A language spoken in only one town

Last week, we stumbled upon this article from the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler about a language hidden in rural Portugal. In the northeast corner of Portugal, there is a tiny county called Miranda do Douro and in Miranda do Douro many inhabitants do not speak Portuguese, but rather its distant cousin, Mirandese. This region is geographically divided from the rest of Portugal by two rivers that run on either side of it, and It is actually easier to travel to Spain from Miranda do Douro than it is to get to Lisbon and other parts of Portugal. This geographical isolation is one reason why the region continues to speak a language with only 10,000 speakers. Many languages developed because of geographic barriers that isolated them from external influence. Geographic barriers can be very distinct – in the case of oceans – or subtler, like mountain ranges and rivers that inhibit travel and lingusitic exchange. For example, in the mountains of Ghana and Togo, there is a language group that is distinct from its neighbors on the other side of the mountain. The languages are so tied to the geography that they are called Ghana Togo Mountain (GTM) languages.

Back to the Iberian Peninsula: Mirandese did not descend from Portuguese or Spanish, but rather developed independently from Latin concurrently with those modern languages in the 1100 and 1200s, like Catalan. (Learn more about Catalan and its contentious political history.) Spanish and Portuguese became the dominant languages of the Iberian peninsula because of political variables. As Portugal and Spain became the dominant governments of the region between 1200 and the present day, fewer and fewer people spoke other Romance languages, like Mirandese, Extremaduran, and Galician, among others.

In the 1930s, Mirandese was outlawed by the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, further diminishing the number of native speakers. However in recent years, there has been a growing movement among some young people in Miranda do Douro to ignite interest in this dying language. In 1999, with encouragement from Mirandese speakers, the Portuguese government named Mirandese the second official language of the country. Today, the European Union estimates that about 10,000 people speak the language.

(Recently a previously unknown language was discovered in India. Learn about it!)

Would you want to learn a rare language like Mirandese?