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Classification: Indo-European, Italic, Romance.

Overview. Portuguese originated from Vulgar Latin spoken in the western Iberian Peninsula, in the Roman Empire provinces of Gallaecia and Lusitania. During the Kingdom of Galicia, Portuguese and Galician were indistinguishable but when part of the Kingdom fell under Castilian rule and Portugal became independent in 1128, Galician-Portuguese evolved slowly into two different languages. In the Middle Ages, Portuguese spread to overseas colonies in America, Asia, and Africa becoming the seventh largest language.

Distribution. Portuguese is spoken in Portugal, Brazil, and in several former colonies in Africa and Asia. Among the former, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé-Príncipe, and Cape Verde. Among the latter, Goa in India, Malacca in Malaysia, Macau in China, and East Timor.

Speakers. Portuguese has more than 206 million native speakers in the following countries:




India (in Goa)


East Timor



Cape Verde

São Tomé and Príncipe


10, 500,000









Status: Portuguese is the official language of nine countries: Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and East Timor.

Varieties. The standard form of European Portuguese is that of Lisbon and Coimbra. Other varieties are Northern Portuguese, Central Portuguese, Southern Portuguese, Insular Portuguese and Brazilian.

Oldest Documents

  1. 1200.A Cantiga d'Escárnho by Joan Soarez de Paiva, attacking the King of Navarre for invading the territories of the king of Aragon, is the first literary text in the Galician-Portuguese language.

  1. 1214.Testament of Alfonso II, the third king of Portugal.

  1. 1216.Noticia de Torto, recording a disagreement about a rural property.


Vowels. Portuguese has one of the most complex vowel systems within the Romance languages. It includes 8 oral and 5 nasal vowels  which combine to give many diphthongs.

  1. a) Monophthongs (13):


  1. b) Diphthongs (17):


Consonants (21). The Portuguese consonant system is less complex than its vowel system. It includes three pairs of stops and three pairs of fricatives, each pair contrasting voiceless and voiced sounds. The other consonants are three nasals, four liquids and two glides. The liquids include a dental flap (weak r-sound) and an uvular trill (strong r-sound); and two laterals (l-sounds).


Stress: generally stress falls on the penultimate syllable, and in verbs on the final vowel of the stem. It falls on the last syllable of a word when it contains an oral diphthong, a nasal vowel, or ends in l, r, z.

Script and Orthography

Portuguese is written with a Latin script of 26 letters (below each one, is shown its equivalent in the International Phonetic Alphabet):


  1. vowel nasalization is fairly predictable e.g. when a vowel is followed by m or n at the the end of a syllable. Nasalization of [a] and [o] may be indicated with a tilde.

  2. When they are stressed, the mid front vowels are differentiated with acute and circumflex accents: é is [ɛ], ê is [e].

  3. When they are stressed, the central vowels are differentiated with acute and circumflex accents: á is [a], â is [ɐ].

  4. the palatal nasal [ɲ] is written with the digraph nh.

  5. the alveolar flap [ɾ] is written r.

  6. the uvular liquid [ʀ] is written with the digraph rr, or with r word initially.

  7. the palatal liquid [ʎ] is written with the digraph lh.


  1. Nominal

  2. case: no morphological case marking.

  1. gender: masculine, feminine. Nouns ending in o are usually masculine, those ending in a are usually feminine, those ending in other vowels or in a consonant can be masculine or feminine. Adjectives not ending in the gender marker a, are generally masculine.

  1. number: singular, plural. Singular is unmarked, plural is marked by -(e)s. Some nouns experience also changes in the stem.

  1. articles: indefinite, definite. The indefinite articles are: um (masculine), uma (feminine), and their plurals uns, umas. The definite articles are: o (masculine singular), a (feminine singular), and their plurals os, as.

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, indefinite.

  2. Personal pronouns are strong or weak (clitic). Strong pronouns function as subject or as objects when prepositions are used. Weak pronouns function as direct or indirect objects without prepositions. Third person pronouns distinguish gender.


  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish three degrees (proximal, distal, remote) and three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter). All, except the neuter forms (which are only singular), may be used as adjectives.


  1. The interrogative pronouns are quem (‘who?’), que (‘what?’), qual, quais (‘which?’), quanto, quantos, quanta, quantas (‘how much?/how many?’).

  1. The relative pronouns are the invariable que (‘that, what, who’) and quem (‘who/he who’) as well the inflected for number, and more formal, qual/quais (‘which’).

  1. Verbal. In contrast with the nominal system, the verbal system of Portuguese is highly inflected. There are also many irregular verbs. Portuguese has two words for the verb ‘to be’: ser is usually equivalent to the copula, denoting an inherent quality, while estar refers to a resultant state.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tense: present, imperfect, preterite, pluperfect, future, and conditional, plus a number of periphrastic tenses which are formed with the auxiliary verb ter (‘to have’) + the past participle. The pluperfect is rarely used in the spoken language. The preterite has no compound tense. The conjugation of falar (‘to talk’) is as follows:


  1. aspectimperfective, perfective.

  1. mood: indicative (all tenses), subjunctive (present, imperfect, future), imperative (present). For example:


  1. voice: active, passive. The passive voice is formed with ser (‘to be’) plus the past participle.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive (simple, compound), present participle or gerund (simple, compound), past participle. The Portuguese infinitive is inflected for person and number and is used to avoid subordinate clauses or specifications of tense/mood.

  1. simple infinitive: falar, falares, falar, falarmos, falardes, falarem

  2. compound infinitive: ter falado, teres falado, ter falado, termos falado, terdes falado, terem

  3. falado

  4. present gerund: falando

  5. past gerund: tendo falado

  6. past participle: falado


    The basic word order is Subject-Verb-Object but VS is common with intransitive verbs. Negation is expressed by using não before the verb. Interrogation is conveyed by intonation, by means of é que, by a tag question or by an interrogative pronoun/adverb. Inversion is the rule after the latter.

    Portuguese uses prepositions to indicate syntactical relations. Most adjectives and genitives follow their head noun; adverbs follow the verb they modify. Adjectives agree with their nouns in gender and number, and the verb agrees with the subject in person and number. Subject pronouns are frequently dropped.


Portuguese borrowed in pre-Roman times from Celtic, and after the Romans from German and Arabic which contributed with some one-thousand words. Brazilian Portuguese has also some words of African and Tupi origin (an Amerindian language).

Basic Vocabulary

one: um

two: dois

three: três

four: quatro

five: cinco

six: seis

seven: sete

eight: oito

nine: nove

ten: dez

hundred: cem/cento

father: pai

mother: mãe

brother: irmão

sister: irmã

son: filho

daughter: filha

head: cabeça

face: cara

eye: olho

hand: mão

foot: pé

heart: coração

tongue: língua

Key Literary Works (forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Portuguese Language. J. Mattoso Câmara. University of Chicago Press (1972).

  2. -História da Língua Portuguesa. P. Teyssier. Sá da Costa, Lisbon (1982).

  3. -Portuguese: A Linguistic Introduction. M. M. Azevedo. (Cambridge University Press (2005).

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