Overview of the Portuguese Language
The Portuguese language ranks second after Spanish as the most widely
spoken Romance language. It also ranks eighth in the world in terms of
number of speakers. In Brazil, more than 150 million people speak
Brazilian Portuguese. In Portugal, another 10 million people speak
European Portuguese. There are even some 4.6 million people in Africa
who speak Portuguese. Plus, did you know that there are around half a
million people who speak Portuguese in the United States?
Standard Continental Portuguese is a modern version of the colloquial
Latin spoken by the Romans who occupied the Iberian Peninsula for more
than half a millennium. It was a simplified version of Latin that
avoided passive verbs forms, complicated tenses, and the entire
declension system. The Portuguese language was also influenced by the
consecutive invasions of Visigoths and Muslims in later years. Plus,
there have been strong influences from France and Spain due to the
proximity of those countries to Portugal.
In medieval times, there were two main dialects of Portuguese:
Galician-Portuguese (which was spoken in the Northwestern region of the
Iberian Peninsula) and Luso-Mozarabic (which was spoken in the region
under Muslim control between the Mondego and Tagus Rivers). During the
11th and 12th centuries, the conquest of the Muslim-controlled
territory and the imposition of permanent boundaries caused the two
dialects to merge, giving birth to the Portuguese language. The first
written documents in the Portuguese language date from the late 12th
century, and literary works appeared soon after.
The history of Brazilian Portuguese begins in 1500 with the
colonization of Brazil by Portugal. The language did not take hold
until the Jesuits (who learned and promoted the Tupi and Guarani
languages) were expelled in 1759 and the Tupi language was banned by
Brazilian Portuguese varies from European Portuguese in many respects,
including vocabulary and pronunciation. Many of the differences can be
attributed to the influence of the languages of the indigenous
populations of Brazil and to the absorbtion of African words brought
over by slaves. Moreover, while Continental Portuguese was heavily
influenced by the French language during the 18th century, Brazilian
Portuguese was not affected by those changes. Also, Portuguese
pronunciation differs from region to region in Brazil, depending on the
settlement patterns of European immigrants.
English words of Brazilian Portuguese origin include tapioca, petunia, piranha, cashew,
ipecac, macaw and toucan. English words that come from Continental Portuguese vocabulary include lingo, fandango, albino, brocade, and molasses.
As you are learning Portuguese, you’ll notice that some Portuguese
vocabulary words look or sound deceptively like English– but watch
out! Don’t assume that a Portuguese vocabulary word always means what
you think it does. For example, if you tell someone they are breve, you are not complimenting them on their bravery– you are calling
them brief! If you describe something as grosso, you are saying it is thick. Férias has
nothing to do with fairies or ferries: it means vacation.
Formal and Informal Address in the Portuguese Language
An English speaker who is learning Portuguese may be interested in the
concept of formal and informal address in Continental Portuguese. When
you speak Portuguese to an older person, or to someone you don’t know
very well, you should use the formal você form of address. When speaking Continental Portuguese to a child, a good friend, or a family member, use the informal tu form of address instead.
Brazilians have dropped the distinction between you-formal and you-familiar that exists in
Continental Portuguese. You should use the formal você form of address for all occasions when you speak Portuguese in Brazil.
An interesting note: despite the existence of the você form, it is customary in both European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese
to address someone in the third person in order to be polite. For example, you might say
Como está a senhora? (How is the lady?) when speaking to a woman you don’t know very
Portuguese Pronunciation and Portuguese Grammar
Some aspects of Portuguese pronunciation may seem unusual to native
English speakers learning Portuguese. The use of nasalized vowels, for
example, requires some practice. Ways that nasalized vowels are
indicated in Portuguese spelling include an ‘m’ or ‘n’ after the vowel,
or a tilde (~) over the vowel.
Unlike English, Portuguese nouns have gender. When you learn Portuguese vocabulary, it is important to learn the gender of
nouns and to make sure that adjectives agree with the nouns they modify. For example,
mulher simpática (friendly woman) and homen simpático (friendly man) demonstrate how
adjectives change their endings to agree with the gender of feminine and masculine nouns.
Regular practice is necessary to learn to speak Portuguese well. That’s why good Portuguese software programs can be so important. It’s easier than ever to learn Portuguese and to begin to speak Portuguese with the language
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