With as many as 260 million speakers around the world, the majority of whom are native speakers, Portuguese is by far the most widely spoken Romance language after Spanish.
Brought to the Western Iberian Peninsula by Roman soldiers, it is essentially the result of an organic evolution of Vulgar Latin with some influences from other languages, namely the native Gallaecian language spoken prior to the Roman domination.
When Portugal’s caravelas and naus started to dominate the seas in the sixteenth century, missionaries followed where the navigators led. Both carried the Portuguese language as a vital tool in their work, the latter conquering markets, the former souls.
In those days, Portuguese became a means of international communication through which distant peoples acquired new words and concepts, as seen with the English language today.
By the end of the fifteenth century, Portuguese was the lingua franca of West Africa and the Atlantic islands, and the ensuing commercial and political supremacy of Portugal in newly found lands all over the world served to consolidate the presence of the Portuguese language.
In the following two centuries it would also become the lingua franca along the coast of Brazil, East Africa, the west coast of India, many of the other coastal regions of Asia, the islands of the Indian Ocean and the China Sea.
Portuguese became the medium through which Christianity was made known to native populations. It was also the main language of diplomacy.
In the seventeenth century the Dutch, English, Danish, French and Spanish disputed the Portuguese hegemony. Portugal gradually lost its political and commercial power but the Portuguese language remained widely spoken.
The resilience of the Portuguese language, after political power had been relinquished and administrative structures withdrawn, is shown in the way that a large number of missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, continued to use it for preaching.
Portuguese might have ceased to be the lingua franca of the East but it still survived in some parts of the region as Creole, most notably in Sri Lanka and Malacca.
Elements of Portuguese entered many Eastern languages over a vast geographical area, a legacy well documented today with numerous examples of Portuguese words in the languages of Konkani, Martahi, Sinhala, Tamil, Malayan and many other Asian vernaculars.
Portugal’s long maritime past and presence in the tropics are central to the modern Portuguese sense of national identity, of who and what they are as a nation, many signs of which can be seen when travelling around Portugal today.
For example, the ornate decoration of sixteenth century Manueline architecture features ropes and other naval motifs such as the armillary sphere – an early navigational device which also appears on the Portuguese flag.
And conclusive evidence exists in the opening words of the Portuguese national anthem: Heróis do mar, nobre povo…Heroes of the sea, noble people…