Saturday, May 27, 2017

Language facts: Portuguese and its spelling reform

Portuguese is the official language of Portugal and Brazil, a number of African nations, as well as an official EU language. Portuguese is a Romance language that originated in what is now Galicia (Spain) and northern Portugal. It is derived from the Latin language spoken by the Romanized Pre-Roman peoples of the Iberian Peninsula around 2,000 years ago. The language spread worldwide in the 15th and 16th centuries as Portugal established a colonial and commercial empire. It is one of the world's major languages, ranked 6th according to number of native speakers (approx 180 million). Together with Spanish, Portuguese is the fastest growing language in Europe. 

Lisbon, Portugal.

One language, two separate spellings

After the Portuguese Republic was established in 1911, a lot of efforts were put into standardisation of Portugal's orthography, for a very noble reason of increasing literacy of its people. It's rather interesting that unlike French and Spanish, Portuguese actually had no official spelling until 1911, and people literally wrote at will. After the new standard became official in Portugal, it was adopted also in the (then Portuguese) overseas territories of Angola, Cape Verde, East Timor, Moçambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, and Portuguese-controlled Indian territories.

However, the country with most Portuguese native speakers in the world, Brazil, was never consulted about the 1911 reform, and thus did not accept it. After decades-long negotiations, Brazil finally introduced its own orthography in 1938, based on an agreement with Portugal from 1931 that defined the general orthographic principles.

Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that the orthographies, albeit similar, were not identical. In some cases, there was different spelling between the two language variants due to differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese pronunciation.

In 1990 (sic!), after a series of failed negotiations, The Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement was reached. Ratified in 2004 in Brazil and in 2008 in Portugal, the Agreement has been mandatory since January 1st, 2015 in all Portuguese-speaking nations in the world.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Stark reality, however, suggests the two countries have not managed to meet the goal of merging their languages. The peoples of Brazil and Portugal still use different words and expressions for the same ideas, concepts and things. Especially in technical translation, where idioma is very active, the expressions differ. Despite the good intent of the language reform mediators, it is indeed difficult to make two countries merge into a common language and apply it 100%. Brazil and Portugal are still not there, and all the other other Portuguese enclaves are probably even further afar, many of them, like Moçambique, taking in loanwords from neighboring countries.


Portuguese uses 23 letters of the Latin alphabet with five types of diacritics, as Portuguese also recognizes Á, Â, Ã, À, Ç, É, Ê, Í, Ó, Ô, Õ, Ú. These are not regarded as independent letters and do not have separate entries in dictionaries. 


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