How Many Varieties and Dialects of Portuguese Are There in The World?

Explore the diversity of Portuguese language varieties and dialects across the globe. Uncover the regional nuances, differences in vocabulary, and unique accents that shape Portuguese communication.
Gabriel Polycarpo
34 min
Table of Contents

Where is Portuguese spoken?

Portuguese is spoken as an official or co-official language in Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, and Macau. Portuguese speakers are called lusophones.

How Many People Speak Portuguese in the World?

There are about 260 million Portuguese speakers in the world. Of those, 230 million speak Portuguese as their mother tongue, with the vast majority being located in Brazil (213 million).

Due to diasporas, Portuguese is also spoken in other countries around the globe besides those noted above. In the United States, for example, according to World Population Review, Portuguese is spoken by about 678,000 individuals, most notably in the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

How Many Varieties of Portuguese Are There?

Typically, Portuguese is divided into two main varieties: European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. Except for Brazil, the variety heard in all former colonies of Portugal falls into the category of European Portuguese. That does not mean that there is only one European Portuguese dialect, or that the dialects found in Africa, for instance, are the same as those found in Portugal; it is just that they share common pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary traits.

How Many Portuguese Dialects Are There?

The answer to this question depends on what we define and how we categorize a dialect. Dialects can be a particular variety of a language associated with regional speech patterns (regiolect), but they can also be linked to a particular social class (sociolect), to a particular ethnic group (ethnolect).

The term “dIalect”’ sometimes overlaps with the terms “language”, “variety”, “dialect” and “accent’’. Because of that, it is difficult to say how many Portuguese dialects exist. But it is possible to divide the dialects into major regional groups.
It is also important to mention that there can be variations of dialects within cities or even neighborhoods.
Differences between language, variety, dialect and accent:

  • Language: a system of communication based on grammar and vocabulary, e.g., Portuguese;
  • Variety: a distinctive form of a language, e.g. Brazilian Portuguese vs. European Portuguese;
  • Dialect: a subset of a variety, e.g., the Azorean dialect;
  • Accent: a distinctive mode of pronunciation associated with a particular country, region, community, e.g., Paulistano accent (the accent spoken in the city of São Paulo).

Dialects of Brazil

The main dialect groups of Brazil are, in alphabetical order, Baiano, Brasiliense, Caipira, Carioca, Gaúcho, Mineiro, Nordestino, Nortista, Paulistano and Sulista.

Baiano: Baiano dialect is spoken in the state of Bahia and is known for its slow-paced rhythm and musical quality. It is influenced by African languages and has distinctive vocabulary and expressions.

Brasiliense: also known as Candango, it is the dialect spoken in Brasília, the capital of Brazil. It is a mix of several dialects. Individuals who came from several parts of the country in the 1950s (most notably from the Northeast of Brazil) to build and dwell in Brasília helped shape the Brasiliense dialect.

Caipira: a dialect associated with the rural areas of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Goiás.

Carioca: this dialect is associated with the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro. It is known for its distinctive pronunciation. Cariocas often pronounce the final "s" sound of a word or syllable as a "sh".

Gaúcho: This dialect is spoken in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul and is heavily influenced by the languages of European immigrants, particularly Italian and German. Gaúcho dialect features unique vocabulary and pronunciation.

Mineiro: The dialect spoken in Minas Gerais is known as "Mineiro." Mineiros are recognized for their slow and melodic speech patterns, intense elision, and apocope of final syllables.

Nordestino: the dialects spoken in the Northeast region of Brazil are collectively referred to as "Nordestino." These dialects exhibit variations in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar across the different Northeastern states. The Nordestino dialects are known for their melodic intonation and use of local expressions.

Nortista: this dialect refers to the regional variety of Portuguese spoken in the Amazonian region of Brazil. It has fewer deviations from the so-called standard variety when compared to other Brazilian dialects. It reflects the local culture, natural surroundings, and the influence of indigenous languages. Nortistas may use unique words and expressions to describe local flora, fauna, and regional customs.

Paulistano: this dialect is spoken in the city of São Paulo and is considered conservative in terms of pronunciation. Paulistanos tend to pronounce the letters "s" and “r” in a clear and/or prominent manner.

Sulista: this dialect is associated with the states of Paraná, Curitiba and portions of Santa Catarina, Mato Grosso do Sul e São Paulo. This dialect is marked by the clear pronunciation of the vowels “e” and “o”, and the consonants “r” and “l” (final “l”)..

Dialects of Portugal

The dialects of Portugal can be divided into two major groups:

  • The southern and central dialects: they include the dialects of Lisbon, Azores and Madeira. They are characterized by the clear distinction between the “b” and “v” sounds.
  • The northern dialects are characterized by the clear pronunciation of the diphthongs “ei” and “ou” and by having a less clear distinction between the consonants “b” and “v”. They include the dialect of Porto.

Naturally, there are several variations within each region.

Differences in Vocabulary Between Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese

Vocabulary can vary across neighborhoods, regions or countries. However, discrepancy between places that are located geographically or culturally far apart may cause mutual unintelligibility. Here are some examples of differences in vocabulary between Brazilian and European Portuguese:

African Portuguese Dialects (wikipedia):

The dialects of Portuguese in Africa have not been exhaustively studied. Portuguese is spoken in Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, as well as in – but not limited to – most countries of Southern Africa. In general, these dialects resemble more those of Portugal than those found in Brazil. A distinctive trait of the dialects spoken in Africa is the clear pronunciation of unstressed vowels, which resembles the Brazilian variety.

Portuguese Creoles
A creole is basically a language that is developed naturally when two languages are mixed, usually as a result of colonization, immigration, invasions where the conqueror nation imposes their language on the conquered nation, and among slaves that absorb vocabulary and features of the new language they are exposed to.

In some of Portugal's colonies, creoles such as Indian-Portuguese creoles, Sri Lankan Portuguese, Macanese (spoken in China), Papiamento (spoken in the Dutch Caribbean), and Kristang (spoken in Malaysia and in emigrant communities in Singapore, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom) are alive.

History of Portuguese

Portuguese: a Romance Language

Romance languages are the modern languages that evolved from “Roman”, i.e., the so-called Vulgar Latin spoken by the ancient Romans. Some of the romance languages include, besides Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian, Catalan, Romansh and Galician.

As the powerful Roman Empire expanded across Europe, the use of Latin also spread. Different patterns of speech, grammar and vocabulary developed over time, and influences of other languages helped mold the languages we know today as Romance languages.

The Kingdom of Portugal

Founded in the year 868 and located in the Iberian Peninsula, the history of the County of Portugal begins with the reconquest of the Iberian territories that had been taken by the Muslim Caliphate of the Umayyads in the 8th century. The County of Portugal collapsed due to a rebellion in the mid-11th century, but was reinstated in the late 11th century. The Country thrived, and in 1139, following a victory against the Muslims, the County was proclaimed Kingdom of Portugal. 

Portuguese Expansion into Africa and Asia

The Kingdom of Portugal, which had become a powerful empire by the 15th century, seeking to expand trade and conquer new territories, took advantage of the developments in maritime technology and started exploring the coasts of Africa, Middle East and South Asia. As a result, many colonies were established in several countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, and incorporated the Portuguese language.

Portuguese in China

A former Portuguese colony and trading post, Macau is home to about 700,000 inhabitants, of which 2,3% speak Portuguese either natively or as a second language.

Efforts have been made to protect the language in Macau, which has been in decline. Today, it closely follows the standard European variety, with minor differences in vocabulary and pronunciation due to Cantonese influence.

Portuguese in Goa

From 1510 to 1961, the state of Goa in India was a colony of Portugal. Goa was a strategic location for the Portuguese as it was a hub for the Eastern spice trade. The maritime route around the Cape of Good Hope and up the Indian Ocean, discovered by Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524), helped the Portuguese bypass the Middle East. At the time, trade routes in the Middle East were controlled by Islamic states.

Other colonies that were established in Asia after Goa include Malacca (Malaysia), Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Nagasaki (Japan).

Since the annexation of Goa to India in 1961, the Portuguese language has been progressively replaced by Konkani and English. Today, relatively few people speak Portuguese in Goa, many of which speak it as a second language. However, this situation seems to be gradually changing as the Goan government has been making efforts to revive the language in the region. Nowadays, Portuguese is encouraged in schools, and since 1988 the University of Goa offers a master’s degree in Portuguese Studies.

Portuguese Expansion to the Americas

Between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, European expeditions were sent to the Americas and one of the lands reached was what would later become Brazil. The country was originally named by the Portuguese “Ilha de Vera Cruz” (“Island of the True Cross”), but, due to the vast amount of brazilwood found in the country, the term “Brazil” gained popularity, becoming the official name of the country.

The Portuguese word “brasil” is the adjective form of “brasa’ (“ember”), being the term is an analogy to the color of charcoal when set on fire, as red is the color of the resin extracted from brazilwood.

Brazil Today

Brazil is the largest country in South America, with a population of over 213 million inhabitants. It is the world’s fifth-largest country by area, the sixth most populous and one of the largest economies in the world. The country is home to extensive natural resources and biodiversity and shares borders with all the countries in South America except for Ecuador and Chile.

Brazil is a federation composed of 26 states and one federal district, which are grouped into five geographical regions. Each of these regions has very distinct cultural and climatic aspects.

The North region is where the Amazon is located, it is humid and hot all year long, and it is known for its national reserves and rich biodiversity. It is home to the Teatro Amazonas, one of the most important opera theaters in Brazil.

The Northeast is known for its beautiful beaches. Like the North region, it is hot all year long. Larger coastal cities such as Natal and João Pessoa are thriving; however, the Northeast is the region with the lowest GDP per capita in the country. Smaller towns suffer economic hardships due to frequent droughts.

The Central-West region is an area of highlands, fields and beautiful nature. It is where the capital of Brazil, Brasília, is located.

The Southwest region leads the country in population and it is where São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are located. 

The South region is a cultural and economic pole, and is considered one of the safest regions in Brazil. It is where the cities of Porto Alegre, Florianópolis and Curitiba are located.

Portugal Today

Located in the Iberian Peninsula with a territory that also includes the archipelagos of Azores, Madeira and the Savage Islands, Portugal is home to about 10 million inhabitants and a high level of terrestrial and maritime biodiversity.

Portugal is divided into seven regions, namely:

North: it is where the city of Porto is located. It features beautiful architecture and unspoiled natural beauty.

Center: the Center is a region of contrasts: sandy beaches, pine forests, mountains, castles and churches.

Lisbon: it is where the capital, Lisbon, is located. In the Lisbon region you will find palaces, museums, summer resorts, casinos, golf courses, racing tracks, medieval churches and cathedrals as well as shopping malls and an active nightlife.

Alentejo: this region features beautiful villages, magnificent beaches on the West coast, walls and fortifications, and traces of Roman and Arab cultures.

Algarve: a colorful region with lots of greenery, fig and almond trees as well as grottos and sandy beaches.

Azores: the azores islands feature stunning landscapes with magnificent flora, lakes, prairies, volcanic formations and craters. The Azores Islands are home to about 250,000 inhabitants.

Madeira: an archipelago that is a popular tourist destination among many. Madeira Island is the main island of the archipelago.The region features beautiful waterfalls, cliffs, mountains, luxurious hotels, manors, gardens and stunning ancient architecture.

Language Regulators

In Brazil, the written form of the language is regulated by the Brazilian Academy of Letters, and in Portugal, the Class of Letters of the Sciences Academy of Lisbon is the organ responsible for defining the written standards of European Portuguese. This is the preferred version in the African and Asian ex-colonies.

The Spelling Reform of the Portuguese Language

In 1990, an agreement was proposed to create a unified orthography for the Portuguese language across countries that have Portuguese as their official language. For several different reasons, not all the Portuguese-speaking countries signed the treaty or have yet adopted the reform. As a result, countries like Angola, Mozambique and the region of Macau still use the old orthography.

The spelling came into effect in Equatorial Guinea in 2007, in Portugal in 2008, and in Brazil in 2009. Among the alterations are the abolition of “trema” (umlaut), and of the circumflex (^) and the acute accent (´) in some cases. There are new rules for the hyphen, and the letters K, Y and W are now officially part of the alphabet.

What Does Portuguese Sound Like?

Portuguese is quite similar to Spanish, especially in the written form. There are major differences in pronunciation, though, but if spoken slowly, speakers may understand each other to some extent. 

Sample Sentences Comparison Chart

Final Words

Portuguese is an enchanting language that comes in many colors and flavors. An uncultivated and beautiful flower, the last of Lazio to blossom, as very well – and beautifully – put by the great Brazilian poet Olavo Bilac. Because Portuguese is a Romance language, you will find that it is very similar in grammar and vocabulary to other Romance languages such as Spanish, Italian and French.

Portuguese is not an easy language to learn, but if you do give yourself the opportunity to learn it, you will be giving yourself the opportunity to unveil the beauty and richness of this highly-nuanced language and marvel at its rich literature, poetry, music and culture.

Excited? Want to learn Portuguese? You can try Duolingo. In this article, you will find everything you need to know about learning Portuguese on Duolingo.

YouTube is also a great resource for those who want to explore more about this fascinating language.

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Gabriel Polycarpo
As a translator and creative writer, Gabriel specializes in writing/translating for the technology and hospitality industries, having provided copywriting, localization and translation services for major companies such as Skillshare, Tech5, Hotelogix, Fidentech, Earn2Trade, UN agencies, Yarina Lodge, Hacienda La Ciénega and Fundación Pachamama, as well as production companies, independent producers and writers such as the BlinkBox Studio (Jordan), Studio Zut (São Paulo) and American author Bryan Cassady.
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