Let’s say you travelled to Lisbon in 1065 AD, hoping to practice your Portuguese. You’d have been disappointed. In 1065 AD, Lisbon was ruled by the Almoravid Dynasty, centred on Morocco. The ruling and scholar classes used Arabic as their literary languages and for everyday purposes spoke a language we now know as Mozarabic, which was derived from Latin but influenced by Arabic. Proto-Portuguese was spoken in parts of north-western Iberia that had not been conquered by the Arabs.

Now let’s say you travelled to Ming China in the late sixteenth century. Perhaps surprisingly, you might hear Portuguese spoken there. Between 1583 and 1589, in China, two Italian Jesuits called Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri produced a Chinese-Portuguese dictionary. They chose Portuguese for their dictionary, rather than, say, their native language of Italian, for various reasons, one of them being that Portuguese was the European language most in use in East Asia at the time. Clearly, the language had grown in scope and importance in the five centuries since your imaginary trip to Lisbon.

In 2019, Portuguese is the sole official language of Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé e Principe, Mozambique and Angola, and co-official in East Timor and Macau. It is spoken by some 250 million people, most of them in Brazil, and is the sixth most spoken native language worldwide. Nonetheless, it is barely studied at all outside of the countries where it is spoken and there is a dearth of quality textbooks and other learning materials. If you google “what are the most studied languages in the world?” you’ll find that Portuguese rarely makes the top ten but Italian, spoken in by some 70 millions in Italy and small minorities in adjacent regions of Switzerland, Croatia and Slovenia, always does, often in fourth or fifth place. Furthermore, most people have no idea what Portuguese sounds like and many have no idea where it is spoken, other than in Portugal.

So how did this collection of odd circumstances come about?

I’m sure you’ve heard the old story that mediaeval Europe was a primitive backwater filled with ignorant peasants living in the shadow of glorious civilisations located further to the East, especially China, India and the Islamic world.  Then along came the Renaissance and these crude savages set out to ‘discover’ and colonise the world. This period of historical aberration came to an end in the twentieth century and we are at present in the midst of the process of return to the status quo ante, in which Europe is once again something of a backwater, quaint perhaps, and charming but ultimately irrelevant.

Now, this story is utter hogwash. Mind you, if you wanted to find the country whose historical trajectory is closest to that of the entirely silly one contained in the foregoing paragraph: I give you Portugal.

In the eleventh century, Portugal was yet to come into existence. Half of its present territory was ruled from Marrakesh. But by the start of the Early Modern period, Portugal was long since an established kingdom and was blazing a trail: exploring Africa, ‘discovering’ Brazil, establishing colonies all over Asia and doing all kinds of amazing things. Take Fernão de Magalhães, perhaps better known to some as Ferdinand Magellan. He was the first man to sail around the world (I’m not an adherent of the ‘Great Man’ theory of history – it’s not just that he was the captain of a crew who were collectively the first. His personal circumnavigation in fact occurred as part of two trips, one from west to east and one from east to west). He gave the Pacific Ocean its name. And get this: it’s not just called ‘The Pacific Ocean’ in English and Portuguese; it’s called that in Chinese too. That is to say, Magalhães didn’t just name the Pacific for himself and a few of his neighbours, he did so for all humanity, and was one of the first humans to understand and conceptualise that ocean and its place in the world in a way that no-one had ever done before.