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History of Portuguese Literature Origins of Portuguese Literature The Portuguese Language Oral Literature Fiction Lyricism
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The Portuguese Language

Frontispiece of Gramática by Fernão de Oliveira, printed by Germam Galharde in 1536

Gramática , a Portuguese grammar book attributed to João de Barros, published in 1539

The Portuguese language derives from Latin, a language spoken by the inhabitants of the region around ancient Rome, known as Latium. With the expansion of their territory, the Romans brought this language to other regions, where, in conjunction with local factors, it evolved in different ways and gave rise to the Romance languages.

Over time, Classical Latin, which had already established itself as the language of the educated classes and literature, became far removed from its spoken expression. The latter incorporated various influences from the different territories of the Roman Empire, as well as socio-cultural varieties. All these together were referred to as Vulgar Latin, and this gave rise to the Romance languages and, in our particular case, Portuguese.

The Tree of Grammar in Grammatices Rudimenta (c. 1540) by João de Barros

Linguistic communication began to alter gradually and, instead of people in fact speaking in Latin, the changes in their mode of expression brought them the awareness that they had in fact begun to speak in the “Romanic way” (i.e. they had begun to speak Romanice or Romance (a vulgar and mixed way of talking, also referred to here in Portugal as Romanço). For administrative and notarial written texts, a set of formulas were introduced that were identified as Barbarous Latin. In the formation of the Portuguese language, the Latin base also incorporated features of the Celtic, Greek and Hebrew languages, to which Germanic and Arabic elements were later added.

We may consider three phases in the evolution of the Portuguese language: the proto-historic phase, until the thirteenth century (a phase when there were still very close connections in written terms with Barbarous Latin), the archaic phase, until the sixteenth century (a phase in which, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, one of the most important developments was the Galician-Portuguese language, with Portuguese later acquiring its own autonomy in relation to Galician) and the modern phase, with the publication of the first grammar books, by Fernão de Oliveira, 1536, and João de Barros, 1540, and the proliferation of literary works that helped to establish its reputation, and amongst these was, of course, Camões’ epic poem  Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads).

In terms of the phonation of the Portuguese language, its formal characteristics are considered to consist of the phenomena of nasalisation (the dropping of Latin consonants and their replacement by nasal diphthongs, e.g. the -ão and -ãe sounds, and vowels with the same tonal quality, e.g. panes > pães), vocalisation (the dropping of Latin consonants and their replacement by vowels, e.g. regnu > reino) and palatalisation (groups of Latin consonants resulting in the ch- and lh- groups, e.g. pluvia > chuva).

In 1945, in his book Estilística da Língua Portuguesa, Rodrigues Lapa studied some of the expressive potentialities of the Portuguese language in both communication and literature.

© Instituto Camões, 2001