The Influence of Hebrew on Portuguese

by Alan D. Corré
Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Studies,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

E na lingua, na qual quando imagina
Com pouca corrupção crê que é a latina. (1)

Professor Cyrus Gordon was raised in the old Portuguese rite Jewish congregation of Philadelphia, and he credits his mentor there for establishing the principles which have guided his life. I am privileged to offer him this essay at the intersection of two cultures which have influenced him. May he be granted many more years of productive endeavor.

It is the thesis of this paper that certain unique features of the Portuguese language can be explained as Jewish influences In particular, the Jews' habit of translating the Bible literally into their vernacular influenced their speech, and these Hebraic turns of phrase and constructions penetrated the standard language.

The custom of translating the Holy Scriptures literally into other languages is an ancient Jewish habit which dates back to the first century CE, with the Bible translation into Greek of Aquila, and the Aramaic translations known as Targumim. The translators were not interested in producing a polished translation. It was meant rather to assist the student to understand the Hebrew text, and hence the language could become quite distorted. But this 'pony' served its goal of familiarizing the faithful with the text and meaning of Scripture. There was probably such a Jewish translation into Low Latin (see Vulgar Latin), and hence these translations are in a sense as old as the Romance languages themselves. (2)

Latter day Jewish scholars regarded such jargons with distaste. Isaac Nieto described Judeo-Spanish (or Ladino) in 1740 as 'un castellano-hebraico que no es ni hebraico ni castellano'(3) and made the effort in his translation of the prayer book to avoid this type of language. Books printed by Menasseh ben Israel in Amsterdam were similarly bowdlerized. In most instances this type of literary activity had no effect on the standard language. Isaac Nieto, Menasseh ben Israel and others wished their brethren to get away from their 'Ladino' and use the standard language. However, the process in Portuguese was somewhat different for reasons which will be discussed later.

The most striking example of a Hebrew calque in standard Portuguese is the expression 'quem me dera' 'who would give me' in the sense of the Castihan ojalá 'would that' lit. 'O Allah grant'... (4) This is the only place in modern Portuguese where the simple pluperfect of any verb (as opposed to the compound form with ter or haver) is used in the spoken language. (5) This verb is a pluperfect in form only, actually being used as an imperfect subjunctive -- compare the use of diera/diese in Spanish. Such an expression is found in no other Romance language, and clearly does not have its basis in Latin. I would posit that this expression is a calque, a literal translation of the Hebrew . In Deut. 28:67 the Arragel Bible -- which uses 'good' Spanish -- translates:

Por la mañana dirás ¡o si ya fuese la noche! e por la noche dirás ¡o si ya fuese la mañana! (6)
By contrast, the Ferrara Bible of 1553, which is in the literal Jewish tradition, renders:
Por la mañana dirás quien diesse tarde y en la tarde dirás quien diesse mañana. (7)
Compare also in the Spanish Haftara (Jer. 8:23):
Quien diesse mi cabeça aguas... quien me diesse en el desierto.
I have also heard the expression 'quien me diera' (not 'diese') in the mouth of an old Jewish lady from Tangier. This expression is not found in standard Spanish, but is alive and well in Portuguese -- a literal translation from Hebrew by means of the Jewish Bible translations into Romance.

Recognition of the influence of the Hebrew Bible can also help solve a problem which has troubled many students of the Portuguese language. José Maria Rodrigues called it

'uma das caracteristicas da lingua portuguesa ... interessante fenómeno morfológico'(8)
Togeby called it
'énigmatique..., une création sensationelle'(9)
M. Said Ali referred to it as
'uma forma extrememente curiosa, estranha as linguas irmãs'(10)
This is, of course, the 'infinito pessoal' (the personal infinitive). (11)

Togeby continues:

'Si l'infinitif personnel est le résultat d'une confusion entre le futur du subjonctif et l'infmitif, pourquoi n'a-t-on pas eu une forme analogue en italien où les conditions étaient les mêmes?'(12)
He knew that such a phenomenon exists in Hungarian, as he remarks on its existence in that language. He did not know, however, that such a phenomenon is very common in Hebrew, consisting of the infinitive of the verb plus a suffix. It is my view that the influence of the Jews and of their literal Bible translations was sufficient to carry over this usage into the standard language -- but only in Portugal. (13) Let us observe first that in Jewish Spanish until this day the word for nos is mos.This, added to the infinitive, gives us sermos, estamos which is exactly the Hebrew  (= ser) + (= nos or mos) giving  (= sermos). Note that classical Hebrew does not require the prefixed - in all cases. This now resembles a finite verb, and hence the other forms of the infinito pessoal were generated by analogy. In Ladino, in general, the form is found in the passive. Thus  is rendered in the Ferrara Bible 'fasta seres destruydo' (Deut. 28:61). Otherwise, they are replaced by forms more natural in Romance like 'su poder' 'your (his etc.) being able' -- which is a Hebraism also -- but the true personal infinitive survived only in Portuguese.

There are two other manifestations in Portuguese, which may not have come directly from Hebrew influence, but were retained on account of Jewish preferences.

The forms of the days of the week segunda-feira, terça-feira and so on, are exactly the same as their Hebrew equivalents as found in the first chapter of Genesis. Their use avoids the names of heathen gods found in lunes, martes and so on. The use of feira (= ) may also be Jewish influence, since it is typically optimistic (and effective against the evil eye), compared with the use of the neutral and colorless word día.(14) Of course, this could be an influence from Arabic also, and doubtless early pillars of the Church looked askance at the hint of heathen deities in the names of the days of the week. But strong Jewish preferences in this regard may well have favored the retention of these forms. It is noteworth that Spanish speaking Jews, even today, frequently use al-had (first [day] in Arabic) to avoid the religious implication of the name of the first day of the week ('Lord's day').

Finally, we may mention another typically Portuguese usage. The answer to a question such as 'A moça escreve a carta?' 'Does the girl write the letter?' is not simply sim yes, as in most Romance languages. It is usual to repeat the verb escreve 'she writes, followed optionally by sim. This is typically Hebraic, as in:

And he said: "Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?" And they said: "We know" (Gen. 29:5).
This indeed has a basis in Latin, but may well have been preserved in Portuguese under the influence of the literal Bible translations.

I suspect that there is a socio-linguistic reason why these items exist in Portuguese and not in Spanish, even though the two languages are closely related. When the Jews were expelled from Spain, they were given a genuine option of staying and becoming Christians, or leaving. Of course, it was a great hardship to leave, but they could leave if they wished. (15) In Portugal, on the other hand, when the Portuguese in 1497 were unwillingly forced to expel their Jewish population, they did everything possible to impede the exodus, and many were forced to stay who did not wish to stay. (16) This had linguistic results. It was highly dangerous in Spain after the expulsion of 1492 to do anything that was recognizably Jewish. It was better not to cover one's face when the monstrance was raised in church, and it was better not to use typically Jewish expressions. In Portugal, on the other hand, since the Jews had been forced to stay, there was more tolerance of judaizing and behaving in ways associated with Judaism and Judaism. (17) Several periods were granted to former Jews in which deviations from the Catholic faith were overlooked. In Portugal, Jews did not feel the necessity to avoid Jewish expressions. Hence they persisted and are still with us.


1. The language [i e Portuguese] which with a little imagination, you can believe is Latin, but little corrupted. L de Camoes, Os Lusiadas, canto I stanza 33Click on the arrow to return!  =>

2. See Encyclopaedia Judaica. IV p. 856. For similar Arabic versions, see the entry Judeo-Arabic. See also my The Spanish Haftara for the Ninth of Ab, JQR 48 1 (1957) pp. 13-34. There the Hebrew

is translated 'sobre mi mi koraçon doloryozo'. =>

3. 'Castilian Hebrew which is neither Castilian nor Hebrew'. Introduction to his Oraciones de Ros Asana y Kipur (London R Reily 1740). Nieto was born in Livorno and lived in London, where for a time he served as the Haham of the Sefardi Jewish Community. =>

4. It is interesting to note that the Spanish expression is Islamic in origin, while I assert that the corresponding Portuguese expression is Jewish. =>

5. In point of fact it is archaic at two removes since the form in haver is now largely restricted to the literary language. =>

6. In the morning you shall say "Would it were night!". And in the evening you shall say "Would it were morning!". =>

7. In the morning you shall say: "Who would give evening" and in the evening you shall say: "Who would give morning!" =>

8. 'one of the characteristics of the Portuguese language... an interesting morphological phenomenon'. J.M. Rodrigues, Sobre o uso do infinito inipessoal, Boletim de Filologia 1 (1932), p. 3. =>

9. 'enigmatic... a fantastic creation'. K. Togeby, L'énigmatique infinitif personnel en portugais, Studia Neophilologica 25 (1955), pp. 210. 216. =>

10. 'an extremely curious form, unknown to the sister languages'. M. Said Ali, Dificuldades da Lingua Portuguesa, Rio: F. Aloes, 1957, p. 55. =>

11. The personal infinitive, also called the inflected infinitive, is formally identical in regular verbs with the future subjunctive:

falar, falares, falar, falarmos, falardes, falarem.
The meaning is roughly 'for you to speak', and so on. In irregular verbs it is distinct; thus, the future subjunctive of dizer is based on the stem disser, while the stem of the personal infinitive is the impersonal infinitive dizer. =>

12. 'If the personal infinitive is the result of a confusion between the future subjunctive and the infinitive, then why was there not an analogous form in Italian. where the conditions were the same?' =>

13. The inflected infinitive which appears in the Spanish Haftara quoted above ('ora de seren perdonados nuesos pekados' 'the time of our sins being pardoned', p. 19) is probably a contamination of Spanish by the vernacular Portuguese in use among the Amsterdam Sefardim. Although they used Spanish for trade purposes. their natural language was Portuguese. In the synagogue, announcements (including the.excommunication of Spinoza!) were made in Portuguese, even though the liturgical Haftara was read in Spanish. =>

14. See J. Corominas, Diccionário crîtico etimológico de la lengua castellana (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1980), p. 881. =>

15. The number expelled is uncertain, since no precise records were kept. Guesses vary from a few tens of thousands to as much as a quarter of a million. Of course, the world population was much smaller at this time. =>

16. See H.P. Salomon, The Portuguese Inquisition and its Victims in the Light of Recent Polemics, Journal of the American Portuguese Cultural Society 5.3-4 (Summer, 1971), p. 21. 'The king. .. wanted to keep the Jews in Portugal. He thought they would be useful to the national economy.' =>

17. On a number of occasions general pardons were granted to those who had judaized. The very form of indictment before the Inquisitional tribunal took these amnesties into account:

See A.J. Saraiva, Inquisição e Cristãos-Novos, Porto, Editorial Inova, 1968, p. 90. =>

This article was first published in:
Boundaries of the Ancient Near Eastern World (A Tribute to Cyrus H. Gordon),
ed. by Meir Lubetski, Claire Gottlieb and Sharon Keller.
It is included in the Orbis Latinus with the permission of the author.
(see more about Alan D. Corré)

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