Observations on Two Autochthonous Minority Languages in Iberia

Recently, my travels took me through the borderlands of the northwestern region of Extremadura in west central Spain near the Portuguese border and the northeastern region of Portugal called Trás Os Montes near the Spanish border.


In three towns in the Extremadura region, a very vibrant language called Fala (literally translated as “Speech”) is spoken by its proud inhabitants in three small towns: As Ellas (Eljas), Sa Martín de Trebellu (San Martin de Trevejo), and Valverdi du Fresnu (Valverde del Fresno). The Fala language is a romance language similar to both Portuguese and Galician with characteristics from the Asturian-Leones languages spoken in Asturias, Spain and Miranda do Douro, Portugal.  Collectively the three towns have roughly 6000 inhabitants, but total number of speakers is estimated at nearly 10,000 which includes former full-time residents that return in the summer months.

I stopped in Valverde de Fresno (Spanish spelling) to rest and to learn about the local Fala language and culture.  I conducted an interview with a proud inhabitant of the town who, upon request, spoke to me entirely in Fala during the interview.  If you speak Portuguese, Spanish, and especially Galician you will understand most, if not all of what he describes.  Below is the transcript and translation into English of my interview with him.

Please click the play button to hear interview.


Translation/Transcript of the interview:

 “What is Fala? It is composed of three varieties: Ellargateiru, Valverdeiru, and Manheigu. These come from the linguistic variant of AsturGalaicu-Portugues.  Why does it exist? In the times of the Reconquista, the Catholic kings of Spain repopulated this region with people from Leon, Asturias, and Galicia. Why has it [the Fala language] remained here [in this region]?  One doesn’t know for sure. In actuality, borders demarcating strict language zones didn’t exist at the time.  On the contrary, people lived together and mixed between Portugal and, for example, Caceres [capital of Extremadura], and other places as well. Nowadays it’s found in these three towns [see above]. 

 What is particular about this language?  The only thing it lacks is … grammar [standardization].  With the grammar we write what we want, what we think it sounds like and how we think the words should be written.  It’s a pity because with time, not having a grammar, we could lose the language because it’s only a spoken language.  We have lost many of the old words because we don’t use many of the words of rural traditions or expressions from traditional daily life.  As a result, we have become more Hispanicized through television, radio, and the internet, through the media in general.  Also there are people that have left the villages to study so this has also contributed to the language not maintaining its purity. But this is normal thing, isn’t it?  People evolve and change in life, even Fala. 

 We, for example, in Fala call one of our towns As Ellas, instead of Eljas [the official Spanish name for the town] because in Ellargateiru [the variety of Fala spoken in the town of Eljas] it’s called As Ellas. 

 So we’re now editing a magazine called Dourinha. There are people that write articles in as much in Ellagateiru as in Spanish and they collaborate a lot.  This is quite interesting because you can find words in the glossary at the end of the magazine where one can see the spelling and meaning.

 Well I don’t know what else to say…

 I hope that my children continue to speak the language because at home and particularly in our house or in the street, we have always spoken it or, for example, there in Ellargateiru, here in Valverdeiru, and in Sa Martin Manhegu.  Nevertheless in school within the classes it’s always been Spanish, but we’ve never lost it because we’ve tried to maintain it.  For example the regional government of Extremadura declared the language a cultural resource, but it hasn’t supported it 100% – it has given it total support.  Even the Galicians, when they realized that we have this way of speaking that has similar characteristics to the Galician language, the universities of Santiago de Compostela and Ourense came to study us.  The only thing is that because of the political situation [nationalism] they have made a point as if they wanted to annex us… and say that we are “little Galicia” within Extremadura.  Well things are not quite that way.  We are a special people in this regard because we are from a corner of the world that as you see is very beautiful and lovely, but we aren’t Galician, nor do we have a way of speaking like the Galician.  We have the tone, the form, the words that as I said before that come from the same roots so in that way it [Fala] continues to be spoken and to sustain itself.

 Well, more or less, I hope I was able to explain somewhat in this little bit of time.  Me: Muito Obrigado, Muchas Gracias.  If you wish to come back someday we’ll be here.”


San Martin de Trevejo: One of the three Fala speaking villages in Extremadura, Spain


The second minority language I went to observe called Rionorês, was located in the extreme northeastern corner of Portugal about 344km (214 miles) from Valverde de Fresno in the town of Rio de Onor in the Bragança municipality of the Tras-Os-Montes region. Rio de Onor is actually two towns: one Portuguese and the other Spanish divided by the historic border.  I was unable to spend a lot of time in the village to make many observations, but I found it absolutely fascinating and at the same time somewhat forlorn if not sad.  I use these latter two words to describe it because I found what seemed to be a very proud people with many traditions, including their language, that appeared to be on the verge of disappearing forever.  I saw no young people in the village and was told that most had already left for the larger cities to find opportunities (a familiar and repeated story around the world). The Portuguese village, according to 10 year old records, has less than 200 inhabitants.

The Rionorês language is of the Astur-Leones language group that extends northward up into Asturias.  Being a language spoken in Portugal, it obviously possesses some traits from Portuguese, unlike Asturianu spoken in Asturias, Spain.

I have found some anthropological and some linguistic studies that have been completed about the town and its inhabitants. Dina Rodrigues Macias in her essay, Dialecto Rionorês Contributo Para O Seu Estudo, 2003., provides a very good overview of the people, specific linguistic characteristics, and a good bibliography (in Portuguese).  A contemporary and thorough ethnographic study of the village’s language and/or communal land ownership, if implemented correctly could possibly help to preserve and document many aspects of the precious cultural heritage found in this village.

I spoke with several villagers (ages 65 and older) about the language but they consistently told me that the Rionorês language was disappearing in the wake of contemporary Portuguese.  Nearly all of them pointed me to a senhor that was apparently a local expert and proponent of the language that worked for the local village government. With his permission, I conducted an interview where he describes in Rionorês the local communal agreement on planting crops in the village.  Although I understood most of what he described, my lexical knowledge of farming and agriculture particularly in the language is obviously limited.  If you speak Spanish and Portuguese you will also understand most of it.  If you are an Asturianu speaker, please contact me.  I’d love to hear any comparisons with your language you may hear.

Please click the play button to hear interview.

Rio de Onor.jpg

Rio de Onor Village Church

This entry was posted in Lifestyles.