What is the official language of Portugal? What is the official language of Mozambique and Angola? What is the official language of Brazil?
The answer to all of these is one and the same: Portuguese.
Portuguese has around 252 million speakers, of whom 228 million speak the language as their mother tongue. The vast majority of those speakers hail from Brazil, which is the largest of the countries that speak Portuguese. Angola also has a substantial Portuguese speaking population, as does Mozambique. And, of course, Portugal itself.
I wanted to spend some time exploring Portuguese speaking countries (virtually, of course, thanks to Covid). Where is Portuguese spoken? How does the language differ from region to region? Read on to discover all this and more.
Portuguese is the ninth most spoken language on the planet in terms of total speaker numbers. Where is Portuguese spoken? In terms of native speakers, in Brazil, Angola, Portugal and Mozambique, as I mentioned above, plus Sao Tome and Principe, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, East Timor and Macau.
Several other countries are also home to relatively small clusters of Portuguese speakers, including Venezuela, the United States, Japan, South Africa, Zambia, Namibia and Malaysia.
Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail.
How many countries have Portuguese as a national language? In total there are ten countries and territories where Portuguese is listed as an official language. Nine of them are sovereign states, of which seven are in Africa.
Which South American country speaks Portuguese? Brazil, of course. Portuguese not Spanish is its official language.
Brazil is the only country that speaks Portuguese in South America and is home to a total of 209 million speakers. This makes it by far the largest Portuguese speaking country in the world. 99.5% of the entire Brazilian population speaks Portuguese as their first language. To find out about the other languages spoken in Brazil, you can click the link below.
Read more: The Languages Spoken in Brazil
Angola leads the pack in terms of African countries that speak Portuguese. It is home to around 18 million speakers, making it the second largest of the world’s Portuguese speaking nations. While a minority of the population speak Portuguese as their first language, most people who live in Angola speak it as their second tongue.
Portugal’s national language is (obviously) Portuguese. This is where the Portuguese language originated from in the first place, long before travellers carried it across the Atlantic to Brazil. All of the places that speak Portuguese ultimately got their language from Portugal.
Today, Portugal is home to roughly ten million Portuguese speakers.
I find it interesting looking at a map of Africa that it’s not simply the countries near Portugal that speak Portuguese. Instead, the map of Portugal and surrounding countries shows a pattern of Portuguese speaking countries dotted around the African coastline – a clear nod to Portugal’s colonial past.
Mozambique is one former Portuguese colony where the language is still spoken today. It is home to around ten million speakers in total, with a significant minority of the population speaking it natively.
Just under 200,000 people in Guinea-Bissau speak Portuguese. The majority of them live in the capital city, Bissau, in an area referred to as ‘a Praça’ (the Square).
Although Portuguese is one of East Timor’s official languages, only around 5% of the population speaks it. That’s because the former Portuguese colony saw the language supressed during the 24 years of Indonesian rule that took place before East Timor gained independence (in 2002). These days, the speaking of Portuguese has become something of a contentious issue in the country.
Another of the countries in Africa that speak Portuguese, Equatorial Guinea officially adopted the language in 2010. Both Portuguese and the Portuguese Creole, Fa d’Ambô, are spoken there.
The island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe has Portuguese as its official language, with 98.4% of the population speaking it.
The majority of Cape Verde’s population of over 500,000 speak Portuguese, as it is the archipelago’s official language. Despite this, the mother tongue of almost all Cape Verdeans is the Portuguese-based creole Kriolu (Cape Verdean Creole).
As well as those countries that have an official language of Portuguese, sizeable communities of speakers can be found in other locations dotted around the planet. I just want to look at a couple of these before moving on to examine some of the differences between the different kinds of Portuguese that are in use.
A small minority of Macau’s population speaks Portuguese natively, totalling around 12,000 speakers.
Other countries where Portuguese is spoken include:
• France: France is home to 900,000 Portuguese speakers.
• The United States: over 730,000 people in the United States speak Portuguese at home.
• Paraguay: while there are no official Portuguese speaking countries in South America other than Brazil, neighbouring Paraguay is home to a sizeable community of Portuguese speakers, with around 636,000 Lusophones living there.
• Canada: around 400,000 people in Canada speak Portuguese.
• Japan: the island country of Japan is also home to around 400,000 Portuguese speakers.
Languages evolve over time, so while the Portuguese that was spoken by the very first sailors to land in Brazil, say, or Cape Verde, was the same as that spoken in Portugal, plenty of differences have arisen over the centuries since. Portuguese has also mixed with a variety of local and indigenous languages to create a range of creoles.
Interestingly, there have been concerted efforts over the years to maintain orthographic consistency between some of the more commonly used forms of Portuguese. These have seen Portuguese speaking countries around the world working together, from Portugal and Brazil as far back as 1931 to a joint effort between Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe in 1986. The latter was abandoned at the time, but a spelling reform between the seven Portuguese language countries was agreed four years later, finally coming into effect from 2009.
Despite all of this work to coordinate the various forms of Portuguese, notable differences between the languages still exist. Consider the differences between the English spoken in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and so on. This is much the same with Portuguese. Different variations have different sounds and use different structures. Let’s take a look at some of these now.
Brazilian Portuguese differs from the language of Portugal in several ways. One of the most noticeable, when you listen to speakers from the two countries, is the more audible vowel sounds in Brazilian Portuguese. Another difference is that Brazilian Portuguese has an eight oral vowel system, while European and African variations of Portuguese have a ninth.
The distinctive ‘sh’ sound that Portuguese speakers in Portugal use when there’s an ‘s’ at the end of a word is also notable absent in Brazilian Portuguese (where it’s pronounced simply ‘ss’).
Many people find that these differences make it easier to learn to speak Brazilian Portuguese than European Portuguese.
There are spelling differences between the two languages as well and some words that differ entirely. In Portugal, you would ‘dar os parabéns’ to congratulate someone, while in Brazil you would ‘parabenizar’ (essentially ‘to give congratulations’ versus ‘to congratulate’). And if you wanted to catch the train in Portugal, you would hop on ‘o comboio,’ while in Brazil you would take ‘o trem.’
Numerous such examples exist. While you would be understood speaking Brazilian Portuguese in Portugal (and vice versa), the differences are sufficient to be almost instantly noticeable in conversation – much as they would in the case of a Briton conversing with people in the US.
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 its own distinctive degree of musicality. It includes the ‘sh’ sound that Brazilian Portuguese lacks, but certain consonants – mainly ‘s,’ ‘t’ and ‘r’ – sound stronger.
In addition, Angolan Portuguese borrows a number of words from local languages (Angola recognises more than ten national languages, which are spoken by over seven million people). Words such as ‘camba’ (friend) and ‘kota’ (elderly person), for example, are borrowed from Kimbundu.
Interestingly, migration patterns have meant that some Angolan Portuguese words are now used by the younger generations in Portugal. These include ‘bué’ for ‘a lot’ or ‘very’ and ‘bazar’ for ‘go away.’ Brazilians, meanwhile, use the Angolan Portuguese ‘nenê’ (newborn) and ‘moleque’ (little boy), which are borrowed from Umbundu and Kimbundu respectively.
The Portuguese language spoken in Guinea-Bissau is interesting. The standard phonology is European Portuguese, which is used in education, literature, government and the media. However, the majority of people who speak Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau speak Kiriol (Guinea-Bissau Creole). This variant of Portuguese serves as a lingua franca and is an important part of Guinea-Bissauans’ national identity.
Portuguese creoles vary significantly across Africa, both from the Portuguese variations spoken in Brazil and in Portugal and from each other. That’s because each creole has blended spoken Portuguese with one or more indigenous languages. As such, the creoles feature different pronunciation, different grammar and different vocabulary.
Some of the creoles used in Portuguese speaking Africa include:
• Forro – spoken in São Tomé and Príncipe
• Kriolu – spoken in Cape Verde and also called Cape Verdean Creole
• Angolar – a Portuguese creole spoken in Angola
• Principense Creole – spoken by around 4,000 people in São Tomé and Príncipe
• Kiriol – spoken in Guinea-Bissau
• Fa d’Ambô – spoken in Equatorial Guinea, largely in Annobón Province and Malabo
• Santiago Creole – spoken on Cape Verde’s Santiago Island
• São Vicente Creole – spoken on Cape Verde’s São Vincente Island
There are others, of course – it is this rich variety that makes languages such a fascinating study! But hopefully these give a flavour of some of the ways in which Portuguese and languages derived from it are peppered around the globe.
There are several reasons why these differences between Portuguese are important and why it’s essential to understand them. First and foremost is the way in which languages and cultures are entwined. To understand either fully requires a study of both. This means that if you want to truly get to know one of the countries or territories I’ve mentioned above, you’ll need to learn about its local version of the Portuguese language.
A number of practical reasons for understanding the differences also exist. There are differences between using ‘tu’ and ‘você’ (both mean ‘you’) in Portugal and in Brazil. Use the wrong one, with the wrong verb ending, and your language will sound out of place and perhaps even a little crude.
It is subtle differences such as these that make Portuguese translation services so important in business and other professional settings. The wrong choice of word can detract from the overall message you’re trying to deliver. Using an experienced translator who specialises in the variation of Portuguese that you need can thus deliver major advantages.
Finally, it’s important to consider the future of Portuguese when learning about linguistic differences. The Observatory of the Portuguese Language reports that Portuguese speakers in Africa are likely to outnumber those in Brazil by the end of this century. Food for thought if you’re currently wondering which variation of Portuguese to learn.
I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on this journey of discovery into the Portuguese language. It’s been interesting to look at:
• Portuguese speaking countries and territories
• Regional variations in spoken Portuguese
• Some of the Portuguese creoles in use in Africa
Feel free to share your experiences of 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.