The sixth most spoken language in the world by the number of native speakers, and one of the fastest growing European languages, Portuguese is the sole official language of eight countries, forming the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP): Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and East Timor. Beside these territories, dialects and languages which are corrupted versions of Portuguese, mutually understandable to a degree, abound in the most remote areas of the globe, from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.

The fact that the language of a country with less than 11 million inhabitants is spoken by almost 300 million people worldwide, on every continent, is rooted in a story of bravery, artfulness and exploration. Once called “the sweet and gracious language” by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, and “a última flor do Lácio, inculta e bela” (‘the last flower of Latium, rustic and beautiful’) by Brazilian poet and translator Olavo Bilac, Portuguese has a rich phonetic system, including nasalized sounds, which makes learning it a complex process. Whereas neighboring Spanish has five vowel sounds only, Portuguese has no less than thirteen vowel tones, rendering it surprisingly musical. The language, which divided in two main varieties, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, has its dedicated interactive museum in São Paolo, designed to offer a living representation of Portuguese, both amazing and educating visitors by unusual and unfamiliar features of their native tongue. You may find below several such aspects that foreigners who learn Portuguese may find strange, entertaining, or simply fascinating. In the words of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago,Se podes olhar, vê. Se podes ver, repara (‘If you can look, see. If you can see, notice.’).

Portuguese gave the world terms such as cobra, flamingo, piranhajaguar, and emu, adopted during the glorious Age of Discovery, when Portugal founded an overseas empire and its language was heard in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Japanese borrowed many words from Portuguese at the time, including pan (from pão, ‘bread’), biidoro (from vidro, ‘glass’), shabon (from sabão, ‘soap’), and arukooru (from alcool, ‘alcohol’). Other English words you did not know were Portuguese first include embarrass, marmalade, breeze, and indigo. The Labrador Peninsula, which lent its name to a popular dog breed, was in its turn named after Portuguese explorer João Fernandes Lavrador, where lavrador (‘farmer – plougher’) was the title he was allowed to use as a landowner. The term baroque initially designated an irregularly shaped pearl, and may originate in Portuguese barroco. More recent loans include bossa nova (literally ‘new tendency’), and caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail whose name is a diminutive of caipira (‘yokel’).

Portuguese is also an important source of “untranslatable” terms, i.e. lacking a one-word counterpart in English. The best known is undoubtedly saudade, “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves”, which often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return. Love that remains in absence or a pleasure one suffers, saudade brings a mix of sad and happy feelings, recalling experiences and triggering new emotions. The concept is so deeply ingrained in Brazilian culture that it has its own official day, celebrated on January 30. Romanian dor is an equivalent that speaks volumes, whereas in Portuguese the same dor means ‘pain’.  Another endearing untranslatable word is cafuné, “the act of caressing or tenderly running fingers through a loved one’s hair”. But it’s not all about romance: saideira is the last beer of the night one orders before leaving the pub, of which there may be two or three. Desenrascanço is also a word that would be a mouthful in English: “the act of disentangling yourself from a difficult situation using available means”, specifically without having the knowledge or the adequate tools, but by making use of imaginative resources or by applying know-how to new situations. Desenrascanço is considered by many Portuguese to be one of their most valued national virtues, so much that it is informally taught in universities: ever since the 15th century, freshmen have been asked by older students to do apparently impossible things, otherwise they get punished.

The way you say ‘thank you’ depends on your gender: Portuguese men will say obrigado, whereas women should say obrigada. This is because the formula is a shortening of an entire sentence: Eu estou obrigada(o) a lhe retribuir o favor (‘I am obliged to repay you the favor’), where obrigado/obrigada is an adjective, so it has to agree in gender with the subject. One of the common replies may sound equally strange to a foreigner: imagina literally translates as ‘imagine’, but its intended meaning is ‘no trouble at all’. Back to ‘thank you’, the Japanese word for it, arigato, is sometimes popularly believed to originate in obrigado, although most linguists disagree.

In Brazilian Portuguese, there are many slang terms and idiomatic expressions that derive from food, especially fruit and vegetables. For instance, a problem that is difficult to solve is an abacaxi (‘pineapple’), nonsense is called abobrinhas (‘zucchini’), unimportant things or people are café pequeno (‘small coffee’), whereas something or someone that never fails é batata (‘is a potato’). An attractive woman is seen as an uva (‘grape’), but a handsome man will be a pão (‘bread’). Brazilians may call a loved one doce-de-coco (‘coconut sweet’), while a vain and presumptuous person acha que é o rei da cocada preta (‘thinks he is the king of the dark, sweet coconut’). When we have nothing to talk about and speak anything else, we fill up sausages: Enchemos lingüiça.

Another appealing feature of Brazilian Portuguese is the frequent use of diminutives, ending in -inho(a) or -zinho(a) to express smaller size: for example, probleminha is a small problema (‘problem’) (the counterpart of -inho, rendering larger size is the suffix -ãoamorzão translates as ‘big love’). However, more often than not, Brazilian diminutives express affection, intimacy or courtesy. You will regularly hear things like Você quer um cafezinho? (‘Do you want some coffee?’), Você pode esperar só um momentinho? (‘Can you wait just a moment?’) or Vou dar uma saidinha. (‘I’m just going to pop out.’). Diminutives are also employed for adjectives (e.g., baratinho, ‘very cheap’, grandinho, ‘slightly big’) and even adverbs (depressinha, ‘very quickly’, nunquinha, ‘never ever’). Another popular use of diminutives is in nicknames: all Brazilian given names have an affectionate –inho(a) form, the most famous of which is, of course, Ronaldinho. Last but not least, diminutives help express a negative view without sounding rude: for instance, depending on the context, bonitinho can mean ‘very cute’ or ‘rather ugly’.

Portuguese has impressively long words, headed by pneumoultramicroscopicossilicovulcanoconiótico. It seems frightening, and it is: this 46-letter (and 20-syllable) colossus refers to a person suffering from having inhaled volcanic ash. The longest non-technical term, with “only” 29 letters, is anticonstitucionalissimamente, meaning ‘in a very unconstitutional way’. Should you find them unpronounceable, try these tongue twisters: O rato roeu a roupa do rei de Roma (‘The rat gnawed the king of Rome’s clothes’); A aranha arranha a rã. A rã arranha a aranha. (‘The spider scratches the frog. The frog scratches the spider’).

This is the only European language where weekdays are not associated with the stars, but have numbers instead. Moreover, contrary to expectation, Monday is not the first, but the second day (segunda-feira), because the first day of the week is considered to be Sunday (domingo, the only unnumbered day along with sábado, ‘Saturday’). The other weekdays are terça-feira (‘Tuesday’), quarta-feira (‘Wednesday’), quinta-feira (‘Thursday’), and sexta-feira (‘Friday’). In 563 AD, Bishop Martinho de Braga decided that the days of Holy Week (preceding Easter) should no longer be named after pagan gods, but recall the fact that Christians should not work during those days (Portuguese feira comes from Latin feria, ‘day of rest’). The names then extended to the entire year.

Portuguese is the core of fado, the mournful music of saudade and the sea. Literally ‘fate’, fado is an expression of fatalism, another fundamental characteristic of Portuguese culture. Also reflected in the interjection oxalá (‘if only’ or ‘hopefully’) which is derived from Arabic Inshallah (‘God willing’), this is a pervasive attitude in life, literature and music. Acknowledged by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage, the expressive music genre is instilled with fatefulness, melancholia and resignation. Common themes include nostalgia, the hardships of daily life, poverty, unfulfilled love, jealousy, or exile. Originating in 19th century Lisbon, where it was often sung in the whereabouts of sailors and prostitutes, fado is rooted in social contexts of marginality and transgression. There are two main varieties: Lisbon fado, performed by women and men alike, which suggests surrender to hardships and fosters improvisation, and Coimbra fado, sung by male groups who rehearse their performances, which is about finding hope amid difficulties.

The language of Camões is one of the European languages with the largest vocabulary, where a concept is typically expressed by three or four synonyms, used according to context and/or location. They may even have different roots, reflecting the rich history of today’s Portugal. Beside the overwhelming influence of Latin, Portuguese still accommodates words of the various peoples that invaded, passed or settled in its territory. Thus, words such as ontem (‘yesterday’) or esquecer (‘to forget’) recall the Celt settlers, Germanic invaders introduced a small number of words including roubar (‘to steal’) and guerrear (to wage war’), while the five centuries of Moorish domination left hundreds of words of Arabic origin, including almofada (‘pillow’), aldeia (‘village’) and jarra (‘vase’). During the Age of Discovery, the Portuguese brought home words of the peoples they came in contact with, such as banana (from Wolof), ananás (‘pineapple’, from Tupi-Guarani), chá (‘tea’, from Chinese) or careca (‘bald’, from Kimbundu). The richness of Portuguese vocabulary is also reflected in the existence of two different words for ‘to be’: ser, used for existence or essential characteristics, and estar, expressing transient situations. For instance, both A moça é bonita and A moça está bonita translate as ‘the girl is pretty’, but the first sentence implies that she is naturally pretty, whereas the second suggests the girl is prettier than usual, due to a temporary condition (nice clothes, new haircut etc.).


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