Spotlight on Mirandese

The New York Times recently ran an article by Seth Kugel, the Frugal Traveller, describing a recent visit to the Mirandese-speaking region of Portugal. Today, Mirandese is Portugal’s second official language, but before it was officially recognized as such in 1999, it was sometimes treated as a rural (and therefore undesirable) dialect of Portuguese.

However, it’s actually been a distinct language since around the 12th century, when it branched off  from Astur-Leonese. Mirandese does have many similarities to Portuguese; the two languages share a common ancestry and they have been spoken side-by-side for centuries. Despite these commonalities, Mirandese has its own phonology, morphology and syntax and is actually much more closely related to Asturian. In the New York Times, Mr. Kugel lists one of many differences that make the language unique:

Most memorable was how Mirandese distinguishes grandmother and grandfather, both of which are spelled abó. When necessary, grandfather becomes l abó de las calças (grandparent of the pants) and grandmother is l’abó de la saia (grandparent of the skirt). Insensitivity to male cross-dressers and female jeans-wearers notwithstanding, can we all agree that that is adorable?

Yes. Yes, we can.

Unfortunately, like many other regional languages, Mirandese is in trouble. UNESCO considers it a dialect of Asturian-Leonese and estimates there are about 150,000 Asturian-Leonese speakers in the world; even so, it is listed as “definitely endangered.” Considered as its own language, the situation becomes even more dire. Omniglot reports that there are only 10,000 fluent Mirandese speakers left in the world, with 5,000 more who speak it just occasionally.  It is spoken only in the following municipalities: Miranda do Douro, Mogadouro and Vimioso.

Most worrisome, of course, is the dearth of young people speaking the language. Omniglot says that “Many young people view the language as archaic and underdeveloped and have little interest in it.” Without new blood, languages die out quickly.

However, Mr. Kugel did note that during his visit there were “many exceptions” to that general rule, so a revival is certainly not out of the question.

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