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    The importance of being a minority language

    Francisco de Assis Espada


Alongside the recent upsurge of regional policies within the European Union, more attention has been given to minority languages. Despite controversy connected to the classification of some languages as minor due to certain criteria, the average citizen is now aware of the existence of languages such as Frisian, Sámi, Occitan or Ladin.

Another minority language is Mirandese, spoken in the north-eastern part of Portugal. In granting official status on September 1998, Portugal became one of the European countries with more than one official language.

Location of Mirandese

Speakers of Mirandese number approximately 15,000. The area where it is spoken is around 500 square kilometres and shares a frontier with Spain. It includes the district of Bragança in the county of Miranda do Douro, a small part of the Vimioso county and a small number of villages in Spain. In Portugal, namely in Rio de Onor and Guadramil, a variant of Asturian-Leonese is spoken, which is different from Mirandese.

Portuguese is not the mother tongue of Mirandese speakers, but the contiguousness of Portuguese and Mirandese has been peaceful. The two languages coexist under conditions of diglossy and bilinguism. On the one hand, Portuguese is used in most situations of daily life: employment, schools and public services. On the other hand, Mirandese is used among peers, family members, neighbours and between people from small villages. It is also not surprising to find people speaking this minority language even in an official environment in which Portuguese would be expected.

The origins and the history of Mirandese

In contrast to the long recognized theory that Portugal has been a unified and homogeneous country, the most interesting trait of Mirandese is the fact that historically it does not originate from Portuguese. The origins of Mirandese are directly traceable to Latin, from which the three main linguistic varieties evolved in the mediaeval period: Galician-Portuguese, Castilian (Spanish) and Asturian-Leonese, the first giving origin to Portuguese and the last giving origin to Mirandese. The actual origin of Mirandese goes back to 1284. Prior to that time in the Iberian Peninsula a series of romance dialects began making their appearance. Since it is neither a Portuguese nor a Spanish dialect its preservation has been possible only because it was in a geographically conservative and peripheral area. The Asturian-Leonese, language in Spain shares similarities with Mirandese. Yet they should not be regarded as the same language. In truth, they represent two geographically opposed areas. Further, the orthography or graphic systems of both languages differ as a consequence of relevant phonological differences.

It was only in the 19th century that the linguist José Leite de Vasconcelos, who maintained a long friendship with Finnish linguist Tallgren-Tuulio, referred to Mirandese as an independent language. He was the first linguist ever to put into writing this "oral language." Up until then, no written documents were known, although some documented traits can be found in mediaeval texts of this language. It is remarkable that this language which had to cope with the presence of the Portuguese language for centuries, survived.

Some historical facts account for the development of Mirandese. During the Roman occupation the Iberian Peninsula was divided into dioceses. Miranda do Douro was part of Asturica Augusta, Spanish territory today, but not part of Bracara Augusta, now in Portugal. Between the 7th and 12th centuries the territory was part of the diocese of Astorga, now in Spain. Further, the county of Miranda do Douro was not part of the original territory that became Portugal, better known as Condado Portucalense. After the formation of Portugal, it felt the presence of Leonese intensely, namely due to the monasteries of Santa Maria de Moreruela, San Martin de Castañeda, the Benedictine monastery of Castro de Avelãs and farmers from Leon. Historically, the area maintained privileged status with Leon and was isolated from the rest of the Portuguese kingdom, allowing Mirandese to thrive in the territory.

Documents written in the Middle Ages in Asturian-Leonese include Fueru d'Avilés in the 12th century, the Cartularios of several monasteries from the 12th to 14th centuries. Other surviving texts include wills, donations, buying and selling contracts and town laws. Some linguists have reported that some texts in Spanish (Castilian) such as El Libru d´Alexandre were originally in Asturian-Leonese, and later translated into Spanish. It is not the prevailing theory.

Mirandese today

Leite de Vasconcelos defined Mirandese as "the language of the countryside, of home and love." It has been and still is mainly a language used only among the native people of the area, excluding all those who migrated there as public servants, military or other. At present time, Mirandese is taught as an optional subject at high schools in Miranda do Douro. New projects are planned for educating new teachers and expanding the teaching of Mirandese from the 5th and 6th grades up to the 9th grade.


A short story in Mirandese

The chest-nut tree (in English)

Once upon a time a wife told her husband:
-Oh my husband, if you ever passed away, I would perish with sorrow for you.
"Oh for God' s sake, you sorry for me?!"
One day, the man pretended to be dead and they went to bury him up in the hills and there were some chestnut trees and he held on to one tree and he got home and his wife was singing like a clarion.
[The man] grabbed a stick:
"Oh damn, so you were the one who was sorry for me?!"
It is said he beat her till he got tired.
The following year, people say, he died once and for all. The woman told her family friend:
"Ah Godfather, save me from the chestnut tree, that it won't do the same as last year."


L Castanho (in Mirandese)

Era una beç una tie que le dezie assi pal tiu:
-Ah home, se te morrisses you morrie-me de pena por ti!
-Ai, balga-me Dius, si habies de tener tanta pena de mi?!
-Un die, l tiu fizo-se muôrto i fúrun-lo a anterrar i iba a las cuôstas arriba i habie uns castanheiros i agarrou-se i chegou a casa la mulhier staba a cantar cumu un clarin.
Agarrou nun bargalho:
- Ah caragho, tu eras a que tinha pena por mim?!
Diç que lê dou tanta, tanta porrada, até que se cansou.
L anho adelantre diç que se morriu de beç. La tieque diç assi al cumpadre:
- Ah cumpadre, librai-me l castaño que nun me faga cumo l outro anho!


Recently, a specialist in Mirandese António Bárbolo Alves, lecturer of Instituto Camões (Portugal) at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis (France) published a book entitled Mirandese Oral Literature - A Series of Mirandese texts and Moisés Pires will soon publish a grammar book and a dictionary. Though many efforts are being made, this language is in jeopardy and is among those languages running the risk of extinction. Hopefully this will not happen.

Francisco de Assis Mira Espada is Visiting Lecturer in Portuguese, Iberoromanic Languages Department.