Portuguese, and Other Spanish Dialects

The Tagus River has its source in the Spanish heartland, and flows through Lisbon to the sea.

A few weeks ago, I was languishing in a clinic waiting room in Lima, hoping to procure a Covid test that would enable me to fly to the United States before another sinister Greek letter shut down the world. For some reason, a nervous Brazilian woman sitting next to me was sure that I was a fellow Brasileiro, and addressed me in Portuguese. I have never learnt Portuguese, nor she Spanish, but within about 30 seconds we were able to commiserate more or less intelligibly about our plight.

Spanish and Portuguese are different languages. But it is worth asking what we mean by “Spanish.” To Spaniards, and many Spanish-speakers worldwide, what we call Spanish is Castellano, the language of Castile. Castile was one of many kingdoms of medieval Spain. Through war and marriage, it absorbed all the others, culminating with the 1492 union with (Catalan-speaking) Aragon. All except one.

In the 16th Century, Philip II, the Castilian monarch who styled himself King of Spain, tried to annex Portugal into his realm. Had he succeeded, Portuguese would probably be considered a dialect of Spanish today. But Portugal’s mighty fleet and overseas empire made her too big to digest- as they say, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

In 1578, while campaigning in Morocco, King Sebastião of Portugal disappeared off the face of the earth. He was succeeded by his uncle Henrique, who as an elderly cardinal was not the best choice to produce an heir. His death left the door open to Philip of Spain; in another world, it would have been the end of Portugal.

It would not be an outlandish claim. Spanish and Portuguese share 89% lexical similarity, meaning nine out of every ten words has a cognate in the other language. They only diverged from Old Spanish in the past millennium. They are far more similar than many “dialects” in China. But there are significant differences, most prominently in pronunciation.

While Spanish (like Italian) is enunciated quite clearly, with each letter distinct, Portuguese (like French) is more innovative. Thus, while Portuguese and Spanish speakers can quite easily read the other, Portuguese speakers have a much easier time understanding spoken Spanish than vice versa. I have heard Spaniards joke that Portuguese is “Vulgar Spanish” (a play on Vulgar Latin), as some of the ways that Portuguese departs from Castilian sound like casual Spanish.

Portuguese levels out some diphthongs (compound vowel sounds) into a simpler vowel. An O at the end of a word is pronounced like a U. It is pretty common in vernacular Spanish to pronounce LL (which is supposed to be pronounced like a Y) something like an English J (native Spanish speakers often say English “you” something like “joo”); in Portuguese, the LL becomes a CH.

In other ways, however, Portuguese preserves Old Spanish features that Castilian has dropped. It has a proper V, which in Castilian lacks, and more hard Zs. Most prominently, where Castilian softened some initial Fs into Hs, Portuguese kept them. Where Castilian has hablar (“to speak”) and hacer (“to do”), Portuguese has falar and fazer (the F is also fossilised in Castilian satisfacer, “to satisfy”).

You can basically translate this verse from Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida” purely by applying the rules we explored above. In English, it is “Sometimes the rain arrives/ To clean your wounds/ Sometimes just a drop/ Can beat the drought.”

Beyond diphthongs, Portuguese embraces other notable simplifications. Its definite articles are the single letters o and a. Portuguese is also heavy in nasal vowels, even in the place of consonants. A few generations before the discovery of Brazil, devout Portuguese would have honoured Santo Pablo, but by the time they arrived, he was São Paulo.

The most unique feature of Portuguese, setting it apart from any other language in Europe, is its names for days of the week. Sunday is domingo, the Lord’s day. But the ever-mercantile Portuguese named every single other day after the trading fair that occurred on it, from Monday, segunda-feria (second fair), all the way through to sexta-feria (sixth fair).

The Alhambra palace is an icon of Spain’s Islamic past. The Arabs were driven from what is now Portugal centuries earlier than southern Spain, so their language left much less imprint on Portuguese than Castilian.

One important source of difference is the two languages’ differing foreign influences. The Iberian Peninsula was under Islamic rule for centuries, leaving an indelible impact on all of its budding languages. But the Arabs were driven from what is now Portugal centuries earlier than from southern Castile, so Arabic had a lighter impact on Portuguese. Spaniards call a scorpion alacrán and a drunk borracho, both from Arabic, where the Portuguese use the Latin escorpião and bêbado.

Conversely, Portuguese borrowed heavily from French. They read the news in a jornal and celebrate Reveillon on December 31, where Spaniards read a periódico and pop champagne (or, in Madrid, eat a bunch of grapes) on Nochevieja.

There are also some false friends, words that sound alike but have different meanings. A Spanish speaker following Brazil’s sprawling corruption scandal a few years ago would be probably confused as to why so many politicians were getting propinas. In Spanish, a propina is a tip, while in Brazilian Portuguese, it is a bribe.

A great example of clear, subtitled Portuguese for speakers of other Romance languages who are curious to see how much they can understand. The video is an advertisement from a (sadly unsuccessful) 1993 campaign to restore the Brazilian monarchy.

Spanish and Portuguese are closely related, but a lot of people who hear Portuguese, particularly Portuguese from Portugal, make the bizarre observation that it sounds like Russian. There are a few reasons for this. Portuguese and Russian are both stress-timed, meaning that stressed syllables are enunciated at roughly equal intervals. Combined that with Portuguese’s heavy use of palatal sounds (e.g., SH, ZH), and you get languages from opposite ends of Europe sounding weirdly similar.

When I took a weekend trip to Macao while working in China, it was shocked to discover how dominant Portuguese still is there. Yet as with my Brazilian acquaintance in Lima, it did not take long to hack together a sort of hybrid dialect. This linguistic chimera made world news two years ago, when Brazil’s embattled President Jair Bolsonaro tried to appoint his son Eduardo as his ambassador to the United States. The appointment hit a snag when it came out that the younger Mr Bolsonaro did not really speak English (he has since improved); according to one Spanish-speaking American official, in one of their meetings, hybrid Portunhol became a language of international diplomacy.

Portugal’s legacy in Macao, their old colony in South China, is surprisingly robust.

The line between a dialect and a language is a blurry one, usually reified by state borders whose courses have little to do with linguistics. Through much of the 20th Century, Spain’s nationalist government held that all the languages of Spain were dialects (including Galician, which linguists pretty much all agree is much closer to Portuguese than Castilian). It sounds chauvinistic, and in General Franco’s case it was, but strictly speaking even “Spanish” (i.e., Castellano) is a Spanish dialect. As a kid in Puerto Rico in the 2000s, I even learned that Catalan was merely a dialect of Spanish. Had King Philip managed to close the deal five centuries ago, I probably would have heard the same of Portuguese.




Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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Sam Quillen

Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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