Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Language Profile: Portuguese

This week we're taking a look at Portuguese, the most spoken language in the Southern hemisphere. Portuguese is a Romance language with approximately 178 million native speakers. You probably already know that it's the official language of Portugal and Brazil. However, you might not know that it's also an official language in Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Cape Verde, SãTomé and Príncipe, Equatorial Guinea and Macau (a special administrative region of China)!

Map of Portuguese geographic distribution.
Dark green: native language
Green: official and administrative language
Light green: cultural or secondary language
Yellow: Portuguese-based creole
Green squares: Portuguese-speaking minorities

Portuguese, like other Romance languages, is a descendant of Latin. Back when the Iberian Peninsula was under Roman rule (they called it Hispania), Portuguese was often the language used for lyric poetry. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the language spread around the world as the Portuguese colonized various regions of Asia, Africa and the Americas. It even became a lingua franca in the 16th century in parts of Africa and Asia, and was used for trade and communication between various European colonial officials.

While Portuguese has many lexical similarities with Spanish, it has a larger phonemic inventory that distances it from its neighboring language. Portuguese speakers generally have an easier time understanding Spanish than the reverse, likely because they're only having to deal with some of the phonemes they use every day, while Spanish speakers would be having to understand sounds that are not part of their language. It's also interesting to note that communication is better between monolingual speakers of these two languages in South America than on the Iberian Peninsula... we're guessing it has to do with the dialects spoken in both places.

One of the coolest things we've found out about Portuguese is that it has its own museum! The Museu da Língua Portuguesa is an interactive museum in São Paulo, Brazil that is designed to give a "living representation" of the Portuguese language by teaching about its history, origins, evolution, and linguistic connections to other languages.

The Museu da Língua Portuguesa is inside of
this beautiful train station in 
São Paulo, Brazil.

As language nerds, we'd love to check this museum out, especially the "word alley", where visitors can play a game in which they can move images that have word fragments on them and attempt to create complete words. Once you've come up with a real word, you get to learn about its origin and meaning!