Understanding Portugal and its History Through Saudade

Understanding Portugal and its History Through Saudade

If you have learned Portuguese, or any other language, you will have noticed that there are words or phrases that are hard to directly translate into your mother tongue. They will often convey an emotion or feeling that might require several words to describe in other languages. These differences are some of the aspects that make learning different languages so interesting and poetic.

In Portuguese, saudade is one of these words. It is difficult to fully translate, but it describes a feeling that is familiar across all cultures. It is a word that appears a lot in Portuguese; in everyday language, literature and music.

The Meaning of Saudade 

Saudade is often translated as missing in English, but it is actually much more than this. It refers to a state of deep longing, melancholy and nostalgia. You can feel saudade for a person, place or period of time, and it often describes the feeling of both sadness and happiness mixed together. 

Importantly, it can be used to describe the yearning you feel for something that might not have happened, or may never happen, which is why it cannot be translated as simply nostalgia. You can feel saudade for aspects of the future, as that feeling of longing and sadness can occur in advance of the absence of a person or situation.

If there is someone who is no longer a part of your life, saudade can be used to describe together the happiness you feel when you think about good times you spent with them, and the sadness felt as they are no longer a part of your lives. It describes something arguably deeper than just a sense of “missing”, but an incompleteness: that feeling that a part of you is missing in the absence of a person, and as a result of changes that occur in our lives with the passage of time.

It can also be used to express that bittersweet longing that arises when thinking about a period of time that has passed, or that will pass. This can be your childhood, a significant chapter of your life, friendships, romantic relationships, or a period of time in those relationships that you miss and can’t get back to. 

Its Influence on Portuguese Culture

Saudade is deeply ingrained in Portuguese history and culture and reflected in its music, literature and poetry. One example of this is Fado: a popular genre of music in Portugal, which is famous for its sad and melancholic qualities. Fado is deeply emotive, and designed to evoke the feeling of bitter-sweet, existential yearning, that has been felt by almost everyone at some point. 

The Origins of Saudade

Saudade is a word that has appeared in Portuguese literature and poetry for hundreds of years, in pieces sharing stories of love and longing. It’s thought the term originated during the Portuguese Age of Discoveries as a way of expressing the longing that families felt for their loved ones who had set sail to distant lands, and the incompleteness they felt in their absence. Likewise, it portrayed the yearning experienced by sailors for their loved ones back home, during the voyages they undertook. 

Whilst this time may have popularised the term, it actually first appeared much before the Age of Discoveries, in 13th century literature as soidade. It was used in poetry to depict the feeling of desperate longing felt by distant lovers, not able to be together. It has also likely been influenced by the Arabic word expressing melancholy, sawda (سَوْدَاء). This influence is highly plausible considering the strong Arabic influence in Portugal. 

A Universal Feeling 

Something so beautiful, and yet tragic, about saudade is that it can’t be felt without having experienced intense happiness, contentment and completeness. It is such an inherently human feeling, to feel both intense joy and sadness when thinking about the people and places you have connected with, and the fleeting nature of time. Whilst saudade can be uncomfortable and sometimes unwanted, we will almost always risk this bittersweet feeling to experience the joy that precedes it.


Written by Emma Pengelly