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Overview: Sometimes overlooked, Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It is also one of the fastest growing European languages, along with English and Spanish. With its humble origins in the tiny western European nation of Portugal, Portuguese is now spoken in communities across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
The two major dialects of Portuguese are known as European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, which vary primarily in vocabulary and spelling. These are the most commonly taught variants, but because of the language’s wide dispersion, many other dialects are spoken around the world. Standard Portuguese is based in European Portuguese.
As Brazil continues to emerge as a world power, the Portuguese language will continue to grow and gain influence as a world language. Other former colonies of Portugal, including Macau in China, and Angola, Mozambique, and several other African nations, continue to use Portuguese as an official language. Portuguese is also an official language of the African Union and the European Union.
Roots of the Language: Like other Romance languages, Portuguese is rooted in Latin, which was brought to the Iberian Peninsula during the Roman Empire. The region that is now Portugal (along with part of Spain), was once the Roman Province of Lusitania, which used Latin as its common language. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, language in Lusitania shared a similar fate to that of its nearest neighbor, Spain. Vulgar Latin evolved into the first version of Portuguese, sometimes known as Galician-Portuguese. Galicia, today an autonomous region of northern Spain, and Portugal had once been united.
After the Moorish invasion in 711, Portuguese was influenced by Arabic when it became the official government language. Soon after Portugal broke away from the rest of the region and became the independent Kingdom of Portugal in the 12th century, King Denis declared Portuguese the official language, replacing Latin as the common language.
During the Age of Exploration, Portuguese explorers led European exploration, establishing trade routes and colonies across the globe. As a result of Portugal’s exploration, the Portuguese language spread to colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Portuguese is very closely related to Galician, spoken in the autonomous region in northern Spain, which shares strong historical ties to Portugal. Portuguese and Galician are mutually intelligible languages, especially the dialects of northern Portugal, as the languages diverged from one another relatively recently.
Portuguese is similar to other Romance languages, with its vocabulary based in Latin and influences from Arabic. Though speakers of Portuguese are often able to understand Spanish, Portuguese pronunciation makes the language more difficult for Spanish speakers to understand.
As a widely dispersed language, Portuguese has been influenced by languages along its trade and exploration routes, including Japanese, Chinese, and indigenous South American and African languages. It contains loanwords from other European languages, including French, Spanish, and English.
The Portuguese language uses the standard Latin alphabet, along with accents and tildes, much like Spanish. Unlike modern Spanish, Portuguese is marked with the use of the cedilla, or hook, with the letter C (ç ), also used in French.
Portuguese spelling was not standardized in Portugal until the 16th century, and Brazil in 1938. Variations in spelling between European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese remain, and the language has undergone a series of spelling reforms since then, until as recently as 2009.