Portuñol: Blending Spanish and Portuguese

Hybrid languages arising from the contact between two usually-separate linguistic entities exist all over the world. We have varieties such as Taglish (English words in Tagalog), Hinglish (a mix of Hindi and English) and the much-cited Spanglish. This happens because languages cross borders and tend not to respect different ethnicities. In more peaceful regions, such as South America, where Spanish speakers have a good relationship with Portuguese speakers, this influence can be all the more entrenching. I am not talking about normal loanwords that languages all over the world tend to “borrow” from one another, but about a brand-new variety or a new dialect: Portuñol (as spelled by Spanish speakers) or Portunhol (as spelled by Portuguese speakers).

The Treaty of Tordesillas (Portuguese: Tratado de Tordesilhas, Spanish: Tratado de Tordesillas), signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, divided the newly-discovered lands outside Europe between Spain and Portugal along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. This line of demarcation was about halfway between the already-Portuguese Cape Verde Islands, and the islands discovered by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage and claimed for Spain. The lands to the east would belong to Portugal, and the lands to the west to Spain. The treaty was ratified by Spain on July 2, 1494, and by Portugal on September 5, 1494.

By virtue of their sheer numbers, Brazilian Portuguese speakers currently enjoy a privilege that their European counterparts no longer do. In comparison, just consider the number of Latinos in the United States and the impact they cause on the English language (words like aficionado, simpatico, amigo, adios) and even on the American culture (such as tacos, nachos and so on). In practice, the interaction of the population of the peoples of South America has surpassed old national borders, linguistically speaking, and this proximity increases more and more due to radio, television, newspapers and, of course, the internet. Brazil, the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America, shares a border with seven other Spanish-speaking countries. In sum, one can say that metaphorically there has recently been an annulment of the Treaty of Tordesillas.

As with many hybrid languages, the existence of Portuñol has given rise to notions that it is undesirable — the result of laziness, indifference or even lack of respect for the other language and its speakers. Mexican tourism representative Silvia Ramos decries the use of pseudo-Portuguese in John Lipski’s article on Portuñol: “Desafortunadamente, han surgido personas que dicen hablar Portuñol. El Portuñol consiste en imprimirle una tonalidad portuguesa al idioma castellano . . . . Los invito a no seguir prostituyendo al portugués” (Unfortunately, some people have appeared with the claim they speak Portuñol. Portuñol consists of conferring a Portuguese tonality to the Castilian language . . . . I urge you not to keep on prostituting the Portuguese language) (p. 2).

In a more optimistic vein, the renowned linguist Steven Fischer prophesies that Brazil will eventually no longer be Portuguese-speaking, but will rather use Portuñol. In an interview on veja, he says that “em 300 anos, o Brasil estará falando um idioma muito diferente do atual. Devido à enorme influência do espanhol, é bastante provável que surja uma espécie de portunhol. . . . O português não será substituído por outro idioma. Os brasileiros não irão falar espanhol. O que irá acontecer é uma mistura das duas línguas” (in 300 years’ time, Brazil will be speaking a very different language from what is now spoken. Due to the enormous influence of Spanish, it is very likely that a new variety of Portunhol will emerge. . . . Portuguese will not be replaced by another language. Brazilians will not be speaking Spanish. What will happen is a mixture of both languages).

Though some things he says are true, it is quite daring of him to foresee a future so distant when it comes to languages. Obviously there are trends that can be observed in several domains of a given language, such as competing pronunciations, in which one will eventually win and the other one will likely perish. There are also cases when two quasi-synonyms diverge and take on slightly different shades of meaning or start to be used only in certain collocations. But to say that a country as big as Brazil will start speaking a new dialect is fairly bold, to say the least. On the other hand, what the Spanish linguist Marcos Marín says is far more modest: “Espanglish y portuñol son linguas francas que sirven para que hablantes que no manejan bien el inglés o el portugués usen una fórmula simplificada, con un fuerte componente español, en los Estados Unidos o en el Brasil” (Spanglish and Portuñol are lingua francas that speakers who don’t master English or Portuguese use, as a simplified formula with a strong Spanish component, both in the United States and in Brazil) (Lipski p. 3).


Types of Portuñol

Portuñol is not restricted to a single phenomenon. As Lipski points out, it can be divided into at least two distinct situations. First, it has traditionally been applied to stable bilingual configurations in border communities, such as Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and even Portugal. Second, it is used as a term to describe a wide range of phenomena, including mistakes produced by speakers trying to speak the foreign language correctly. Possibly most interestingly, it refers to idiosyncratic invented speech, or words used when the speaker generalizes a few rules he or she knows and ends up coining a non-existent word in the target language.

In the first situation, some systematic changes can be observed, whereas in the second, there is a tendency to use ad hoc inventions for the purpose at hand. These may even become popular and be used jocularly, as is the case with the phrase hacer una ligación, which a few years ago was used by a language school in Brazil in an ad that tried to convince people that they think they know Spanish, while in fact they do not, and with such ignorance it can even get them into embarrassing situations.

Due to the close affinity of both languages — both being derived from the common ancestor Latin — it turns out that they are often mutually intelligible. There are even some sentences that, if taken in isolation, can be said to be either Spanish or Portuguese. More often, though, minor systematic differences arise. For instance, words ending in –n in Spanish tend to have an –m ending in Portuguese, such as: en/em (in), origen/origem (origin), orden/ordem (order), hacen/fazem (they do) and so on. Another generalization is that the Spanish –ción ending is usually rendered as –ção in Portuguese. Any Brazilian who has studied some Spanish (which is, incidentally, a mandatory subject) but not enough to speak it fluently, will probably generalize some of the rules learned and make mistakes. In Portuguese, fazer uma ligação means make a phone call, for example. Some Brazilian tourists report that after saying that they want to hacer una ligación, the Spanish speaker will laugh, because in Spanish that phrase would be hacer una llamada, whereas ligación means something quite different, even vulgar. Other examples could be cited, such as Spanish borracho/a (drunk), whereas Portuguese has borracha (rubber — drunk is bêbadola/a); rato (moment) for Portuguese rato (rat); apellido (surname) in Spanish vs. Portuguese apelido (nickname); and Spanish pelado/a (hairless, bald) for Portuguese pelado/a (naked).

With Brazil’s good economic condition compared to other countries of the region, notably Argentina, which in recent years has gone through some economic crises, many middle-class Brazilian tourists have been going to Argentina for a weekend of shopping — something unimaginable some decades ago. Due to lack of time or even interest to learn a whole new language, though similar in many respects, Brazilian tourists get by with only a version of ad hoc Portuñol in Argentina. Not so long ago, La Nation quoted Argentine Consul General Guillermo Hunt on the subject of the immigration of Argentine professionals to Brazil: “Todos ellos, lejos de dejarse intimidar por las diferencias idiomáticas, se atreven a aprender la nueva lengua in situ. La realidad es que con el portuñol todo el mundo sobrevive” (Far from getting intimidated by the linguistic differences, all of them dare to learn the new language in situ. The truth is that everybody gets by with Portuñol).

We can apply the same concept to Argentine-bound tourists, that is, that everybody can get by with Portuñol, be it Brazilian tourists in Spanish-speaking countries, or vice versa. Incidentally, I have often seen two people, one a native speaker of Spanish, the other of Portuguese, hold a fairly fluent conversation, both using their own languages, and having very little difficulty understanding each other, save for a word or two that, given the proper periphrasis, no further trouble ensues. 

Another interesting phenomenon is deliberate creations, usually based on a Brazilian speaker’s formed stereotype and generalization of some rules of Spanish grammar. Significantly, in recent years even a literary production in Portunhol has arisen, mostly in Uruguay and Brazil. A notable example is the novel Mar paraguayo by the Brazilian author Wilson Bueno (1992), which was written in literary Portuñol with many Guaraní elements included. There are also several examples that became popular in Brazil through the newspapers, such as the comical column by the journalist José Simão in the Ilustrada section of Folha de São Paulo. In it, he often writes pseudo-Spanish words like *buemba for the correct bomba (bomb) or *socuerro (help!) for the correct socorro (incidentally, a homograph of the Portuguese word socorro, which means the same thing) and ueba, an exclamation of enthusiasm, for oba, which has no equivalent cognate in Spanish. All these pseudo-Spanish words can be accounted for by a generalization of the diphthong ue/o in cognate words between Spanish and Portuguese, such as puente/ponte (bridge), muero/morro (I die) and fuente/fonte (fountain), among many others.

Sometimes, however, just give a Portuguese word a Spanish-like pronunciation, and there you have a brand-new Portuñol word, such as *horre for Spanish hoy (today), which was interpreted as pronouncing the Portuguese hoje with the velar fricative [x] of the Spanish j, as in words like jalapeño. The double r was used in writing to represent the Brazilian Portuguese version of the velar fricative. But the point is that there is no word pronounced like this — [oxe] in the International Phonetic Alphabet — either in Spanish or in Portuguese. Another curious creation, as pointed out by Lipski, was the pseudo-Spanish word *barujo, which was used to mean noise based on the Portuguese word barulho. There is, however, no counterpart in standard Spanish (it was borrowed into regional Spanish as barullo), in which the same concept is expressed by ruido. The explanation is that in many words Portuguese lh corresponds to Spanish j, as in olho/ojo (eye), velho/viejo (old), alho/ajo (garlic) and so on. Such language combination means much more than just both accidental and deliberate contact between languages that are akin to each other. As it turns out, this is a case of a peculiar sociolinguistic situation.  M



 “Con el portuñol todo el mundo sobrevive.” La Nation. 14 February 2003. Available at: www.lanacion.com.ar/473839.

Lipsky, John M. “Too close for comfort? The genesis of ‘Portuñol/Portunhol’.” Selected proceedings of the 8th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium, ed. Timothy L. Face and Carol A. Klee. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project, 2006.1-22.

Peralta, José Jorge. Intercâmbio linguístico-cultural de Fronteiras na América Latina – o Portunhol. Xi Encontro Regional da NAPUH-SP, 1992.

Salgado, Eduardo. “O fim do português.” Veja. 5 April 2000. Available at: http://veja.abril.com.br/idade/educacao/050400/entrevista.html.