Portuguese Speaking Countries and Varieties of the Portuguese Language

April 24, 2023
Portuguese Speaking Countries and Varieties of the Portuguese Language

Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and Portugal. It might have occurred to you that Portuguese is the official language of Portugal, but there are some far-flung countries that have Portuguese-speaking populations as well.

How many people speak Portuguese? Over 260 million people speak Portuguese, 230 million of whom speak it as their mother tongue.  The vast majority of Portuguese speakers hail from Brazil. 10 million of these Portuguese-speaking people, on the other hand,  hail from Portugal. Angola and Mozambique also host substantial Portuguese-speaking populations. Let’s explore all the Portuguese-speaking countries and discuss how the language differs from region to region.

Brief History on the Relevance of Portuguese Language

Portuguese emerged on the Iberian Peninsula after Roman soldiers and villagers arrived in 216 BCE, bringing the Latin language. The earliest surviving Portuguese documents date from the 800s CE. Fast-forward five or six centuries, and Portuguese dominated the global landscape as a lingua franca in parts of Asia, Africa, and the New World.  

How Many Countries Speak Portuguese?

There are nine countries that speak Portuguese officially, and Portuguese ranks fifth among the most spoken languages on the planet. Where is Portuguese spoken? In addition to Brazil, Angola, Portugal, and Mozambique, people speak Portuguese in Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, East Timor, Macau, and Sao Tome and Principe. 

How many countries have designated Portuguese as a national language? In total, ten countries and territories list Portuguese as an official language. Nine remain sovereign states, of which seven call the African continent “home.”

Several other countries host small clusters of Portuguese speakers, including Venezuela, Japan, South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Malaysia, and the United States.

Portuguese Speaking Countries in South America

More people speak Portuguese in Brazil than in any other country. However, the language has made few inroads into other South American nations. Paraguay represents a notable exception.

  1. Brazil

Brazil represents the sole South American country that speaks Portuguese as its official language. Over 214 million people speak Portuguese in Brazil, making it the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world. About 99.5% of the Brazilian population speaks Portuguese as their first language. To discover other languages spoken in Brazil, click the link below. 

Read more: The Languages Spoken in Brazil

  1. Paraguay 

Other than Brazil, we do not find any Portuguese-speaking countries in South America that use the language in an official capacity. However, neighboring Paraguay provides a home to a sizable community of Portuguese speakers, around 636,000 lusophones.

Portuguese Speaking Countries in Africa

More African nations speak Portuguese than countries of any other continent. Let’s review each country, ranked by the size of their Portuguese-speaking populations.

  1.  Angola

Angola leads the pack of African countries that speak Portuguese. Over 18 million citizens speak the language, making Angola the second-largest Portuguese-speaking nation on Earth. While a minority speak Portuguese as their first language, most Angolans speak it as their second tongue.

  1.  Mozambique

A map of Africa reveals past Portuguese colonies dotting the coastline, including Mozambique. The colonists left long ago, but the locals still speak Portuguese today. Mozambique has around eight million Portuguese speakers, with five million who speak it natively.

  1. Cape Verde

Most of the 588,000 people in Cape Verde speak Portuguese, the archipelago’s official language. However, almost all Cape Verdeans speak the Portuguese-based creole, Kriolu, as their mother tongue. 

  1. Guinea-Bissau

Over 222,000 people in Guinea-Bissau speak Portuguese. Most of them live in the capital city of Bissau, in an area referred to as “a Praça,” or “The Square.” 

  1. Equatorial Guinea

Another country in Africa that speaks Portuguese, Equatorial Guinea, officially adopted the language in 2010. About 20,000 locals speak Portuguese, and a Portuguese Creole, Fa d’Ambô. 

  1. São Tomé and Príncipe

The island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe designated Portuguese as its official language, and 98.4% of the population speaks it. 

Other Countries

  1. Portugal

Portuguese serves as Portugal’s national language. It originated along the western edge of the Iberian peninsula long before travelers carried it across the Atlantic to Brazil. All countries that speak Portuguese were influenced by Portugal.

  1. East Timor

Although Portuguese remains one of East Timor’s official languages, under 5% of the population speaks it. The former Portuguese colony saw the language suppressed during the 24 years of Indonesian rule before East Timor gained independence in 2002. In recent years, speaking Portuguese has sparked significant debate. Fortunately, only 63,380 speak it. 

Other countries with Portuguese-speaking populations include: 

• France – Home to 959,000 Portuguese speakers

• The United States – Over 730,000 people speak Portuguese

• Macau – A small minority of 12,000 speaks Portuguese natively

• Canada – Around 440,000 people in Canada speak Portuguese

• Japan – Home to around 400,000 Portuguese speakers. 

Different Varieties of the Portuguese Language

Languages evolve over time. While the Portuguese spoken by the first sailors to land in Brazil sounded the same as the Portuguese spoken in Portugal, many differences have emerged over the centuries. In many cases, Portuguese mixed with various local and indigenous languages to create a range of creoles. 

Some countries have made concerted efforts to maintain orthographic consistency between various forms of Portuguese. Portugal and Brazil began working together to preserve the language in 1931. Representatives from Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe first met up in 1986. The countries later agreed to a spelling reform in 1990. It came into effect in 2009. 

Despite coordinating the various forms of Portuguese, notable distinctions between the languages still exist. Let’s take a look at some of these differences now. 

Brazilian Portuguese

Brazilian Portuguese differs from the language of Portugal in several ways. For one, you’ll hear more audible vowel sounds in Brazilian Portuguese. Also, Brazilian Portuguese has only eight oral vowels, while European and African variations of Portuguese have a ninth. 

The distinctive “sh” sound that people in Portugal use when there’s an “s” at the end of a word does not exist in Brazilian Portuguese. 

Many people find these differences make it easier to learn to speak Brazilian Portuguese than European Portuguese. 

You will find spelling differences between the two languages, as well as some words that differ entirely. In Portugal, you would conjugate “dar os parabéns” to congratulate someone, while in Brazil, you would use a form of “parabenizar.” And, if you wanted to catch the train in Portugal, you would hop on “o comboio,” while in Brazil, you would take “o trem.”

While you would be understood speaking Brazilian Portuguese in Portugal, the differences become instantly noticeable in conversation. 

Angolan Portuguese

Around 85% of Angolan city dwellers and 49% of the country’s rural population speak Portuguese. The spoken language sounds close to that of Portugal but with a degree of added musicality. It includes the “sh” sound of Iberian Portuguese, but certain consonants – mainly “s,” “t,” and “r” – sound stronger. 

Angolan Portuguese also borrows many words from dozens of local languages. Words such as “camba” (friend) and “kota” (elderly person), come from the Kimbundu language. 

Recent migration patterns have influenced the younger generations in Portugal to use some Angolan Portuguese words, including “bué” (a lot or very) and “bazar” (go away). Brazilians, meanwhile, use the Angolan Portuguese words “nenê” (newborn) and “moleque” (little boy), which come from Umbundu and Kimbundu, respectively. 

Guinean Portuguese

The Portuguese spoken in Guinea-Bissau uses the standard phonology of European Portuguese in education, literature, government, and the media. However, most people who speak Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau speak Kiriol or Guinea-Bissau Creole. This variant of Portuguese serves as a lingua franca and represents an essential part of Bissau-Guineans’ national identity. 

Portuguese Creoles

Portuguese creoles vary significantly across Africa, influenced by the Portuguese of Brazil and Portugal. Each creole blends Portuguese with one or more indigenous languages. As a result, the creoles in Africa feature different pronunciations, grammar, and vocabularies. 

Some of the creoles used in Portuguese-speaking Africa include:

• Forro – São Tomé and Príncipe

• Kriolu – Cape Verde, also called Cape Verdean Creole

• Angolar – Angola

• Principense Creole – São Tomé and Príncipe

• Kiriol – Guinea-Bissau

• Fa d’Ambô – Equatorial Guinea, largely in Annobón Province and Malabo 

• Santiago Creole – Cape Verde’s Santiago Island

• São Vicente Creole – Cape Verde’s São Vicente Island

Why is it Beneficial to Learn Portuguese and Understand its Varieties?

Discover the benefits of learning Portuguese and appreciating its various forms. 

By studying the differences in how people use Portuguese around the world, we can understand how cultures became entwined. If you want a deep appreciation for a Portuguese-speaking country, you must learn its local version of the Portuguese language. 

You’ll encounter several practical reasons for understanding the language differences. For example, Portuguese citizens use “tu” and “você,” which are the singular and plural forms of “you,” respectively. If you use the wrong one, you will sound out of place and even a little crude. 

These subtle differences make Portuguese translation services crucial in business and other professional settings. The wrong word choice can detract from the overall message you wish to deliver. Using an experienced translator who specializes in Portuguese variants offers significant advantages. 

Finally, we must consider the future of Portuguese when learning about linguistic differences. The Observatory of the Portuguese Language reports that Portuguese speakers in Africa will outnumber those in Brazil by the end of this century. This information may guide your studies if you wonder which Portuguese variant to learn. 

Summary

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey of discovery into the Portuguese language. We covered:

• Portuguese-speaking countries and territories

• Regional variations in spoken Portuguese

• Portuguese creoles in Africa

Please share your experience with learning and speaking Portuguese in the comments section. I would love to hear your thoughts on this fascinating language and its historical and geographical evolution. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.

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