Inside Portuguese : Two Very Distinct Varieties

Portuguese: Why One Size (Translation) Doesn't Fit All


While it would be hard to find a high school in the United States where Spanish is not taught, the number of American schools that teach Portuguese is rather small. In 2009, one survey reported that only 70 high schools in the entire country offered classes in Portuguese - in a country with something over 30,000 secondary schools.

Why is this an odd situation?

Because Portuguese happens to be the language of the single largest country in Latin America, with about 200 million speakers. As demonstrated during the World Cup festivities and looking forward to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, we should also bear in mind that this country is one of the world's largest and most dynamic economies, an increasingly important trading partner, and in many respects, the de facto leader of Latin America.


Beyond that, Portuguese is an official language of several other countries, mainly in Africa. Lusophones (as Portuguese-speakers are called) can be found in sizable numbers in many other countries, including the USA, France, Canada, and India - a legacy of immigration in some countries, and of colonialism in others.

Perhaps because of the relative paucity of Portuguese instruction in our schools, a frequent assumption among North Americans is that Brazilians speak Spanish. This assumption annoys some Brazilians. Although Spanish and Portuguese are closely related languages, springing from a shared Latin root, they are still separate standards, each with its own characteristics and long literary tradition. (Incidentally, the closest language to Portuguese is not Spanish, but Galician (galego), spoken in northwestern Spain.)

What's more, Portuguese is an official language in eight countries (of which Brazil is by far the biggest) and ranks sixth in the world for number of native speakers. The language exists in a number of standards. Since Brazilian Portuguese has the greatest number of speakers, it is the one usually studied by foreigners.

If you are doing business in the Lusophone world, this issue of different forms of Portuguese will be an important one. While the difference between the written forms of the language used in Portugal and the one in Brazil is about as large as that between American and British English, the spoken forms diverge more sharply. Notably, Brazilian Portuguese vocabulary is characterized by borrowings from Amerindian and African languages, hardly a surprise given the country's vast racial and ethnic diversity. In fact, Portuguese only became the dominant language in Brazil in the 18th century, over 200 years after Portugal conquered the land. Prior to that, dialects like língua geral, based on local Indian languages, were also commonly used.

Thus, as is the case with Spanish, differences exist among basic vocabulary items between Brazil and the "mother country."
(See the full PDF version for a table of examples.)

There are other important differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese. Much of Brazil uses only one form of "you" (você), whereas in Portugal, você is the formal or polite form of address, with the familiar form tu also being used throughout the country. (The Brazilian usage mirrors the disappearance of the familiar thou from modern English.) Grammatical differences also exist: for instance, in Brazil, "I am talking" would be eu estou falando (using a gerund), while in Portugal it would be eu estou a falar (using the infinitive).

The African varieties of Portuguese are generally considered closer to the European standard. A likely reason for this is that Portugal held on to its African colonies as late as the 1970s, whereas Brazil gained its independence much earlier, in 1822. Thus, Brazil has had much longer to develop its own standard of the language.

So what does this mean in terms of business? Given that this is a very widespread and economically important language that relatively few Americans have studied, when the time comes to hire a translator, many people might be tempted to hire the first (or cheapest) Portuguese translator they can find. But in reality, translations into Portuguese must be localized: the differences between the varieties are just too great.

Download PDF_Inside the Portuguese Language

  • Inside Portuguese : Two Very Distinct Varieties

    Portuguese: Why One Size (Translation) Doesn't Fit All   While it would be hard to find a high school in the United States where Spanish is not taught, the number of American schools that teach Portuguese is rather small. In 2009, one survey reported that only 70 high schools in the entire country offered classes in Portuguese - in a country with something over 30,000 secondary schools. Why is this an odd situation?


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