso III in the 1350’s. Upwards of a thousand words are derived from Arabic, many recognizable because they start with forms of the Arabic definite article e.g. aldeia ‘village’, armacem ‘warehouse’ and azeite ‘olive oil’.

As a major colonial and trading nation Portugal came into close contact with many other cultures and languages and words from these sources also contribute to the range and colour of the Portuguese lexicon.