Portuguese - The Language of Empire

Lynne Booker


In world terms Portugal is a tiny country, yet its language is among the ten most spoken languages in the world. Spanish, English, French and Portuguese are languages that have travelled well because they remain as spoken languages in their former colonies. Many other languages of Empire have not travelled well since they are not spoken much outside their homelands. Dutch, German, Russian and Japanese are such examples.


With between 195 and 260 million speakers, Portuguese is the 5th most spoken language in the world. It is the language most widely spoken in the southern hemisphere and the third most spoken in the Western world. In addition to Brazil and Portugal, it is used in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, East Timor and in small communities that once formed part of the Portuguese Empire in Asia and East Africa. Nowadays more than 80% of all of Portuguese speakers are Brazilian.


The Portuguese voyages of discovery took Portuguese speakers into Asia and as far as Japan in the early 16th century. As Portugal consolidated its hold on the trading routes of Asia and built permanent forts and trading posts, the Portuguese language became the first European language to be used as a trading língua franca. Portugal´s long world wide struggle against the Dutch in the 17th century was often, strange as it seems, conducted in the Portuguese language. In the 1650´s, the kings of Ceylon and of Arakan insisted on using Portuguese in their correspondence with the Dutch, even when they were in alliance with the Dutch against the Portuguese!


Dutch was (and is) a more difficult language to learn than Portuguese and, of the two, Asian peoples preferred to use the Portuguese language. Some of the reasons for this choice are as follows: first, Portuguese put down deeper colonial roots, since many emigrants from Portugal intended to stay in Asia, and they forgot all thought of returning to Europe. Dutch emigrants on the other hand normally stayed in Asia only for six years and their influence on the Asian languages was correspondingly less. There are many stories of Portuguese (some of them doubtless escaped criminals) who lived among local people in the hinterland. They too spread their mother tongue.


Second, living in Asia, Portuguese tended to adopt Asian habits to a greater extent than either their Dutch or English competitors. For example, when ships were to be unloaded, Portuguese would pay local people to do the work. The Dutch and English, on the other hand, looked to their costs and saved money by requiring their own sailors to do the work


Third, Asians preferred the religion of the Portuguese. Roman Catholicism has elements of colour and mysticism which are similar to those of Buddhism and Hinduism. There are stories that even now in Sri Lanka, people attend either the Hindu temple, the Buddhist temple or the Roman Catholic church as they feel inclined. Dutch Calvinism is by contrast not colourful and its precepts are less appealing to the Asiatic chaaracter


Fourth, in Batavia, never a Portuguese possession, a Portuguese Creole was introduced by slaves and was spoken by Dutch and half-caste women to the exclusion of their own mother tongue. It is easy to understand that even children born to Dutch parents would pick up local languages before Dutch, and often the language they used was Portuguese. Dutchmen who married Portuguese speaking women usually took their language and even their religion. Van Diemen, Governor of Batavia, once wrote to his superiors in Amsterdam regretting the fact that Portuguese was so much easier to learn than Dutch, his own language.


Portuguese was used in Japan, Persia and Benin in West Africa well into the 18th century, long after the Portuguese Empire had ceased to exist. In 1807, after 150 years of Dutch rule in Ceylon, an English priest was able to report that Portuguese was understood all over that island. Nowadays, a tongue with recognisable Portuguese characteristics is still spoken along the west coast of India and the pidgin of Malacca is known as Kristang (clearly from the Portuguese cristão).


Portuguese adventurers discovered Brazil in about 1500, and the following influx of Portuguese speakers eclipsed the native stone age languages. Over the years, Brazil also accepted more than 3.6 million slaves from different parts of Africa and they perforce had to adopt the language of their masters. When the Dutch took over part of Brazil (the area around Recife which became known as New Holland), the locals would not learn Dutch. In the twenty-five years of Dutch occupation, the number of Brazilians who learned Dutch or adopted the Calvinist religion was very small indeed. In the gold and diamond rushes of the 18th century, there were massive influxes of Portuguese speakers and many more emigrated to Brazil in the early 20th century to work the coffee plantations. The main reason that Portuguese is acknowledged as the official language of Brazil is that Brazil has nearly always enjoyed a political unity and the native Amerindian languages had no protection from European domination..


If Portuguese is to keep its importance as a major world language, it is crucial that there occur no major differences in Brazilian and Portuguese orthography. Since the Implantation of the Republic in Portugal in 1910, negotiations between the two countries on the question of orthography have not run smoothly. It has now become clear that as the Portuguese speaking community in Brazil is so very much larger than that of Portugal, the Brazilian way of writing the language will probably prevail. The latest agreement on orthographical change was made in 1990, and was put into effect in Brazil on 1 January 2009. Despite the fact that over 120 000 Portuguese petitioned to delay the adoption of these changes, Portugal is belatedly following suit as from 1 January 2011. The changes which are now being made are already apparent in the press. Silent consonants are now no longer written, and words which English speakers might have recognised from their written form will now be more difficult to recognise. For example, actor is now ator, contacto is contato, recepção is receção. Strangely, the only silent consonant which remains is H, and so homem, horrível and hotel are still in their old format.


Portuguese is the fourth most learned language in the world, with 30 million students. The language is on the school curriculum in Uruguay and some parts of Argentina; consideration is being given to such a move in Venezuela, the Congo, Côte d´Ivoire, Senegal, South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland and Zambia. Portugal has official language status in a number of organisations but yet not in the United Nations. In October 2005, the Convention of the Elos Clube Internacional took place here in Tavira. This convention agreed a petition: Petição Para Tornar Oficial o Idioma Português na ONU, in addition to the six already official languages. Each of English, French, Arabic and Spanish is the official language of many countries which together comprise more than half of the world´s countries. Whereas Portuguese is the official language of eight sovereign states, English is accepted or official in 53 states, French in 29, Arabic in 25 and Spanish in 20. Although Chinese is the official language in only four states it has well over billion speakers. Four out of every five speakers of the Portuguese-speaking world live in just one out of the eight countries - Brazil.


In the Americas, Portuguese has fewer speakers than Spanish and English; in Europe Portuguese is not even among the ten most spoken languages on the continent; in Africa Portuguese is eclipsed by both English and French; and in Asia, there are several languages with hundreds of millions of speakers and only East Timor acknowledges Portuguese as an official language, and there are only one million East Timorese. It is unlikely that Portuguese will be adopted as an official language in the UN unless there will be a massive upswing in the number of Portuguese speakers; this phenomenon could take place only in Brazil.


The grammar, structure and vocabulary of the Portuguese and Spanish languages are so similar that phonetic differences should not impede intelligibility between them in any significant way, but Portuguese has come to sound very different from its Castilian neighbour. The strange result is that nowadays Portuguese and Brazilians can still follow spoken Spanish, while for most Spaniards and Spanish speaking Americans, Portuguese is quite impenetrable.


At the meetings of the CPLP (Communituy of Portuguese Language Countries) there is always an observer representative from (Spanish) Galicia. The língua galega is very closely related to Portuguese. When in Galicia recently, I asked in Portuguese for a product, and was surprised to be greeted by the Galician as though I were a long lost friend. Speakers of Galician look with longing to their co-linguists over the border in Portugal.


Many people near the borders in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina speak a kind of hybrid of português and español which is referred to as Portuñol. Perhaps there is a future for Portuñol in Europe for both Spanish and Portuguese speakers?