Great Accomplishments in Spanish and Portuguese

All roads lead from Rome

The story of Portuguese and Spanish, as with all Romance languages, actually begins in Italy—or, more specifically, thanks to the Roman Empire, which spoke Latin and spread the language across all the lands that it conquered and governed.

At their strongest, the Romans controlled almost all the areas immediately surrounding the Mediterranean, including modern-day Italy, Croatia, the Levant (the region around modern-day Israel, Lebanon and Syria), Morocco and the Iberian peninsula (which the Romans called ‘Hispania’).

Latin gradually began to supersede the use of many other languages in these regions, including on the Iberian Peninsula.

Aquitanian, Tartessian, Lusitanian and Celtiberian were some of the languages believed to have existed on the peninsula before the arrival of the Romans in 218 BCE.

All of them have now been lost in the depths of history (except perhaps Aquitanian, which may have survived in its possible daughter language, Basque) because Latin superseded them all in the new Roman province of Hispania.

At this time, there was no Spain or Portugal; there was only Hispania, initially divided into two sections: Hispania Ulterior and Citerior, which eventually became three sections in 27 BCE: Lusitania (the south-west), Baetica (the south), and Tarraconensis (the rest); and then five in 284 CE, with swathes of Tarraconensis becoming the new provinces of Galicia (the north-west) and Cartaginense (the south-east).

So for the next 600 years, Latin continued to reign supreme on the Iberian Peninsula, as it did in most of the other areas of the Roman Empire.

Latin, however, was changing during this time—just as there are formal and informal versions of Arabic and Tamil today, so too were there different varieties of Latin emerging in the Empire.

There was a standardized, ‘higher’ version of Latin, which we call Classical Latin, spoken in more formal contexts like matters of administration and, later, in churches; then there was the more informal Latin that everyday people spoke, which gradually came to be called “colloquial” or “Vulgar” Latin.

Vulgar Latin developed differently in different parts of the Roman Empire. It is thought that different parts of the Empire had different indigenous languages that came into contact with Latin, leading to new (or old!) loanwords, and eventually vocabularies, in their versions of Vulgar Latin.

Of course, Vulgar Latin was frowned upon by authorities and those from the higher echelons of society; Classical Latin remained their language of choice—they maintained it as a unifying language that was used for administration in all parts of the Roman Empire. They did this so that as long as the Empire stayed intact, so too did Latin.

Gothic and Arabic

Like all great empires, however, the Roman Empire was also destined to fall and as its influence and control over the territories on its periphery began to weaken significantly, territories like Hispania began to experience several waves of invasions by Germanic peoples like the Vandals, the Alans, and the Visigoths in the 5th century CE.

Eventually, Hispania came under control of the Visigoths. They were invited to rule the province for Rome by Emperor Honorius in 415 CE, and who gradually took complete control of it, especially after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE.

The new kings were native speakers of Gothic: a distant but now extinct relative of today’s German and English.

Gothic never really caught on in Hispania, though. It remained the language of the upper classes, while the majority of the population carried on using Vulgar Latin for everyday communication and interaction.

However, with Classical Latin no longer readily available for ‘reference’ as the standard to aspire to, Vulgar Latin in Hispania began to change further, incorporating several new words and structures from Gothic.

Then, beginning in 711 CE, Visigothic Hispania was almost entirely conquered by the Moors of the Umayyad Caliphate! The area quickly became the new Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus, who immediately replaced Gothic with Arabic as the language of the elite. A section at the North of the peninsula was the only area that remained for the Visigoths.

Regardless of this, Vulgar Latin dialects continued to survive in large part because most of the population remained Christian despite now being subject to heavy Arabic influence.

It’s for this reason that the Vulgar Latin of this time is known as Mozarabic. In a similar fashion as before, Mozarabic was spoken by a large majority of the population, while Arabic was only used by the upper echelons of society.

Beloved Homeland

In the northwest corner of Spain, the tiny kingdom of Asturias successfully resisted the Moors. It was able to recover and grow in strength throughout the 9th and 10th centuries CE.

This one remaining Christian bulwark on the peninsula thus served as the nucleus of the movement known as the Reconquista—or the Christian reconquering of Spain—and also as the nucleus from which the Portuguese and Spanish languages we know today were eventually born.

At its inception, Asturias was composed of the modern-day regions of Asturias and Galicia. They were never fully under the control of the Moors—Galicia, specifically, had remained fiercely distinctive since the 4th century.

In 409 CE, slightly earlier than the rest of the peninsula, Galicia had become a separate Roman vassal state under the Suebi, a separate Germanic race from the Visigoths, and remained an independent Suebi kingdom until 585 CE, when Visigoth King Leovigild absorbed it into the rest of Visigoth Hispania.

Galician dialects of Vulgar Latin were therefore already rather more divergent compared to Vulgar Latin and Mozarabic dialects on the rest of the peninsula, and even compared to their Asturian brethren.

Enter a Galician nobleman named Vimara Peres, who at the end of the 9th century CE, led an Asturian force to conquer a nice big chunk of Andalusian territory between the Minho and Douro rivers.

Asturian King Alfonso III awarded the entire region to Peres as a County, and Peres resettled the area with Galician colonists and named it after the largest port city in the region, Portus Cale. This is where the name Portugal came from.

From this point on, Portugal began to develop its own regional identity, and its very own distinct Vulgar Latin dialects, separate from the Asturian ones.

Portuguese and Spanish

Eventually, Asturias splintered into several successor states as various kings and heirs fought for control over a slice of land far thinner than what we now know as Portugal. Two of these successor states were the Kingdom of Leon and the County of Portugal. The County of Portugal declared its independence as a separate Kingdom from Leon in 1143 under King Afonso Henrique.

Portuguese was also by this time a markedly different dialect from the other Vulgar Latin daughter dialects. Portugal’s separation from Leon ensured that this would continue.

Meanwhile, Leon, later the Kingdom of Leon and Castile, gradually began to assert itself as the dominant force in the central area of the Peninsula and eventually defeated the Moorish kingdoms, and expanded to control the territory of modern-day Spain by the end of the 15th century CE.

The Vulgar Latin daughter dialect that eventually became the language that we now call Spanish was the Castilian dialect that originated with Leon and Castile. It became standardized in written form in the 13th century around the city of Toledo through the work of the Toledo School of Translators.

Under the official patronage of King Alfonso X, this group worked to translate a large body of various Arabic and Hebrew texts into Latin and, for the first time, Castilian, giving Castilian a sizeable body of “official” written language. This laid the foundations for Castilian’s eventual dominance over the other daughter dialects of Vulgar Latin.

Differences today

Today, both Standard Castilian Spanish and Standard Continental Portuguese reflect this rich tapestry of linguistic and cultural history, with a sizeable number of loanwords from Gothic, Arabic, and-- in the case of Spanish—Basque.

Both languages retain similar grammatical features and syntax. They also share many root word forms as a result of their common descent from the Vulgar Latin spoken on the peninsula.

However, Portuguese and Spanish differ mainly because of the differing influences that affected them during the period following the Muslim conquest of Iberia and the advent of the Reconquista.

Modern-day Portugal was conquered and consolidated as a stable kingdom much earlier than Spain, so standardization process of Portuguese began earlier than that of Spanish.

As a result, Portuguese retained more features from Vulgar Latin. Spanish, on the other hand—whose original core dialects evolved—became standardized much later.

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Some of the great accomplishments in this field involve not getting the two mixed up. Because Spanish and Portuguese are so similar, right? Or are they….

“They look similar!” I can already hear you say. “Look, just change the end, and constitución becomes constituiçãoTodo is tudu; bien is bemlengua is linguaidioma is idioma. They do kind of look just like dialects of the same language, wouldn’t you say?

Now, they are not nowadays. Portuguese and Spanish are currently quite different; you can’t learn one and expect to function effortlessly in the other, for example.

Portuguese sounds are very different from Spanish ones, as are the two languages’ vocabularies. And you could be talking about any variety of present-day Portuguese and Spanish: there’s Argentine Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, for starters, and Canary Islands Spanish and Guinean Portuguese, not to mention the regional differences between Portuguese and Spanish dialects within Portugal and Spain themselves.

But once upon a time, yes: Portuguese and Spanish were, basically, dialects of the same language. That language was Latin! Hundreds of years later, however, Portuguese and Spanish have grown apart.

Iberian siblings

Spain and Portugal presently occupy almost all of the Iberian Peninsula: that spit of land that sticks out of Western Europe just below France. (The tiny Principality of Andorra sits snug along the border of Spain and France, ensconced in the embrace of the Eastern Pyrenees.)

The Iberian Peninsula is where Portuguese and Spanish were ‘born’ (if languages can actually be born…) and it is also the main reason why Portuguese and Spanish are much closer to each other than to the other major Romance languages: they developed in relative isolation.

But Portuguese and Spanish were not the first languages on the Peninsula, nor are they those first languages’ descendants: they come from a very different place!