Tag Archives: Portuguese

A historical question about the language map of Spain

The main languages of Spain besides Castilian Spanish are spoken in the north of the Iberian peninsula, from Galicia in the west to the País Vasco and Navarra in the center to Catalonia in the east. Additionally, Portuguese territory occupies the western edge of the peninsula, and Catalonian is also spoken in Valencia, on its eastern edge.

Modified from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Autonomous_communities_of_Spain.svg under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Castilian became the predominant form of Hispanic Romance because Castilians took the lead role in the Reconquista: the long process of retaking Arab-held territory, culminating in the conquest of Granada in 1492. As Ralph Penny summarized, “At first typical only of the speech of the Burgos area of southern Cantabria, Castilian linguistic characteristics were carried south, southeast and southwest, in part by movement of population, as Castilians settled in reconquered territories, and in part by the adoption of Castilian features by those whose speech was originally different.” This naturally left Galician, Basque, Catalan, and Portuguese remaining in areas that weren’t part of this takeover process.

An animated map I found on Wikipedia has me wondering about the specifics of this process. It shows all the different forms of northern peninsular Romance pushing south, then Castilian spreading east and west at the expense of Leonese and Aragonese. I don’t know enough Iberian dialectal history to evaluate the accuracy of this narrative. Can anyone chime in? I’m particularly curious about the map’s depiction of the history of Portuguese. Was Mozárabe really the form of Romance spoken in today’s Portugal until the Reconquista?

By The original uploader was Alexandre Vigo at Galician Wikipedia (Transferred from gl.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The lopsided mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese

After the second World War, my grandmother’s family scattered all over the world. My grandmother had already immigrated from Poland to the United States. Her youngest brother ended up in Vienna. Her three sisters, who didn’t look Jewish, managed to survive the war hiding in plain sight in Poland, then married conscripted French laborers and moved to France. Her two brothers immigrated to Brazil.

As a result, our occasional and joyous get-togethers with the extended family were a linguistic smörgåsbord featuring Polish, Yiddish, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. In particular, our Brazilian cousins spoke Portuguese to me and my father, and we spoke Spanish to them. At the time, I had the impression that our Brazilian cousins could understand our Spanish much better than we understood their Portuguese. This impression has stuck with me in later encounters with Portuguese speakers.

This isn’t just my own observation; ask any Spanish speaker, and you’re likely to hear the same thing. It’s also echoed in linguistic literature, most notably by eminent Spanish scholar Ralph Penny: “speakers of Spanish understand at least some of what is said in Portuguese, and the Portuguese speakers will understand a good deal more of what is said in Spanish” (Variation and Change in Spanish, p. 14).

I’ve only found one study that addresses this question systematically. Florida International University professor John B. Jensen had Portuguese and Spanish speakers (all from Latin America, and none expert at the other language) listen to passages in the other language, then answer comprehension questions in their own language. Comprehension in each direction hovered at around 50%. The Portuguese speakers were more successful than the Spanish speakers at interpreting what they heard, a difference that was slim yet statistically significant.

To find out why, I checked in with my great friend (and Portuguese expert) Bonnie Wasserman. She suggested that the main factor was the greater complexity of the Portuguese vowel system. Compared to Spanish’s economical five-vowel system, Portuguese has more core vowels and also a set of nasalized vowels. For example, where Spanish has a single vowel /o/, Portuguese has three: /o/ as in avô “grandfather” (this is closest to Spanish /o/), /ɔ/ as in avó “grandmother” (similar to the au of caught), and nasal /õ/ as in onda “wave” (the n is not pronounced). Spanish speakers can become confused if they fail to pick up on these subtle differences.

A second factor is rhythmic. While Spanish is more stacatto, with each word pronounced individually, Portuguese words are more connected. This makes it harder for Spanish speakers to pick out familiar words when heard in context.

Related discussions are herehere, and here.

[Update from 4 Aug: Here‘s a post about mutual intelligibility in English that includes a list of references about mutual intelligibility in general (search on “Subtirelu”)].