Anyone who has never been to Brazil will likely assume that Brazilians speak Spanish, much like the rest of its Latin American neighbors. Unsuspecting travelers arriving in Brazil for the first time might feel confident that they can get around with some Spanish phrases. However, they will soon find themselves asking, “Do Brazilians speak Spanish at all?”
Surprisingly enough, Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish. To the untrained ear, the Portuguese spoken in Brazil might sound similar to Spanish or even European Portuguese, but they are quite different.
To know why Brazil speaks Portuguese, we need to go all the way back to the 15th century. Around this time, Spain and Portugal held the status of being “superpowers” in their own right. This essentially led to a rivalry between the two countries. Thus, when Christopher Columbus — along with other explorers — discovered the New World, Spain and Portugal both raced to colonize these new lands.
During this time, the incumbent pope was Spanish-born Alexander VI. Not wanting to be bested by its rival, Spain naturally sought the support of the leader of the powerful Holy Roman Empire. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI created a demarcation line that ran down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He decreed Spain’s ownership of all the lands belonging to the west and south portion of this line.
Of course, the Portuguese king, John II, wasn’t entirely pleased with this decree. After negotiating with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, both Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Based on this treaty, Spain got all the lands west of the demarcation line, while Portugal had all the lands to the east. The dividing meridian was relocated from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to the east of South America and north into the Atlantic Ocean.
Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas without realizing that it was entering into what appeared to be a one-sided deal. Thanks to this treaty, Spain was able to explore and colonize large territories within North, South, and Central America. Meanwhile, Portugal was able to get a sizable territory with Brazil — but the rest of its share was mostly composed of the open ocean. It was in 1500 when explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in modern-day Brazil and claimed it for Portugal.
The Portuguese didn’t act on their claim until 1530, when they realized Brazil was a rich source of the much-valued Brazilwood. This is from where the country got its name.
However, what truly caught the Portuguese’s attention was the fact that Brazil was also rich in sugar cane, which was quite profitable. Portuguese plantation owners then began to migrate to Brazil to look for more fertile land. Upon arriving in Brazil, these plantation owners and other Portuguese brought with them their culture and their language. In turn, the Brazilians adopted Portuguese language and culture, with Portuguese eventually becoming the dominant language used for communication.
Over time, some linguistic additions made it into the vocabulary. These were taken from native groups, settlers from Brazil’s European neighbors, and African slaves.
Thus goes the story of how Brazil ended up speaking Portuguese instead of Spanish. Today, Brazilian and European Portuguese share very few differences in terms of grammar and vocabulary. What distinguishes one from the other is their pronunciation. If you happen to be in Brazil, brush up on your Portuguese, and you’ll find yourself having an easier time.