“They look similar!” I can already hear you saying. “Look, just change this, and constitución becomes constituição. Todo is tudu and bien is bem. Lengua is lingua, and idioma is idioma. They’re just dialects of the same language.”
Yes and no.
Now, no. Portuguese and Spanish are currently quite different. You can’t learn one and expect to function effortlessly in the other. Portuguese sounds are quite different from Spanish ones, as are the two languages’ vocabularies. And which variety of present-day Portuguese and Spanish are we talking about, specifically? There’s Argentine Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, for starters, and Canary Islands Spanish and Guinean Portuguese, not to mention the regional differences between Portuguese and Spanish dialects within Portugal and Spain themselves.
But once upon a time, yes. Portuguese and Spanish were, basically, dialects of the same language. That language was Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, from which all Romance languages spring.
Hundreds of years later, how have Portuguese and Spanish grown apart, and why? And will they always be different?
Spain and Portugal presently occupy almost the entirety of the Iberian Peninsula, the spit of land that sticks out of Western Europe just below France. (Almost, but not quite: the tiny Principality of Andorra sits snug along the border of Spain and France, ensconced in the embrace of the Eastern Pyrenees.) The Iberian Peninsula is where Portuguese and Spanish were ‘born’ (if languages can be born) and it is also the main reason why Portuguese and Spanish are much closer to each other than to the other major Romance languages: it has allowed them to develop in relative isolation. Indeed, this is plain to see on a map: the oceans surround the western, southern and eastern edges of the Peninsula, while to the north, the Pyrenees form a natural border with France. It is for this reason also that Portuguese and Spanish are usually known as the Iberian or Iberoamerican languages.
But Portuguese and Spanish were not the first languages on the Peninsula, nor are they those first languages’ descendants. They come from a very different place.
All roads lead from Rome
The story of Portuguese and Spanish, as with all Romance languages, actually begins in Italy. Or, more specifically, with the Roman Empire, which spoke Latin and spread the language across the lands that it conquered and governed.
At their height, the Romans controlled almost all the areas immediately surrounding the Mediterranean, including modern-day Italy, Croatia, the Levant (the area around modern-day Israel, Lebanon and Syria), the Maghreb (modern-day Morocco), and the Iberian peninsula (which the Romans called ‘Hispania’). Latin, as the language of the Roman Empire, was thus brought into all these places, and it gradually began to supersede the use of many other languages on the Peninsula.
Aquitanian, Tartessian, Lusitanian, Celtiberian: these are some of the languages believed to have existed on the peninsula before the arrival of the Romans in 218 BCE. All have now been lost to history (except perhaps Aquitanian, which may have survived in its possible daughter language, Basque, and which you can read about here) because Latin superseded them all in the new Roman province of Hispania. At this time, there was no Spain or Portugal to speak of; there was only Hispania, initially divided into two sections, Hispania Ulterior and Citerior, which became three from 27 BCE: Lusitania (the south-west), Baetica (the south), and Tarraconensis (the rest); and then five from 284 CE, with swathes of Tarraconensis becoming the new provinces of Galicia (the north-west) and Cartaginense (the south-east).
Thus, for the next 600 years, Latin continued to reign supreme on the Iberian Peninsula, as it did in most of the other areas of the Roman Empire.
Latin, however, was itself changing. Just as there are formal and informal versions of Arabic and Tamil today, spoken in different contexts, so too were there different varieties of Latin emerging in the Empire. There was a standardised, ‘higher’ version of Latin, which we call Classical Latin, spoken in more formal contexts like matters of administration and, later, in churches; and then there was the more informal Latin that everyday people spoke, which gradually came to be called colloquial or Vulgar Latin.
Vulgar Latin developed differently in different parts of the Empire. Not all the reasons for the differences are known, but one main factor could be that different parts of the Empire had different indigenous languages that came into contact with Latin, and thus different parts of the Empire had different loanwords (and eventually vocabularies) in their versions of Vulgar Latin. For example, the Vulgar Latin spoken in Spain and Portugal might have included loanwords from Celtiberian, whereas the Vulgar Latin spoken in France might have loanwords from other indigenous languages instead such as Gaulish.
Of course, Vulgar Latin was frowned upon by authorities and those from the higher echelons of society, and Classical Latin remained their language of choice; they maintained it as a unifying language that was used for administration in all parts of the Roman Empire. Thus, as long as the Empire stayed intact, so too did Latin.
Gothic and Arabic
Like all great empires, however, the Roman Empire was destined to fall. As its influence and control over the territories on its periphery began to weaken significantly, territories like Hispania began in the 5th century CE to experience several waves of invasions by Germanic peoples like the Vandals, the Alans, and the Visigoths. Eventually, Hispania came under control of this last group, the Visigoths, who were invited to rule the province for Rome by Emperor Honorius in 415 CE, and who gradually took complete control of it, especially after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE.
The new kings were native speakers of Gothic, a distant but now extinct relative of today’s German and English. Gothic never really caught on in Hispania, and remained the language of the upper classes, while the majority of the population continued to use Vulgar Latin for everyday communication and interaction. However, with Classical Latin no longer readily available for ‘reference’ as the standard to aspire to, Vulgar Latin in Hispania likely began to change further, incorporating several new features from Gothic.
Then, beginning in 711 CE, Visigothic Hispania was almost entirely conquered by the Moors of the Umayyad Caliphate, becoming the new Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus. In a series of swift, lightning-fast conquests, the Umayyads took almost the entire Iberian Peninsula, and replaced Gothic with Arabic as the language of the elite.
However, the Vulgar Latin dialects continued to survive in large part because most of the population remained Christian despite now being subject to heavy Arabic influence. For this reason, the Vulgar Latin of this time is known as Mozarabic. As had been the case under the Visigoth kings, Mozarabic was spoken by a large majority of the population, while Arabic was only used by the upper echelons of society.
Whence Portuguese and Spanish, then? At last, with the Muslim conquest of Spain, they were beginning to appear.
In the northwest corner of Spain, the tiny kingdom of Asturias successfully resisted the Moors, and was able to recover and grow in strength throughout the 9th and 10th centuries CE. This one remaining Christian bulwark on the peninsula thus served as the nucleus of the movement known as the Reconquista or the Christian reconquering of Spain, and also as the nucleus from which Portuguese and Spanish as we know them today were eventually born.
At its inception, Asturias was composed of the modern-day regions of Asturias and Galicia, which were never fully under the control of the Moors. Indeed, Galicia especially had remained fiercely distinctive since the 4th century. In 409 CE, slightly earlier than the rest of the peninsula, it had become a separate Roman vassal state under the Suebi, a separate Germanic race from the Visigoths, and remained an independent Suebi kingdom until 585 CE, when Visigoth King Leovigild absorbed it into the rest of Visigoth Hispania. Galician dialects of Vulgar Latin were thus already rather more divergent compared to Vulgar Latin and Mozarabic dialects on the rest of the peninsula, and even compared to their Asturian brethren.
Enter a Galician nobleman named Vimara Peres, who at the end of the 9th century CE, led an Asturian force to conquer a sizeable chunk of Andalusian territory between the Minho and Douro rivers. Asturian King Alfonso III awarded the entire region to Peres as a County, and Peres resettled the area with Galician colonists. He also named it after the largest port city in the region, Portus Cale—taken today as the origin of the name Portugal. From this point on, Portugal began to develop its own regional identity, and indeed, its own distinct Vulgar Latin dialects, separate from the Asturian ones.
Portuguese and Spanish
Eventually, Asturias splintered into several successor states as various kings and heirs fought for control over the area. Two of these successor states were the Kingdom of Leon, and the County of Portugal, the latter of which declared its independence as a separate Kingdom from Leon in 1143 under King Afonso Henrique, and by which time had expanded to fill out most of the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Portuguese was also by this time a markedly different dialect from the other Vulgar Latin daughter dialects, and Portugal’s separation from Leon ensured that this would continue to be so.
Meanwhile, Leon, later the Kingdom of Leon and Castile, gradually began to assert itself as the dominant force in the central area of the Peninsula. It eventually defeated the Moorish kingdoms, and expanded to control the territory of modern-day Spain by the end of the 15th century CE. The Vulgar Latin daughter dialect that eventually became the language that we know today as Spanish was the Castilian dialect that originated with Leon and Castile, and which became standardised in written form in the 13th century around the city of Toledo through the work of the Toledo School of Translators. Under the official patronage of King Alfonso X, this group worked to translate a large body of various Arabic and Hebrew texts into Latin and, for the first time, Castilian, giving Castilian a sizeable body of “official” written language, and in doing so laying the foundations for Castilian’s eventual dominance over the other daughter dialects of Vulgar Latin.
Today, both Standard Castilian Spanish and Standard Continental Portuguese reflect this rich tapestry of linguistic and cultural history, with a sizeable number of loanwords from Arabic, Gothic and (in the case of Spanish) Basque. Both languages retain similar grammatical features and syntax, and also share many cognates, or root word forms, as a result of their common descent from the Vulgar Latin spoken on the peninsula.
However, Portuguese and Spanish differ mainly because of their different origins during the period following the Muslim conquest of Iberia and the advent of the Reconquista. Modern-day Portugal was conquered and consolidated as a stable kingdom much earlier than Spain, and thus the process of the standardisation of Portuguese began earlier than that of Spanish, resulting in Portuguese retaining more recognisable features of Vulgar Latin than Spanish, whose original core dialects evolved and became standardised much later. Geography, both natural and political, has also played a part—had Portugal not remained an independent kingdom and state, it is conceivable that Portuguese might have deteriorated, much as the other Vulgar Latin dialects have today. (The reverse with Castilian Spanish is possible too, though much more unlikely, due to the relative size of the two polities).
Other Vulgar Latin dialects?
What happened to those, I hear you ask? After all, there were other successor states to Asturias, like Aragon, and Navarre. Surely they had their own unique dialects. And what happened to Leonese and Galician?
The answer is that with the process of standardisation, other dialects that have not been chosen as the standard often become marginalised and are left to simply fade away. In many cases, this is exactly what happened with the other dialects up until recent times: Aragonese, Leonese, and Navarrese are all still spoken, but by relatively few people, as Castilian Spanish became the sole language of use in almost all domains of public life after the 15th century. Nonetheless, Galicia has managed to maintain its strong distinctive regional identity, and Galician has survived quite well into the present day as a strong marker of that identity. Galician and Portuguese continue to be rather more mutually intelligible than Portuguese and Spanish as a result of Portuguese’s evolution from the Galician Vulgar Latin dialects; indeed, most linguists agree that Galician and Portuguese form a sort of continuum of intelligibility. Two other languages that have experienced a resurgence on the peninsula are Catalan, which after almost near-extinction has reemerged as one of the primary drivers of the Catalan independence movement, and Basque, very probably the last survivor of the languages originally spoken on the peninsula before the coming of the Romans.
The New World
Now that you know how Portuguese and Spanish came to be, the question is, where are they going?
In the 14th and 15th centuries, Portuguese and Spanish explorers were an integral part of the European Age of Exploration, which saw the colonisation and domination of Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia by European colonists. Portuguese and Spanish came to override indigenous languages in much the same way Latin did, and with almost identical end results: Spanish is now the dominant language in most of Central and South America at the expense of many native languages, while Brazilian Portuguese has far outstripped Continental Portuguese in terms of number of speakers and influence. Both languages have also left their mark on daughter languages as far flung as Tagalog in the Philippines, Kristang in Malaysia, and Guinean Creole in Guinea-Bissau.
With the collapse of the Portuguese and Spanish overseas empires in the 18th and 19th centuries, all these varieties and offshoots of Portuguese and Spanish have been largely left to develop on their own, much as the various dialects of Vulgar Latin were left to their own devices after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And already we are seeing marked differences: Brazilian Portuguese speakers, for example, often pronounce initial ‘d’ sounds with a sound rather like the English ‘j’, an innovation unknown to Continental Portuguese, while Argentinian Spanish speakers are famous for their almost lyrical intonation patterns, a feature not found in Castilian Spanish. Chilean Spanish is full of loans from Quechua, while informal Angolan Portuguese is filled with loans from Kimbundu.
It seems possible that both languages might go the way of their once dominant Roman parent. Already we sometimes speak not of Portuguese and Spanish, but Portugueses and Spanishes; in a hundred years, perhaps we might even speak of an Iberian language family. As the Spanish saying goes, no hay dos sin tres—never two without three.