The space of languages. The portuguese language in the Early Modern World (15th-17th centuries)



Start . 2015

Duration . 25 months

Principal Investigator . Angelo Cattaneo (CHAM)



Main Research Unit

CHAM — Centro de Humanidades


Coordenator Institution

Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas / Universidade Nova de Lisboa


Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian
Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia


CHAM — Centro de Humanidades

Centro de Linguística / Universidade Nova de Lisboa

Centro de Linguística / Universidade de Lisboa

Instituto de Lexicologia e Lexicografia da Língua Portuguesa

Museu da Língua Portuguesa


Since the mid-sixteenth century, Portuguese, together with Spanish, became the principal idiom and semantic space through which several Amerindian, African and Asian languages and systems of civilizations that were not included into the Greek-Roman oikumene were first described, translated and transmitted into a European language. The words and concepts translated through Portuguese (and Spanish) in the frameworks of the Iberian expansion and Christian Catholic missions produced a first comprehensive cultural as well as linguistic map of Amerindian, African and Asian languages, philosophies, and religions and gave rise to an emerging global cultural mapping. 

Following the route of Iberian expansion, Jesuit, Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite and Augustinian missionaries produced hundreds of linguistic works of indigenous languages of Africa, Brazil, India, China and Japan. An interesting and overlooked corpus of description of very diverse languages in artes das linguas and dictionaries written in Portuguese deserves further study. It includes grammars of Tamil (Dravidian); Konkani, Marathi and Bengali (Indo-Aryan); Japanese; Kipea-Kiriri (Macro-Jê); Tupinamba and the Lingua Geral Amazônica (Tupi-Guarani); Kimbundu and Sena (Bantu), among others (Zwartjes 2011).

By contrasting any apologetic speech in favor of empires, the Catholic religious expansion as well as proselytism as such and colonial rule, the historical understanding of the forms of language as well as linguistic contacts established between various peoples of the world through the historical analysis of the diffusion and use of the Portuguese language as a lingua franca will promote mutual understanding between various linguistic communities on a global scale. This analysis may well contribute to overcome the heavy heritage of colonialism precisely by addressing contentious past and offer a new perspective of language as an instrument of creation and transformation of reality.



In the light of these introductory remarks, this project aims at investigating the following interconnected topics:

The adoption of this three-directional perspective will enable innovation and new disciplinary synergies. Not only we will consider the space of expansion and spread of the Portuguese language, but also the study of the Portuguese language as a space of inclusion of several Amerindian, African and Asian languages, beyond the complex and articulated clusters of ancient, classical, post-classical, and medieval languages that could be linked to and were known within the Greek-Roman oikumene, the part of the Earth that was known, knowable and regarded inhabitable until the fifteenth century. 

Team work, synergies & institutional objectives

To achieve these objectives, an interdisciplinary and international team has been assembled covering the history of the Portuguese language, linguistics, Portuguese philology and history of the book, history of the Portuguese expansion and Empire, history of the early modern missions, history of geography and cartography. 

This international team will work at creating a larger team to include researchers specialized in the African, Amerindian and Asian languages that the Portuguese grammars and artes da lingua translated in the early modern world. This larger team will generate synergies to delineate and assess the significance, articulated uses, diffusion of the Portuguese language as well as of creoles based on Portuguese and their global impact.

The project calls attention to an overlooked chapter of world cultural history. Informed by an interrogation of disciplinary practices and supported by field research and the study of little-known languages and texts, our project’s synergies will produce a significantly new picture of the Portuguese language, its use and functions, presenting its connections across several macro-regions. Our work will not simply reconfigure existing knowledge. Rather, we will re-vision the history of the Portuguese language by generating new evidence based on links across disciplines, regions and countries. Important synergies will emerge from a comparative study of several languages that for the first time were translated into a European language through Portuguese by focusing on the modes and filters of their transmissions, propagations and appropriations. This innovative research and theorization will have long-lasting applications in several research approaches and disciplines. The partnership among university research centers, the Academia das Ciências de Lisboa and the Museu da Língua Portuguesa in São Paulo will make it possible to reach a wide social impact, within and beyond academia. 

Our interdisciplinary team of researchers will expand in innovative ways the study of both the presence of and the very concept of “Portuguese language” in the early modern world at the global scale. We do this by creating an international research consortium involving senior and junior researchers from Portugal, Europe, Africa, Brazil and Asia. Together we will explore and prepare collective research proposals to be submitted to the European Council and other national and international calls, including the FCT R&D grants and the Fundação Gulbenkian among others.

© Angelo Cattaneo – FCSH/NOVA







Angelo Cattaneo   .    Coordenator

Alexandra Curvelo (IHA)
Ana Maria Martinho Gale (CHAM)
Ângela Domingues (Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical)
António Carlos Sartini (Museu da Língua Portuguesa)
Artur Anselmo (CHAM)
Ataliba Teixeira de Castilho (Museu da Língua Portuguesa)
Cristina Muru (UNITUS)
Diogo Ramada Curto (IPRI)
Hugo Canelas Cardoso (CLUL / UL)
Isabel Murta Pina (CCCM)
Jean-Marc Besse (CNRS)
João Luís Lisboa (CHAM)
Otto Zwartjes (UvA)
Paolo de Troia (Sapienza Università di Roma)
Teresa Brocardo (CLUNL / NOVA)