The History of the Portuguese Language
A História da Língua Portuguesa

The History of the Portuguese Language

The Portuguese language, have you ever thought why it has turned into what it is today?

where did it come from?

Who were the first people to speak it?

Which connections between peoples and land have helped it to be built in its own nature?

These are some curiosities I’m going to tell you about,

And some others  I’m sure you’ve never heard of.

The History of the Portuguese Language

The Portuguese language: ‘the last flower of Latium, rustic and beautiful’ as the Brazilian poet Olavo Bilac once described the language.

The native language to 244 million people, spoken in 9 different countries, over all the five continents, the Portuguese language has long been maturing and shaping culture to become today the 5th most spoken language of our time.

How has it made its way to these days?

What are its origins?

Where does its vocabulary come from?

What has shaped their sounds?

Our history begins a long way away from now and I’d like to invite you in this journey.

Our story then starts thousands of years ago, but all this time is important to have some understanding of what has happened to make Portuguese the language it is today

Let’s begin from the beginning.

I’ll take you back to as far as 400 hundred thousand years to the very beginning because that was the time when traces of the first kinds of humans lived in our planet.

After some long time, eventually the Neanderthal came. However, it was only at about 35 thousand years ago That the Homo Sapiens lived.

And you might be asking yourself Whether there’s need to go that far back to have our story told. Trust me, that’s the length of time when it all began and sometime recently, and by recently I mean over three thousand years ago, some peoples started to live and change their surroundings, and shape a new culture and started to speak then what has turned out to be modern Portuguese language.

For all this long period, these ancient peoples left traces in what is called today the Iberian Peninsula. We know these facts because of anthropological studies. They left not only tools but also remaining bones of their corps. That’s why we can study them.

However, what we don’t actually know is how the first groups of peoples came to live there. Among those peoples, some are still there today.

The Lusitanians,

The Turdulis,

The Oestriminis,

And the Cynetes

They were the first to stablish their homes along this area. After them, Celtic tribes came from the Caucasus and the Germanic lands. And again, it is not that clear the reason why the Celts spread across Europe. We know that they roamed the continent for an entire millennium before Christ.

In their journey, they settled and intermarried with the local population they happened to find along their paths. It resulted in some other new ethnic groups and many other tribes. Again, other layers of peoples arose, culture and language developed. Their presence is also traceable, in broad outline, through archaeological and linguistic evidence. They spoke Celtiberian and Gallecian.

These two forms of speaking are the very root of what today’s Portuguese language has become. Hundreds of years of interaction, Sharing joy, fear, expectation, growing crops and bringing up families, they were continuously building their story. They peopled the West seaboard of the European site. More specifically, the Iberian Peninsula, in the southwest corner of Europe, at the westernmost edge of Eurasia.

This region was named after their ancient inhabitants whom the Greeks called Iberians, probably for the Ebro (Iberus), the peninsula’s second longest river, after the River Tagus. However, just as you probably have read in books, or seen in films, or heard around Ancient History was not a time when people were able to live peacefully.

They needed food. And for food, land was needed. To get land, there were usually wars until the new comers could settle down and farm the fields. However, one specific people developed a brand new strategy. The Romans, conquered lands not really to grow crops, but to rule other peoples and collect taxes. 218 years before Jesus’ birth, the Roman army overwhelmed Hispania, this was how that portion of land was called then.

This period is known as the time of the Punic Wars. There were three Punic wars in total. The Romans were trying to get hegemony over the western Mediterranean. Starting in Sicily and then Hispania. The wanted to have control over Carthage, current Tunisia. Carthaginians had power over this land and especially the port and the Roman Empire was eager to defeat them.

It took three Punic Wars. In the second though, they conquered the Iberian Peninsula. The Roman Empire then pacify the Gallaecian, one of the major tribes who lived where now is Spain and Portugal.

The Empire didn’t have enough souls to populate the conquered land. Instead, they had an ingenious solution to the problem, kill off resistance, build infrastructure, like roads and bridges, and govern their new people and of course, collect taxes.

The majority of these new people were Roman soldiers, or at least, sent by Rome. Most soldiers spoke colloquial Latin. That’s how Latin started to be used by common people. It spread quickly also because it was a signal or prestige to use the language of the new rulers.

The origin of the name ‘Portugal’ is rather interesting. Cale was a prosperous city at the mouth of the Doro River. Cale meant ‘port’ in the Celtic language.  This port was of great importance to the Roman Empire and so they renamed it to “Portus Cale” or ‘Cale Port which would mean’.  Anyway, the building of this port was so relevant to the region that its name spread to the whole region. That’s how Portugal got its name from. As for the port, later on they excluded the Cale part from its name and it became Portus only, or the current city of Porto.

At this point then, the geographical scenery of what one day was about to become the Portuguese language was already set. The new language formed then, the Galician, was a mix of local dialects and vulgar Latin. Even today, modern Portuguese and Galician have no trouble understanding one another.

The birth of a people

This interaction between locals and peoples from the Roman Empire lasted for seven hundred years, going up to the 5th century of our modern times. Then it eventually came to an end due to the fall of the Empire.

The Iberian Peninsula was then a completely different place from that one the Romans met. When they left, they’d let their new religion, Christianism. Then, clergymen from the new Roman Church interacted with locals. Again, new Latin vocabulary was spread among locals. So, after other seven hundred years of ruling, the language and Christian religion had already been settled.

However, ancient times was a continuous battle for land. East Germanic tribes overrun the Empire. Today we commonly name this people the Vikings, although this name has been disputed. There are many reasons that can help us understand why they decided to leave their northern land and started plundering the southern land.

One of this reason is that they were not strange to the Empire. They were facing land shortage due to climatic changes and population pressure. If that was not bad enough, the Huns were bringing chaos to the northern lands.

The Huns were a very aggressive people that lived in central Asia, current Kazakhstan. Their most famous leader, Attila, is considered one of the most bellicose general of any army ever. The Huns tormented the north for two centuries. The Vikings, instead, looted for three hundred years. We call this period the Barbarian Migrations.

One of this people, the Swebians, occupied the southern part of the Roman province of Gallaecia to the north of Douro River and expanded into the province of Lusitania, where central Portugal is now. They eventually took control over most of the Iberian Peninsula.

During the same time, the Visigothic Kingdom expanded from its original settlement in Southern France, occupying most of the Iberian Peninsula that was not populated by the Swebians.

Again, this was a time when local tribes shared the same place with the newcomers. And again, culture, costumes and language were affected. However, invasion didn’t cease. The control by the descendants of the Germanic tribes endured until a new invasion happened. The Muslim people crossed the Mediterranean Sea, coming from Africa. And they managed to take control over the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslim attacked the land in 711. Then they ruled over parts of the land for another six centuries. However, through this time the area that was to become Portugal retained major administrative boundaries that broadly reflected the earlier Roman provincial organization.

 Traditionally Portugal’s emergence as a separate kingdom is dated back to 1139, when Afonso Henriques, Count of Portugal, began using the title of king after defeating the Muslims at the battle of Ourique. His title was formally conceded in 1179 when he placed Portugal under the protection of the Roman Church. At that time, European nations only existed under the protection of the Holy See, the Catholic Church in Rome.

The birth of a language

Old Portuguese – 9th to 14th century

World famous Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes once called the Portuguese language ‘the sweet and gracious language’ and Spanish writer Lope de Vega named it ‘sweet’ as well. Also Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso asks in his song ‘tongue’: ‘o que quer e pode essa lingua?’ or ‘what is this language will and way’, but I must say sorry for this totally impossible translation!

Now, let’s embark to the very journey of this video to discover how the Portuguese language came to be what it is. 

We have already seen that pre-Celtic groups like the Lusitanians, Turduli, Oestriminis, and Cynetes among others merged their culture and language. Then, when Romans came to live in the Iberian lands, they brought in not one, but two kinds of Latin. The official language, which was used especially in documents and by high rank officers. The other was called common Latin, or vulgar Latin, spoken by Roman soldiers. This kind of more colloquial speech spread fast because it was then considered a prestige language to be spoken. So then, vulgar Latin merged into the local language. New words were introduced because the Empire came and brought several developments and local’s lexicon needed to meet new language requirements.

 In the 9th century, the first administrative documents were written in Galician-Portuguese. It was so important for the making of the language that it is considered the Proto-Portuguese, or something which would resemble to something that can be recognised as a language to be. This period lasted for three hundred years.

By the 13th century, Galician-Portuguese had become a mature language with its own literature and began to split into two languages. However, the debate of whether Galician and Portuguese are nowadays varieties of the same language, much like American English or British English, is still present. In all aspects— phonology, morphology, lexicon and syntax—Portuguese is essentially the result of an organic evolution of Vulgar Latin with some influences from other languages, namely the native Gallaecian and Lusitanian languages spoken prior to the Roman domination.


This period that extended from the 12th to the 14th century, Galician-Portuguese was increasingly used for documents and other written forms. For some time, it was the language of preference for lyric poetry in Christian Hispania. It is also relevant to mention the contribution of the Occitan, a  much liked language of the poetry of the troubadours in France.

The Occitan language digraphs ‘lh’ and ‘nh’, used in its classical orthography, were adopted by the orthography of Portuguese. It was presumably done by Gerald of Braga,  a monk from the city of Moissac, in the south of France, who became bishop of Braga in Portugal in 1047. Braga played a major role in modernizing written Portuguese using classical Occitan norms.

Portugal became an independent kingdom in 1139, under King Afonso I of Portugal. In 1290, King Denis of Portugal created the first Portuguese University in Lisbon (the ‘Estudos Gerais’, or General Studies,  which later was moved to Coimbra) and the king decreed for Portuguese, then simply called the “common language” of the people. So, it started being used for speaking and officially. So, the period that started with Proto-Portuguese and the Galician-Portuguese was necessary to bring some maturity to the language. Summing up, this period lasted for 500 years. Half a millennium for the Portuguese language to be ready to move on to the next stage, Old Portuguese.

Old Portuguese is recognised by an important event. The publication in 1516 of ‘Cancioneiro Geral’, translated as ‘The general book of songs’. Garcia de Resende (1470-1536) compiled this massive work of over two hundred authors, in both Castilian and Portuguese languages, whose work spanned the second half of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. It covered a wide range of themes: love poetry, satire, epigrams, religious and epic-historical verse. The author’s aim was to celebrate contemporary and past Portuguese achievements, and the ‘Cancioneiro Geral’ marks the transition between mediaeval and classical Portuguese literature. Get below the link to listen to the Portuguese diva Amalia

Rodrigues singing one of the most famous poems from Cancioneiro Geral. ‘Cantiga
Sua Partindo-se’  by João Ruiz de Castelo


Garcia de Resende’s work had a deep influence on what the Portuguese language would become afterwards. The language started then to be characterized by an increase in the number of words borrowed from Classical Latin and Classical Greek because of the Renaissance (learned words borrowed from Latin also came from Renaissance Latin, the form of Latin during that time), which greatly enriched the lexicon. Most literate Portuguese speakers were also literate in Latin; and thus they easily adopted Latin words into their writing – and eventually into their speech in Portuguese.

Then, the age of the discoveries came. During the centuries 15th and 16th, Old Portuguese was taken to the new world and to other parts where Portuguese sailors manage to find along our planet.

Being spread for over two hundred years, Old Portuguese was taken to many regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. By the mid-16th century, Portuguese had become a lingua franca in Asia and Africa, used not only for colonial administration and trade but also for communication between local officials and Europeans of all nationalities. Its spread was helped by mixed marriages between Portuguese and local people and by its association with Roman Catholic missionary efforts, which led to the formation of creole languages such as that called Kristang in many parts of Asia (from the word cristão, “Christian”).

The language was popular in parts of Asia until the 19th century. Some Portuguese-speaking Christian communities in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia preserved their language even after they were isolated
from Portugal. 
Listen to this poem written by Fernando Pessoa, the greatest Portugal poet. It’s a free translation of my own. And again, I must say sorry for my poor translation.


“O salty sea, so much of whose salt Is Portugal tears!

 All the mothers Who had to weep for us to cross you! All the sons who prayed in vain! All the brides-to-be who never

Married for you to be ours,

O sea! Was it worth doing?

Everything’s worth doing If the soul of the doer isn´t little.

Whoever would go beyond the Cape Must go beyond sorrow.

God placed danger and the abyss in the sea,

But he also made it heaven’s mirror.”

I’m also going to let a link to a song from Cesaria Evora,
singing in Cape Verdean Creole. You’ll find captions in her language and
English too.


At least but not last, it’s of upmost importance to mention another thing that  has become the most relevant contribution from the Portuguese language into the world literature. In 1572, Luís Vaz de Camões published The Lusiads. It is widely regarded as the most important work of Portuguese literature and marks the beginning of Modern Portuguese. This epic poem celebrates the discovery of a sea route to India by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (1469–1524).

The Lusiads is often regarded as Portugal’s national epic, much as Virgil’s Aeneid was for the Ancient Romans or Homer’s Iliad  and Odyssey were for the Ancient Greeks. As we have seen, the Portuguese language took its chance and spread to their colonies. Today’s Portuguese has a number of words derived from the discovery times. As a major colonial and trading nation Portugal came into close contact with many other cultures and languages and words from these sources also contributed to the range and colour of the Portuguese lexicon. Nowadays, only 5% or Portuguese speakers live in Portugal. The language is official in nine countries, making up 255 million speakers all over the world. Portuguese is also spoken by about 678,000 people in the United States, with large communities of speakers in the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

A powerful and beautiful language as Portuguese is, it has taken 2 thousand years to evolve to what it is today. A work still in progress, we can barely grasp what it will be in the future.

To end, can you share with us which is the most beautiful word in Portuguese you know? I’ve got some suggestions, but, of course, you can add yours.

Saudades, fofinho, espelhar, luar, cafuné….

Talking about that, I’ll be preparing another video telling you how Brazilian and Portugal Portuguese differ. There’s here a peculiar company to this account, the English language. But I’m not going to give you any spoiler now.

WhatsApp chat