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Você sabia? Seven Interesting Facts about the Portuguese Language

Jorge Sette By Jorge Sette Published on November 4, 2015

Have you ever been to Brazil, Portugal or any other Portuguese-speaking country, or planned a trip to one? Do you have to deal with Portuguese-speaking customers for business? Are you in love with a native speaker of Portuguese? If you answered yes to any of these questions, maybe you’ll be interested in the information below.

1. Portuguese, one of the Romance languages (which are derived from vulgar Latin), is the official language of Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe. It’s also one of the official languages of Macau and East Timor. The first language of some 220 million people, it’s the fifth-ranked language in the world for number of native speakers. Together with Spanish, it’s also the fastest growing language in the world after English, with the highest potential for growth as an international language in South America and southern Africa.

2. Oral forms of Brazilian and European Portuguese can be very different, especially in their phonology and vocabulary. When I first went to Portugal to work as a teacher of Brazilian Portuguese as a foreign language, I would sometimes speak English to Portuguese colleagues over the phone to make sure I understood what they were saying. It doesn’t take long to adapt, though. Written Portuguese, on the other hand, is easily understood by all native speakers.

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3. José Saramago is the only Portuguese-language writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was in 1998. His novels tend to mix a dreamlike, surreal atmosphere with ironic, pragmatic insights about reality. He was a communist of strong convictions. North Americans were once shocked when he compared the treatment of Palestinians to the Holocaust. Saramago was a late bloomer: he wrote his first novel at age 23 but then didn’t publish anything else for 30 years. His career took off only when he was in his late 50s. Some of his books have been turned into movies, such as Blindness (Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira), with Julianne Moore, and Enemy (based on The Double, or O Homem Duplicado), with Jake Gyllenhaal.

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4. Many of the late Portuguese movie director and screenwriter Manoel de Oliveira’s movies were shown with subtitles in Brazilian theaters. Brazilians aren’t usually exposed to spoken European Portuguese and may find it hard to understand. On the other hand, Portuguese people watch many Brazilian soap operas and are therefore more used to the Brazilian variety of the language.

5. The members of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) have been trying to standardize our spelling system since the beginning of the 20th century. The last agreement was signed in the city of Fortaleza, Brazil, in 2009, but not all members took part in the meeting. Of course, it didn’t satisfy everyone, which is typical of sweeping mandatory changes in any area of social life. Its main advantages are the reduction of production and adaptation costs in publishing, greater ease in teaching Portuguese as a foreign language and the simplification of some complicated spelling rules. The signatory countries allowed for a grace period when old and new spellings would coexist, but at the end of the period, the new rules will become compulsory. The grace period varies depending on the country.

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6. The Museum of the Portuguese Language was founded in 2006 in São Paulo, Brazil, the city with the greatest number of Portuguese speakers in the world. The museum holds periodic thematic exhibitions on authors: writers, poets, and playwrights. It has a strong element of interactivity, which makes it a huge attraction for children. According to Wikipedia, it’s the first museum of its kind in the world.

Note: a number of weeks after we wrote this article, the Museum of the Portuguese Language was partially destroyed by a fire. It happened on Dec 21st, 2015. As of this writing, investigations are still going on as to the origin and cause of the fire. The local authorities claim the Museum's collection is fully digitalized so nothing was lost. São Paulo's governor promised the museum will be fully reconstructed.

7. Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso wrote a great song about the Brazilian variety of the language. The lyrics highlight key features of the local language and boast of its capacity to incorporate, adapt and transform innovative words and expressions borrowed from other languages. His hit song of the mid-80s, Língua, is a hymn to Brazilian Portuguese, opening with these proud and provocative lines:

Gosto de sentir a minha língua roçar    I like to feel my tongue (language) rub
Na língua de Luís de Camões    Against the tongue (language) of Luís de Camões.
Gosto de ser e de estar    I like to be. (Note: The verb to be appears in its two meanings in Portuguese.)
E quero me dedicar    And I wish to dedicate myself
A criar confusões de prosódia    To the creation of a confusion of prosodies
E um profusão de paródias    And a profusion of parodies,
Que encurtem dores    Which can soothe pains
E furtem cores como camaleões    And steal colors like chameleons.
Gosto do Pessoa na pessoa    I like Pessoa as a person. (Note: Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa)
Da rosa no Rosa    I like roses in Rosa. (Note: Brazilian writer Guimarães Rosa, famous for coining radically new words in his novels)
E sei que a poesia está para a prosa    And I know poetry is to prose
Assim como o amor está para a amizade    Just what love is to friendship.
E quem há de negar que esta lhe é superior    And who’s to deny that the latter is superior?
E quem há de negar que esta lhe é superior    And who’s to deny that the latter is superior?
E deixa os portugais morrerem à míngua    And let the Portuguese die in poverty.
Minha pátria é minha língua    My homeland is my language.

If you’re thinking of learning a foreign language, don’t discount Portuguese; Brazil, despite its current economic crisis, is a booming democracy, and its future looks bright. Sooner than you expect, you might be offered job opportunities here or need to talk to Portuguese speakers in their native language.

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More