Macanese language

Jorge RemediosClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (10610) to be taken to his personal page

Macanese or Macao Creole (Patuá to its speakers) is a creole language derived mainly from Malay, Sinhalese, Cantonese, and Portuguese, which was originally spoken by the Macanese community of the Portuguese colony of Macao. It is now spoken by only a few families in Macao and in the Macanese diaspora.

The language is also called by its speakers Papia Cristam di Macau ("Christian speech of Macao"), and has been nicknamed Dóci Língu di Macau ("Sweet Language of Macao") and Doci Papiaçám ("sweet speech") by poets. In Portuguese it is called Macaense, Macaista Chapado ("pure Macanese"), or Patuá (from French patois).



Patuá arose in Macao after the territory was "gradually occupied by Portugal after the mid-16th century" 1 and became a major hub of the Portuguese naval, commercial, and religious activities in East Asia.

The language developed first mainly among the descendants of Portuguese settlers. These often married women from Malacca and Sri Lanka rather than from neighboring China, so the language had strong Malay and Sinhalese influence from the beginning. In the 17th century it was further influenced by the influx of immigrants from other Portuguese colonies in Asia, especially from Malacca, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, that had been displaced by the Dutch expansion in the East Indies, and Japanese Christian refugees.


Like any other language, Macanese underwent extensive changes in usage, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary over the centuries, in response to changes in Macao's demographics and cultural contacts. Some linguists see a sharp distinction between the "archaic" Macanese, spoken until the early 19th century, and the "modern" form that was strongly influence by Cantonese. The modern version arose in the late 19th century, when Macanese men began marriying Chinese women from Macao and its hinterland in the Pearl River delta. The British occupation of Hong Kong from the mid-19th century also added many English words to the lexicon.

Over its history the language also acquired elements from several other Indian tongues, Spanish, and a string of other European and Asian languages. These varied influences made Macanese a unique "cocktail" of European and Asian languages.

Miguel Senna FernandesClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (792) to be taken to his personal page, a lawyer by profession and Patuá supporter by passion, has said that Patuá was "not yet dead, but the archaic form of Patuá has already died," adding that "modern" Patuá could be considered a "dialect derived from archaic Patuá." He also underlined the fact that "modern" Patuá has been strongly influenced by Cantonese, namely since the beginning of the 20th century, adding that it was "quite a miracle" that Patuá has been able to survive for four centuries in Macau, considering that "Chinese culture is quite absorbing."

"Let's revive an almost lost memory," Fernandes said about efforts by Patuá aficionados to ensure the survival of Macau's "sweet language" that, after all, is part of its unique history.

Cultural importance

The language played an important role in Macao's social and commercial development between the 16th and 19th centuries, when it was the main language of communication among Macao's Eurasian residents. However, even during that period the total number of speakers was relatively small, probably always amounting to just thousands, not tens of thousands of people.

Macanese continued to be spoken as the mother tongue of several thousand of people, in Macao, Hong Kong and elsewhere, through 19th and early 20th century. At that time, Macanese speakers were consciously using the language in opposition to the standard Portuguese of the metropolitan administration. In the early 20th century, for example, it was the vehicle of satirical sketches poking fun at Portuguese authorities. A few writers, such as the late poet José dos Santos Ferreira ("Adé")Click on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (18129) to be taken to his personal page, chose the "sweet language" as their creative medium.

On the other hand, Macanese never enjoyed any official status, and was never formally taught in Macao. Starting in the late 19th century, its role in the life of the colony was greatly diminished by the central government's drive to establish standard Portuguese throughout its territories. High-society Macanese gradually stopped using it in the early 20th century, because of its perceived "low class" status as a "primitive Portuguese". All people, including many Chinese learning Portuguese as their second or third language, are required to learn standard European Portuguese dialect.

Present status

Macanese use was already in decline while Macao was a Portuguese territory, and that situation is unlikely to improve now that the city is under Chinese administration. Still, its speakers take great pride in the fact that Macau has its own local language, something that Hong Kong does not have. They argue that Macao's unique status as a 500-year-old bridge between Orient and the Occident justifies deliberate efforts to preserve the Macanese language, and its inclusion in UNESCO's Red Book of Endangered Languages.

In spite of its unique character and centuries-old history, Macanese has received scant attention from linguists. Philologist Graciete Nogueira Batalha (d. 1994) published a number of papers on the language. A Macanese-Portuguese glossary was published in 2001.

Geographic distribution

Macanese is the now nearly extinct native language of the so-called Macanese people, Macau's Eurasian minority, which presently comprises some 8,000 residents in Macau (about 2% of its population), and an estimated 20,000 emigrants and their descendants, especially in Hong Kong, California, Canada, Peru, Brazil, Australia, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. Even within that community, Macanese is actively spoken by just several dozen old people, mostly women in their eighties or nineties, in Macau and Hong Kong, and only a few hundred people among the Macanese Diaspora overseas, namely in California.

Description of the language

Classification and related languages

Macanese is a creole language, that is, the result of a fusion of several languages and local innovations that became the mother tongue of a community. As such, it is difficult to classify within any major family.

Because of its historical development, it is closely related to other Portuguese- and Malay-influenced creoles of Southeast Asia, notably the Kristang language of Malacca and the extinct Portuguese-influenced creoles of Indonesia and Flores, as well as to the Indo-Portuguese creoles of Sri Lanka and India.


Most of the Macanese lexicon derives from Malay, through various Portuguese-influenced creoles (papiás) like the Kristang of Malacca and the creole spoken in the Indonesian island of Flores. Words of Malay origin include sapeca ("coin") and copo-copo ("butterfly").

Many words also came from Sinhalese, through the Indo-Portuguese creoles of the Kaffir and Portuguese Burgher communities of Sri Lanka. Some terms derived from other Indian languages through other Indo-Portuguese creoles. Examples of words from these sources include fula ("flower") and lacassá ("vermicelli").

Cantonese contributions include amui ("girl") and laissí ("gift of cash"). English-derived terms include adáp (from "hard-up", meaning "short of money") and afét ("fat").

The Portuguese contribution to the lexicon came mainly from the dialects of southern Portugal.


There has been little scientific research of Macanese grammar, much less on its development between the 16th and 20th centuries. Its grammatical structure seems to incorporate both European and Asian elements.

Like most Asian languages, Macanese lacks definite articles, and does not inflect verbs: for example, io sam means "I am," and ele sam means "he/she is." Macanese also lacks weak pronouns (io means "I," "me" and "mine"), and has a peculiar way of forming possessive adjectives (ilotro-sua means "theirs").

Progressive action (denoted in English by the "-ing" verbal forms) is denoted by a separate particle ta, presumably derived from Portuguese está ("it is"). Completed actions are likewise indicated by the particle ja, presumably from Portuguese jᡠ("right now" or "already").

Reduplication is used to make plural nouns (casa-casa = "houses"), plural adjectives (china-china = "several Chinese people or things"), and emphatic adverbs (cedo-cedo = "very early"), a pattern also found in Malay grammar.

Writing system

Patuá has no standardized orthography.


Here is an example of a Patuá poem:

PatuáPortuguese Translation English Translation
Nhonha na jinela A moça na janela Young lady in the window
Co fula mogarim Com uma flor de jasmim With a jasmine flower
Sua mae tancarera Sua măe é uma pescadora Chinesa Her mother is a Chinese fisherwoman
Seu pai canarim Seu pai é um Indiano Portuguęs Her father is a Portuguese Indian


1    Preamble to Macau Basic Law

* M. S. Fernandes and A. Baxter, Macanese-Portuguese Dictionary. Macau International Institute (2001).