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. The way you feel is often a mixture of sadness and happiness 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 merely nostalgia.

You can feel saudade for aspects of both the past and future. It can be felt when you are with someone in the present, enjoying their company. Saudade can be experienced as you imagine how you’ll feel when the time with this person comes to an end, meaning you feel that longing and sadness in advance of their absence. 

If someone 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 had with them, and the sadness that they are no longer a part of your lives. It describes something arguably deeper than just missing, but an incompleteness: that feeling that a part of you is missing in the absence of a person, or as changes happen with the passage of time.

Likewise, it can be used to express that bittersweet longing that arises when thinking about a period of time that has passed, or 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. 

The Influence on Portuguese Culture

Saudade is deeply engrained in Portuguese history and culture and is reflected in its music, literature and poetry. One example of this is Fado: a popular genre of music or singing in Portugal, which is famous for its sad and melancholic qualities. It is a deeply emotive type of music designed to evoke the feeling of bitter-sweet, existential yearning that comes with saudade in those listening, and to connect with the audience through this shared sentiment.

It is also a word that has appeared in Portuguese literature and poetry for hundreds of years, in those pieces sharing stories of love and longing. A lot of the literature and poetry written during the Portuguese Age of Discoveries reflected this sentiment. Saudade was also a central theme in a lot of poetry written during the Portuguese Renaissance.

The Origins of Saudade

It’s often 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 these voyages. 

As Portuguese colonies formed in distance lands, the term saudade was used to convey the collective longing or homesickness felt by those living in different places for Portugal, the memories they had made there and the ones they left behind. 

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 to the feeling of desperate yearning 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. 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