The history of the Portuguese Language

By Adelardo de Medeiros *

Roman Age

Although the Iberian Peninsula had been inhabited long before the Roman invasion, very few signs of the languages spoken by these populations still remain in modern Portuguese.

The Portuguese language, which evolved from spoken Latin, developed on the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula (currently, Portugal and the Spanish province of Galicia) included in the province the Romans called Lusitania. When the Romans invaded the peninsula in 218 B.C., the people living in the region adopted Latin, the Roman’s language, a language representing an intermediate stage between vulgar or common Latin and modern Latin languages ( Portuguese, Castilian, French, etc.).

From 409 AD to 711, Germanic tribes invaded the Iberian Peninsula. The effect of the Germanic migrations on the spoken language was not uniform and broke the linguistic uniformity of the peninsula. The eventual rupture of the linguistic uniformity in the Peninsula shall take place later, leading to particularly different languages. Some influences of that time still remains in the modern Portuguese vocabulary, in such words as roubar (to steal), guerrear (to wage war) and branco (white).

Beginning in 711, when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic became the official language in the conquered regions, although the vast majority of the population continued to speak Romance. Some contributions from the Moor invasion to the current Portuguese vocabulary are arroz (rice), alface (lettuce), alicate (pliers) and refém (hostage).

The period between the 9th century (when Latin-Portuguese documents first appeared) and the 11th one, which is considered as a linguistic transition period, a few Portuguese terms appear in Latin-written texts, but Portuguese (or, more specifically, Galician-Portuguese, its forerunner) is basically spoken in Lusitania only.


When Christians started to reconquer the peninsula the Galician-Portuguese became the spoken and written language of Lusitania. The Arabs were expelled to the South of the Peninsula, where the contact between Arabic and Latin created the Mozarabic dialects: The first regional official documents and literary texts that were not in Latin were written in Galician-Portuguese, such as Cancioneiros (collections of medieval poems):

1. Cancioneiro da Ajuda – Copied (there was no press then) in Portugal around the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th century. It is found in Help Library in Lisboa. Out of its 310 poems, almost all are of love.

2. Cancioneiro da Vaticana – It is related to the 4,803 of the Vatican Library, which was copied in Italy around the end of the 15th century or the beginning of the 16th one. Among its 1,205 poems, there are compositions of every gender.

3. Cancioneiro Colocci-Brancutti – Copied in Italy around the end of the 15th century or the beginning of the 16th one. Discovered in 1878 in Count Paulo Brancutti’s library, in Cagli, Ancona, was acquired by the National Lisboa Library, where it has been located since 1924. Among its 1664 poems, there are compositions of every gender.

As the Christians advanced southward, the northern dialects interacted with the Mozarabic dialects of the South, producing a Portuguese which was different from the Galician-Portuguese. The separation between the Galician and Portuguese languages began with Portugal’s independence in 1185 and was consolidated after the Moors were expelled in 1249 and the Castilian were defeated in 1385 , who sought to conquer Portugal. The literary prose in Portuguese appeared in the 14th century, with Crónica Geral de Espanha (1344), and Livro de Linhagens (Book of Lineages), by Dom Pedro, Count of Barcelona.

Archaic Portuguese

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, when the Portuguese Empire was established overseas, the Portuguese language was heard in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, suffering local influences (found in current language, in such words as jangada (raft), of Malay origin and chá (tea), of Chinese origin. During the Renaissance, the number of Italian expressions and erudite Greek words made Portuguese a more complex and malleable language. The end of this period of consolidation (or archaic Portuguese usage) is marked by the publication of Cancioneiro Geral de Garcia de Resende, in 1516.

Modern Portuguese

Portuguese entered its modern phase in the 16th century when the first grammars defined Portuguese morphology and syntax: When Luis de Camões wrote Os Lusíadas, in 1572, the language was already close to its current structure of phrases and morphology. From then on, language has suffered minor changes: When Portugal was governed by the Spanish royalty (from 1580 to 1640), Portuguese absorbs Castilian words (for example, bobo – fool and granizo – hail); and French influence during the 18th century (mainly noticed in Portugal) causes the metropolitan Portuguese become noticeably different from that spoken in the colonies.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Portuguese vocabulary absorbs new contributions: Words of Greco-Latin origin are inserted into the language to reflect the technological advances , such as included automóvel (car) and televisão (television), as well as English technical words from such fields as medical and computer sciences (for example, checkup and software). The onrush of new words motivated the creation in 1990 of a commission of representatives of the various Portuguese-speaking countries, with a view to creating a uniform technical vocabulary and preventing the introduction of different terms for the same objects from worsening.

Portuguese around the world

Presently, Portuguese ranks the sixth among the most spoken languages around the planet (between 280 and 310 million people), third among the Western languages, after Spanish and English, is the official language in 8 countries (Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Principe islands, and Timor Leste) and in the European Union; non-official languages in some Asian and Oceanic regions (Macau, Goa, Damão, Jaipur, Diu, Málaca, Sri-Lanka, Java, Indonésia, etc.) and is taught as a foreign language in several countries.

In the vast noncontiguous areas of the world where Portuguese is spoken, as with every living language, internal differences and variations are seen in the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. Such distinction, however, does not challenge the basic structure of the language: Despite its history of European expansion and especially outside Europe, Portuguese continues to maintain its considerable cohesion among its many variations.

Portuguese in the Americas

When Portugal started to colonize Brazil (beginning with discovery in the year 1500), tupinambá (the Indian Tupi-Guarani language) was used along with Portuguese as the general language of the colony, primarily because the Jesuit priests studied and taught the Tupi language. When the Jesuits were expelled in 1759, Portuguese became the language of Brazil. From the indigenous languages, Portuguese inherited words associated with flora and fauna (abacaxi – pineapple, mandioca – manioc flour, caju – cashew, tatu – armadillo, piranha – the voracious fish), as well as proper and geographical names.

Due to the influx of African slaves, the language spoken in the colony received a new source of contributions. The African influence in the Brazilian Portuguese, which in some cases reached Europe, came primarily from the Iorubá, spoken by Nigerian slaves (vocabulary linked with Afro-Brazilian religion and cuisine) and from the Angolan Quimbundo language (words like caçula – the youngest child, moleque – a street child and samba – the dance samba).

During the 18th century, other differences between the American and European Portuguese developed., when the language spoken in colonial Language failed to adopt linguistic changes taking place in the Portuguese speaking (primarily produced by French influence), remaining loyal to the pronunciation used at the time of its discovery. Between 1808 and 1821, when the Portuguese royal entourage, after their country had been invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte‘s troops, took refuge in Brazil, they helped to strongly reapproximate the language spoken in the big cities.

After Brazilian independence (1822), the Portuguese spoken in Brazil was influenced by European immigrants who had migrated to the central and southern parts of the country.

In the 20th century, the distinction between the European and Brazilian Portuguese heightened as a result of the new technological innovations of that period: Portuguese lacking a uniform procedure to incorporate new words, some words took different forms in different countries (comboio and trem – train, autocarro e önibus – bus, pedágio and portage – road toll). Moreover, the indivualism and nationalism characterizing the romantic movement in the beginning of the century began promoting the creation of a national literature written in the Brazilian variety of the Portuguese language, such an statement was reintroduced by the Modernist writers, who, in 1922, struggled for the need to break with the traditional Portuguese models and emphasize the peculiarities of the Brazilian speaking. The breach conquered by the Modernist writers consecrated the Brazilian standard in literature.

Portuguese in Africa

In Angola and Moçambique, where Portuguese, along with several indigenous languages, was more strongly implemented as a spoken language, an incredibly pure Portuguese is spoken, despite having a few signs of its own, which, as a whole, are Lusitanian archaic or dialect modes similar to those found in Brazil. So slight was the influence of the black languages over the Angolan and Mozambiquean Portuguese that it does not go beyond the local lexicon.

In all other Portuguese-speaking African countries, the language is used in administration, teaching, press and foreign affairs. In everyday situations, national or Portuguese-derived crioulo languages are used as well. In some countries, however understandable among one another, the rise of more than one crioulo was noticed.


Walter, Henriette (1994), A Aventura das Línguas do Ocidente – A sua Origem, a sua História, a sua Geografia (tradução de Manuel Ramos). Terramar, Lisboa, Portugal.

Azevedo Filho, Leodegário A, História da Literatura Portuguesa – V I: A Poesia dos Trovadores Galego-Portugueses. Edições Tempo Brasileiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Mattos e Silva, Rosa V, O Português Arcaico – Morfologia e Sintaxe. Editora Contexto, São Paulo, Brazil.

Ferreira, Carlota e outro, Diversidade do Português do Brasil: Estudos de Dialectologia Rural e Outros, 2a edição (revista). UFBA, Salvador, Brazil.

Cunha, Celso e Cintra, Luis F. Lindley (1985), Nova Gramática do Português Contemporâneo, cap. 2, pp. 9-14. Editora Nova Fronteira, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Cuesta, Pilar V. e Mendes da Luz, Maria A. (1971), Gramática da Língua Portuguesa, pp. 119-154. Coleção Lexis, Edições 70, Lisboa, Portugal.

Novo Dicionário Aurélio da Língua Portuguesa, 2ª edição, 1986). Editora Nova Fronteira, São Paulo, Brazil.

Almanaque Abril, 20a (1994) e 21a (1995) edições. Editora Abril, São Paulo, Brazil.

Culbert, Sidney S. (1987), The principal languages of the World, em The World Almanac and Book of Facts – 1987, p. 216. Pharos Books, New York, EUA.

* Dr. Adelardo de Madeiros, PhD specialized in Robotics for the UPS – University Paul Sabatier, in Toulouse, France – 02/1997. Thesis made in the LAAS/CNRS (Laboratory of Analysis and Architecture of Systems), in the RIA (Robotic and Artificial Intelligence) group

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15 Responses to The history of the Portuguese Language

  1. Assissotom says:

    thanks for letting me view your guest book and giving me all the information

  2. Lily says:

    Fascinating article – Obrigada x

  3. Pingback: In Love with Lisbon » The History of the Portuguese Language

  4. MOOXOPSINNA says:

    Very good. Thanks for this article.

  5. Nekita Boukeusthy says:

    Excellent article. Written very well. Congratulations

  6. Patric O'nil says:

    Although not to speak and not even to understand. I find that the sounds of the Portuguese language are poetries

  7. Boo says:

    It’s great to know that the Portuguese was effected by the Arabic language.
    Portuguese langage is really beautiful and I’d love to read Lusíadas.
    Thanks for the article.

  8. Derek Harper says:

    Excellent article well done.

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  10. I liked reading it. I would like to see more.

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  13. Jim Parsons says:

    It’s always fascinating to learn the history of languages. I would have never guessed that Portuguese was the sixth most spoken language in the world! Being that it’s third among Western languages, I’d say I should look into some lessons.

  14. Pingback: The History of the Portuguese Language « In Love With Lisbon

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