A Brief Overview of the Portuguese Language

Portuguese vs English

A Brief Overview of the Portuguese Language

Portuguese is a Romance language derived from Vulgar Latin and Medieval Galician. After its development in Portugal, it spread worldwide when the Portuguese discoveries were expanding the colonial empire.

It is a common misconception that Portuguese is only spoken in Portugal and Brazil. In fact, it is the official language in nine countries in four continents: Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Timor-Leste, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe and the Chinese autonomous territory of Macau.

An interesting fact: only 5% of Portuguese speakers live in Portugal! Have you seen the size of Brazil? Or Mozambique?  Brazil itself has more than 205 million Portuguese speakers.

Some differences between English and Portuguese:

  • In Portuguese each verb tense has six different endings

This is a stumbling block for English speakers to learn Portuguese. As an example, the English verb “to eat” has two conjugations in the present tense. However, the correspondent verb in Portuguese would be conjugated with six.

English - To eatPortuguese - Comer
I eatEu como
You eatTu comes
He/She/It eatsEle/Ela come
We eatNós comemos
You eatVós comeis
They eatEles/Elas comem
  • Portuguese has two verbs meaning “to be”


There are two situations in which you can use “to be” in Portuguese: ser and estar. Ser expresses permanent, intrinsic states or qualities, while estar communicates temporary situations such as location, mood or weather conditions. Nevertheless, this distinction gives rise to some interesting quirks, for example:

– The Portuguese language considers marriage to be a permanent state under invariable conditions, using ser casado instead of estar casado (to be married). On the other hand, if you’re saying what day it is, you still use ser terça-feira (It’s Tuesday), although it’s not a permanent situation.

– Stating the weather, location or position are some of the uses for estar. So, when you say “I’m working at L10N”, you translate this as Estou a trabalhar na L10N; or “I’m downstairs” as Estou no andar de baixo.

  • In Portuguese inanimate objects have gender

In fact, everything has a gender in Portuguese, there is no neutral gender. You tell masculine and feminine apart usually by an A or an O at the end of the word or the article preceding it. Some examples:

WordGenderTranslation to English
GarrafaFeminine Bottle
O bebéMasculineBaby
A bebéFeminineBaby

Besides that, the adjectives vary according to the gender:

É uma garrafa velha.It’s an old bottle.
Cabelo encaracolado.Curly hair.
O bebé é querido.The baby is sweet.
A bebé é querida.The baby is sweet.

Portuguese variants and dialects

In Portuguese there is no variant (or dialect) that is considered “neutral” to all Portuguese-speaking countries. Generally speaking, there are three main variants: European, African and Brazilian. But even within these variants there are distinct dialects and some of them are very different from each other.

An example (click to listen):

– Liga do meu celular para o açougue que não tem carne na geladeira!


(Call the butcher’s because there’s no meat in the fridge)

– Liga do meu telemóvel para o talho porque não carne no frigorífico!

The two sentences mean exactly the same thing, the first one you can hear it in Brazil, the second one in Portugal.

And there are still many different dialects within the same country. In Portugal, the differences between the North and the South are very distinct. An example similar to previous one (both sentences mean the same, but the first may is heard in the North, while the second in the South):

As minhas sapatilhas são vermelhas.

(My sneakers are red)

Os meus ténis são encarnados.

In theory all speakers of any Portuguese variant understand the other variants. But there’s always specific words in each of them that can be interpreted differently.

If you want to know more about the differences between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese, click here.

If you want to know more about the Portuguese-speaking countries, click here.