The Orthographic Reformation of the Portuguese Language. The Orthographic Agreement of 1990 and Its Linguistic, Cultural and Political Consequences

Term Paper 2013 22 Pages

Speech Science / Linguistics




1. The History of Orthographic Standardizations in the Portuguese Language

2. The Orthographic Agreement of 1990: Significant Changes in the Portuguese Orthography
2.1 Changes in the Alphabet
2.2 Changes in the Spelling
2.3 Changes in the Use of Diacritical Marks
2.4 Changes for the Use of Majuscule and Minuscule

3. A Controversial Reformation: Debating the Orthographic Agreement




Portuguese is with approximately 240 million speakers (Monteiro-Plantin et al. 2010, p. 94) the second most spoken Romance language in the world. It is an official language in Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde Islands, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Macau and São Tomé and Príncipe. Furthermore, it possesses a co-official status in Equatorial Guinea, as well as a significant cultural presence in Goa, India (Da Silva et al. 2009, p. 219). Portuguese is the only Romance language that works with two different orthographies (Fragoso 2009, p. 3). There is the Brazilian orthography, which is used exclusively in Brazil, and the lusophone orthography, which is used in all other Portuguese-speaking areas. These circumstances have been a reason for political and cultural conflict in the past two centuries, especially between Brazil and Portugal, although there have been several approaches to unify both orthographies, a complete orthographic unification has never been achieved.

The orthographic agreement of 1990 will be the focus of this term paper. The first chapter will note important historical events regarding previous orthographic agreements between Portugal and Brazil, as well as the orthographic agreement of 1990. The most significant changes in the Portuguese orthography in relation to the orthographic agreement of 1990 will be presented in the second chapter. Particularly changes in the alphabet, spelling, the use of diacritical marks, as well as the use of majuscule and minuscule will be analyzed. Exceptions in the latest orthographic agreement, which allow bilateral spellings, will also be discussed in the second chapter. For clarification, there will be given several examples in the aforesaid chapter on how certain words were written before the orthographic agreement (B.O.A.) and after the orthographic agreement (A.O.A.). The third chapter will deal with the multiple aspects, as well as the advantages and disadvantages that are connected to the orthographic agreement of 1990. Not only linguistic aspects, but also cultural and political aspects will be discussed in that chapter. Subsequently, there will be an analysis of how this reformation of the Portuguese language might evolve in the future and what this development means for native speakers of the Portuguese language, as well as Portuguese L2 speakers.

1. The History of Orthographic Standardizations in the Portuguese Language

Contrary to other Romance languages, as for instance French, whose orthographies were set by language academies during the Age of Enlightenment, Portuguese had no official spelling standard until the sixteenth century. Until then, authors wrote as they pleased. In Portugal, there have been two significant approaches in the nineteenth century on how to create a standardized and improved orthography for the Portuguese language: the phonetic-based orthography by José Barbosa de Leão and the simplified orthography by Aniceto dos Reis Gonçalves Viana and Guilherme Augusto de Vasconcelos Abreu. The phonetic-based orthography was firstly published in 1875, called Consideraçõis Sobre a Orthographia Portugueza (Translation: Thoughts about the Portuguese Orthography) and it was widely distributed by Leão to various educational institutions of the country, as well as to the Sciences Academy of Lisbon. Undoubtedly, Leão’s approach was not accepted by some of the experts, but more importantly is the fact that through Leão’s work the Sciences Academy of Lisbon began again to debate the then used orthography and its lack of coherence (Dos Reis Aguiar 2007, p. 17).

Leão’s approach, however, did not attain great success and was harshly criticized by other linguists for not being well-researched and being incomplete. Contrary to Leão’s work, Viana’s approach, which was firstly published in 1904, was well-received by the experts and the general public. It became the basis for Portugal’s first spelling reform in 1911 (Dos Reis Aguiar 2007, p. 15). This reformation was also supposed to be adopted by all other Portuguese-speaking areas. However, when developing the aforesaid spelling reform dialectal variations of the Portuguese language, which were spoken in Portugal’s colonies and also former colonies, were not taken into consideration. This superior, colonial master-like attitude led to diplomatic tensions between Portugal and all other Portuguese-speaking areas; especially with the Brazilian empire (Dos Reis Aguiar 2007, p. 14).

When Brazil declared its independence from Portugal in 1822, it was not solely a political and economic decision. Brazil had also evolved socially and culturally. Brazilian citizens could no longer identify themselves with Portugal and fought for sovereignty. That nationalistic tendency was reflected also in the spoken language. Brazilians had developed their own variation of Portuguese which was also reinforced by the Brazilian empire. Without a doubt, that genuine linguistic feature was also used as a political statement (Dos Reis Aguiar 2007, p. 11). It was to show, above all, a linguistic independence towards Portugal. Through the influence of indigenous and African languages[1], which were spoken by the slaves, and the influence of several other languages, such as German, Italian and Japanese, which were brought to Brazil by immigrants, Brazilian Portuguese developed in a totally different manner than the Portuguese spoken in Portugal. Thus, from a linguistic point of view it is understandable why the orthography of those two language variations developed also differently in both countries. Consequently for political reasons, Brazil refused to adopt Portugal’s spelling reform of 1911 (dos Reis Aguiar 2007, p. 13).

The debate about an orthographic unification of both already existing varieties began after Brazil refused to acknowledge Portugal’s spelling reform of 1911. Two decades later the first orthographic agreement between both countries eventually became effective. However, the already existing orthographies were just minimally changed and in numerous spelling cases both parties agreed to maintain a bilateral spelling. Therefore, it can be concluded that the first attempt to unify the Brazilian and Portuguese orthography was partly successful regarding its actual changes. On the other hand, it is debatable whether that attempt can really be considered a reformation in a broader sense regarding its numerous cases of bilateral spelling that continued to exist (F. B. Palma 2010, pp. 6-11). Nonetheless, it must be stated that reunification efforts have periodically been made (Garcez 1990, p. 50)

The orthographic agreement of 1931 was revised several times afterwards. The diaeresis, for instance, and differential circumflex accents in most pairs of homographs were banned in 1945 (Eggert 2010, p. 3). In 1971 the diaeresis in hiatuses, most differential circumflexes, and accent marks on vowels with secondary stressed syllables in compounds were also eliminated (Almeida Santos 2010, p. 238). Diacritical marks in secondary stressed syllables were annulled in 1973, and in 1986 Brazil invited the other six Portuguese-speaking areas to a meeting in Rio de Janeiro to address remaining orthographic problems (Eggert 2010, p.4). The goals of the aforesaid meeting were to declare the use of the acute accent, as well as the use of the circumflex accent from all words (except oxytones) to be void. Those decisions, however, were not well-received by the public. Therefore, those proposed changes were annulled (Almeida Santos 2010, p. 239-240).

In 1990 the probably most important, most complex and far-reaching orthographic agreement was initiated among all Portuguese-speaking areas. It was supposed to be an improved orthography, which would be valid in all Portuguese-speaking areas. The aforesaid agreement focused mainly on the then valid orthographies used in Brazil and Portugal. The orthographic agreement of 1990 was designed and discussed primarily by several experts who all came from Portuguese-speaking areas. Those experts were the following (Diário Da República 1991, p. 2):

To be valid in all Portuguese-speaking areas the orthographic agreement would have to be ratified by all parties. In Article III of the agreement it says that it was supposed to be entered into force as from 1st January 1994. This could have been achieved if all members had ratified it. However, as only Portugal (on August 23, 1991), Brazil (on April 18, 1995), and Cape Verde Islands have ratified the aforesaid document, its complete implementation is pending (Da Silva 2008, P. 210- 212). Additionally, Portuguese media and several Portuguese experts have increasingly criticized the concept of the new orthographic agreement over the past ten years.[2] [3] [4] A reason for that might have been the fact that the adoption of the new orthography will cause changes in the spelling of about 1.6% of the words in the European norm and only about 0.5% in the Brazilian norm.[5] In other words, the new orthographic agreement favors the Brazilian Portuguese.

Hence, in Portugal, there had been much delay in signing the agreement into law. Nonetheless, it was signed on 21st July 2008 by Portugal’s president, Aníbal Cavaco Silva. Brazil ratified the Second Amending Protocol in October, 2004 and began immediately with the transitional process. Since 1st January 2009 it is only the new orthography that can be used, taught and published in Brazil. Portugal demanded a transitional period of six years, during which both orthographies (the new and old Portuguese orthography) would co-exist (De Moura Neves 2010, pp. 89-97). This means that Portugal might start using exclusively the new orthography in 2014. It can be concluded that the orthographic agreement of 1990 is still in the introduction stage, but it is neither welcomed nor well-received in some Portuguese-speaking areas.


[1] Brazilian linguists consider the African influence upon the Brazilian Portuguese to be such an essential component in its development that it is said that the Brazilian Portuguese underwent an “Africanization” process.

[2] http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/noticia/2012-12-21/portugueses-ainda-criticam-adocao-do-acordo-ortografico (24 February, 2013)

[3] http://emdefesadalinguaportuguesa.blogspot.de/ (24 February, 2013)

[4] It must be stated that there is also a great number of critics from other Portuguese-speaking countries who criticize the orthographic agreement and suggest denouncing the agreement altogether.

[5] http://www.jn.pt/PaginaInicial/Sociedade/Interior.aspx?content_id=1828650 (25 February, 2013)


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University of Bremen
Orthographic Reformation Portuguese Linguistic Orthographic Agreement 1990




Title: The Orthographic Reformation of the Portuguese Language. The Orthographic Agreement of 1990 and Its Linguistic, Cultural and Political Consequences