Portuguese Etymology: A Guide to Portuguese Word Origins

Every story has a beginning, and the Portuguese language is no exception. Like other languages, Portuguese​​ has a history entwined with its people and those who speak it. This guide to Portuguese etymology explores the origins of the language, from its earliest beginnings to its modern day adaptation.

The base of the Portuguese language is Spoken Latin, which philosophers call “Ordinary Latin.” The soldiers of the Roman Empire conquered many regions and spread the Latin language throughout. As the soldiers mingled together with the local population, it generated a mixture of the Vulgar Latin language of the soldiers with the native language, giving rise to several new languages. Portuguese was one of them.

The Celts, Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and other groups were residing in the Iberian Peninsula before it was conquered in the third century BC. Celso Cunha, a historian, noted that a few words of these ancient people remain in modern Portuguese, such as balsa (ferry), barro (clay), carrasco (executioner), louça (dishes), manteiga (butter), and some suffixes.

The Catholic Church also had an influence on the language, and used Liturgical Latin. New words appeared in Portuguese, such as celeste (heavenly), fascículo fascicle, lácteo (dairy), and milagre (miracle).

Because of the mixture of words and the close proximity of Portugal and Spain, the Portuguese also acquired some Castilian words. The Portuguese amistoso (friendly) originates from Latin and is similar to the Castilian word amistad (friendship in Spanish), both related to the Latin amicitate.

In this time period, there were many land invasions, and there was a constant struggle for territory control. The Iberian Peninsula, a region so important in the birth of the Portuguese language, was invaded by the Visigoths in the fifth century, as well as by Arabs from the seventh century to the fifteenth. The language was influenced by more Gothic origin words, such as albergue (hostel), bando (troop), and guerra (war). There are also words with Arabic origins, such as alface (lettuce), álcool (alcohol), cifra (cipher), faquir (fakir), and xadrez (chess).

The Arab domination of the Iberian Peninsula lasted over 700 years, so much of the Arab culture impacted the Iberian way of life. Some important and still very common Portuguese words came from Arabic, such as arroz (rice), azeitonas (olives), laranja (orange), limão (lemon), and azar (bad luck).

A great tip to determine if a word is of Arabic origin is if it starts with “al,” an article in Arabic, which became a noun in Portuguese. Examples:  Al-Kayate = alfaiate (tailor), Al-Kutun = algodão (cotton), etc.

From 1580 to 1640 Portugal came under Spanish rule, and the Spanish influence on some words still remains today. Some examples are:  alambrado (fencing), granizo (hail), hombridade (manliness), neblina (fog), and vislumbre (glimpse).

Even though the Iberian Peninsula has been invaded, Portugal itself was a great conqueror. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the construction of the Portuguese overseas empire, the Portuguese language established a presence in various regions of Asia, Africa, and America, and incorporated local influences in words such as jangada (raft) of Malay origin, and chá (tea) of ​​Chinese origin.

In 1500, Portugal discovered Brazil. At this time, several Indian tribes already lived in Brazil, and Portuguese discoverers attempted to bring the Portuguese language to them. While having prevailed over other languages, Portuguese at this time was also modified as it received influences and contributions from local residents. This influence was more significant in the Tupi vocabulary, as evidenced in the examples below.

There were many contributions of the Tupi Indians in what is now Portuguese spoken in Brazil. Not only were words an influence, but also phrases like: Viver na pindaíba (live without money), chorar as pitangas (cry the cherries), deitar e rolar (to be lying in wait).

When Brazil became a monoculture agricultural country and grew mainly coffee and sugar cane, black Africans were brought to Brazil as slaves. While this was a sad page in Brazilian history, Brazil is proud of its African traditions today. The language received a strong African influence in the words Brazilians use, such as:

The slaves also brought the semba, which later became samba, (a type of Brazilian dance.)

As the country grew and developed, other people moved to Brazil from their lands of origin.

From 1800 to 1900, Portuguese immigrants continued to arrive, but people from other European countries, mainly from Germany, Spain and Italy also came to Brazil in search of better living conditions.

After 1900 people came from Syria, Turkey and Japan, as well as several other smaller groups of countries, and the influence of these peoples in the formation of new words has been strong.

For example:

Is the Portuguese language spoken only in Brazil and Portugal? No! Seven other countries use Portuguese as their official language: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, and East Timor. But the language varies, so watch out! In Angola, for example, to serve the mata bicho is only serving breakfast whereas elsewhere in Brazil, it’s an alcoholic beverage.

As you can see, Portuguese is a rich language full of beautiful sounds and interesting history.