How do you spell Portuguese?

Handwritten word Portuguese in Portuguese
How do you spell Portuguese? In English, many people forget to put in that second ‘u’, but Portuguese speakers across the world, whether in Portugal, Brazil, Angola or Macau, are likely to spell it correctly: português.

One reason it’s easy to get correct is because Portuguese spelling, unlike English, is largely phonetic. But what happens in the cases when it’s not? And what happens when words have alternate pronunciations? Are they spelled differently? Should they be?

How to standardise spelling is an issue for all languages, and never a straightforward one. English spelling is a mish-mash of phonetic rules, grammatical rules, etymological rules, and exceptions and variations. Other languages have long adopted more systematic spelling systems: the first official Italian orthography dates back to 1582, French to 1635, and Spanish to 1713.

The first official Portuguese system was much more recent: 1911. It was adopted in Portugal and its overseas territories. But Brazil, which had gained independence nearly a century earlier, wasn’t consulted on the spelling reform, and didn’t adopt it either. Instead it introduced its own official system – similar but not identical to the Portuguese one – in 1938. So Portuguese spelling was standardised, but in two different ways.

Since then, there have been several attempts to unify official spelling across the whole Portuguese-speaking world, and an agreement was finally reached by representatives of 8 countries in 1990.

Various follow-up meetings ensued, and in the end it took nearly two decades before the first country adopted the new system: Brazil, in 2009. The other signatories to the agreement are still due to do so, with a transition period until 2012.

For Portuguese translation providers, this means that there are currently still two spelling systems in operation: one in Brazil, one for the other Portuguese-speaking countries. You’ll still have to specify which to use.

When the new agreement is implemented in all countries, does that mean that translation providers will no longer have to make the distinction? No. Brazilian Portuguese has further significant differences in vocabulary, grammar and syntax. So you’ll still have to distinguish Brazilian from Iberian Portuguese, even when they both finally use the same spelling system.

If you’re a Portuguese translator, you might find the following Portuguese links useful. This simple guide (in Portuguese) outlines the main changes made in the 1990 agreement. More entertaining to read is another guide (again in Portuguese) in which the writer pours scorn on the welter of misinformation surrounding the spelling reform, and tries to set the record straight.