An Exceptional Language: Portuguese, La Lingua Franca

Unfortunately, Portuguese was never one of the languages offered in most USA schools.

Spanish and French, yes … with some of the more upscale schools including Latin (or Greek) – even Russian! – in their curriculum.

Mas não português.

So, most of us opted for Spanish or French.

Even a limited knowledge of Spanish, especially, can be both a help and a hindrance — a mixed blessing — to learning Portuguese.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that Portuguese derives from Spanish or that peering into Portugal’s language portal through Spanish eyes is what learning Portuguese is all about. Many people have difficulty understanding and speaking Portuguese (though reading it is somewhat easier), not just because of the vocabulary and syntax, but — especially — because of its pronounciation. But, once our ears are attuned to the sounds and rhythm of the language, there’s a nasalized beauty in the poetics of Portuguese.

The communications professor in me wants to know about a language and understand what makes it tick. Peering through the peephole of Spanish, because it’s my familiar tongue, I try to unpack the mysteries of how the Portuguese language works—and why.

But my Spanish also causes obstacles, hurdles, and stumbling blocks. People constantly remind me that I’m thinking – and talking – in Spanish.

When I speak Portuguese, it comes out sounding like a Spanish mish-mash.

“Fala português … não espanhol!” my Portuguese friends admonish and encourage me.

Intent at understanding the “why” behind the language, its psychology, the rules governing its syntax, I’ve embarked on an ambitious adventure to analyze Portuguese, at least as the language relates to Spanish … arriving at a number of “Eureka!” findings in the process.

Some rules hold true rather regularly between Portuguese and Spanish. For instance:

• An “n” in Spanish is usually an “m” in Portuguese, while the Spanish “ie” is simply an “e” in Portuguese. Examples: una/uma … con/com … en/em … diez/dez … sin/sem … tiene/tem … bien/bem … abierto/aberto … también/tambén … alguien/alguem … siempre/sempre … tiempo/tempo … invierno/inverno … fiesta/festa;

• That “ny”sound (as in“canyon”) signaled by a tilde over the “n” (ñ) in Spanish is much the same in Portuguese, with words having “nh”letters: viño/vinho … señora/senhora … español/espanhol … baño/banho … leña/lenha;

• Although also used in Portuguese – most frequently over the letter “a”(ã) – the tilde produces an entirely different (nasal) sound: João … cartão … educação … manhã … não;

• The “ue” diphthong in Spanish becomes an “o” in Portuguese: luego/logo … puerta/porta … puerto/porto … puede/pode … fuego/fogo … fuerza/força … escuela/escola … cuenta/conta … suerte/sorte … juega/joga.

• “O” in Spanish is often “ou” in Portuguese: poco/pouco … otro/outro, while the Spanish “l” often becomes an “r” in Portuguese: plato/prato … placer/prazer … plaza/praça;

• “U” in Spanish can become “ui” in Portuguese: mucho/muito … at other times, instead, it becomes an “o”: gusto/gosto … punto/ponto;

• The double “ll” in Spanish often translates to “ch” in Portuguese: llave/chave … llama/chama … lluvia/chuvia … llegando/chegando;

• Words beginning with “h” in Spanish often switch to an “f” in Portuguese: horno/forno … hacer/fazer … hablar/falar … hijo/filho … harina/farinha … fugir/huir … hablar/falar … harto/farto;

• When you see a word with a “çao” suffix in Portuguese, it probably ends in “ión” in Spanish: relação/relación … informação/información … edição/edición … habitação/habitación;


Wait, the questions keep coming … and we haven’t yet touched upon tenses and sentence structure:

It’s “bom dia, boa tarde, boa noite” in Portuguese, but “buenos días, buenas tardes, buenas noches” in Spanish. Why are the day’s divisions plural in Spanish but singular in Portuguese?

When does “dia” end and “tarde” begin, anyway? Why, after 12:00 PM, of course, you say? Maybe technically. But people in Portugal generally suppose that “tarde” begins after one has eaten lunch. What about “noite”? When it becomes dark … or after eating dinner?

And why are the words for “day” spelled the same in Spanish and Portuguese, while only Spanish gives it an accent mark (día)?

Spanish, like most Latin-derived languages, names the days of our lives: lunes, martes, miércoles, jueves, viernes, sábado, domingo. Except for the weekends (sábado, domingo), Portuguese, instead, numbers them: segunda-feira, terça-feira, quarta-feira, quinta-feira, sexta-feira.

But don’t confuse “feira” (market, as in market days) with “feria” (fair, market, and often, holidays) or ferias: vacation.

Thankfully, many words are identical in both languages: “casa,” “porque,” “tal|vez,” “médico,” “viajar”, “comprar,” “poder,” “vida” … and even “de nada,” to say “you’re welcome.” So, how come cats are cats – “gatos” – in both languages, while a dog is “perro” in Spanish but “cão” in Portuguese? And, for goodness sake, how did “gracias” become “obrigado,” every foreigner’s favorite Portuguese word?

Pronunciation and accents are other matters entirely, as Portugal uses almost every accent mark in existence—and then some! How can anyone other than a native enunciate clearly the subtle differences between “pais” (parents), “país” (country), and “pães” (breads)?

Who but the Portuguese can tell the difference between grandfather and grandmother, when the ending of both seemingly masculine words differs only by an accent mark: avô (grandfather) and avó (grandmother)? Yeah, right. Now try pronouncing them both.

Similarly, verb tenses and conjugations differ in the two countries of Iberia. For instance, consider so-called “reflexive” verbs. More often than not (although not always), their order is reversed: In Spanish it’s “se vende, se trata, se llama,” while in Portuguese we get “vende-se” and “trata-se,” but “se chama” … except when asking a question, used in the negative, and other exceptions: “Se vende a casa?” “Como é que se chama?”

And the past tense (pretérito) is so similar, yet different. Take the verb “ir,” for instance. In Spanish and Portugal, the first person singular in both is “fui.” Yet, while the third person singular is close in the two languages, a miss is as good as a mile: fue (Spanish) and foi (Portuguese).

Here’s where turnabout between the Portuguese and the Spanish isn’t necessarily fair play: Some Portuguese people understand spoken Spanish, because they grew up watching Spanish TV.

Spanish people, however, have a hard time understanding Portuguese. Some say that’s a matter of choice, not of ability. Because whether it’s Portuguese, Spanish, or Portu|ñ|ol, we certainly understand each other at the border cities and towns.

As for me, I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing “Puxar!” on a door and pushing rather than pulling.

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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1 thought on “An Exceptional Language: Portuguese, La Lingua Franca

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