Skip to main content

Why Brazil Doesn't Speak Spanish

If you're thinking about taking a trip down to South America, it might be smart to double-check which foreign language you will need to brush up on. You can get by with Spanish in nearly every country, but there are a few exceptions. In French Guiana, the official language is of course French. Suriname's main language is Dutch, and Guyana's official language is English. But by far the largest South American country where Spanish is not the official language is Brazil.

South America's population is over 386 million people. Brazil is the largest geographic area in South America and has a population of over 196 million people. It is the only country in the continent where Portuguese is the official language. How did Brazil end up a Portuguese-speaking country when most of the surrounding nations speak Spanish? It all started when Spanish and Portuguese explorers started claiming parts of the New World as their own.

To know the history of the division of South America, it's important to know that in 1494, the nations of Spain and Portugal were discovering many great lands. Being the great naval forces they were, they took it upon themselves to claim all land outside of Europe as their own. This far-from-humble thought was put into law as the two nations signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. This treaty stated that all land outside of Europe would be governed and traded only by Portugal and Spain.

The simplified history of Brazil plays out like that of nearly every nation that was "discovered." Tribes have lived in the land that is now Brazil for nearly 50,000 years. In the year 1500, 12 merchant ships from Portugal landed in Brazil by accident. Thirty years later, Portuguese settlers came back to permanently stay and claim the land before other nations would find it. It's a very familiar story. The native tribes were nearly wiped out due to disease, slavery and war with the settlers. Sugar cane became the main crop and income source for the settlers .

Going along with the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain and Portugal had divided South America in two. The west side belonging to the Spaniards, the east side to Portugal. This invisible meridian was not strictly enforced and resulted in the Portuguese expansion of the eventual nation of Brazil.

In 1808, the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil for sanctuary while hiding from Napoleon. The regent, Dom Joao fell in love with Brazil and humbly declared himself the country's ruler. Even after the defeat of Napoleon, the regent stayed in Brazil and became king. He declared Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil. He was the only European monarch to rule a New World colony on its soil.

The Portuguese rule of Brazil lasted through several conflicts from France, the Dutch, Paraguay and within Brazil's own borders. This rule ended in 1822 as Brazil declared its independence and became an autonomous country. From that point the nation has gone from a federal republic to the democracy they have in place now.

What started as European Portuguese became influenced by the native languages it replaced. Various African languages brought by the slaves and Asian and European immigrants also affected the Portuguese tongue. It still resembles the European Portuguese, but with a few key differences in pronunciation and slang.

A treaty set in place over 500 years ago has dictated the division of the two dominant languages of South America. Brazilians can thank the early Portuguese naval men for their clear distinction from the rest of the continent. Brazilians show off their uniqueness whenever possible and their unique language has become a badge of pride.