Mirandese (Mirandés) is a Romance language of uncertain origin but possibly related to the Asturian-Leonese group; it began to emerge as a separate language about the middle of the 12th century. Numerous legal documents testify to its existence in the 12th century and throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. It is spoken in the villages of the municipality of Miranda do Douro (except Atenor and the town of Miranda do Douro itself), in three villages in the municipality of Vimioso and in certain villages in the municipalities of Mogadouro and Bragança in the far north of Portugal, in a region of striking geological contrasts situated between the valleys of the rivers Douro and Sabor. The region has better road links with the city of Zamora in Spain than with Lisbon or Porto, a situation that isolates it somewhat from the rest of Portugal, from which it is separated by the historical province of Trás-os-Montes.
The total population of the area in 1991 was 14,728. During the sixties, the population increased as a result of the construction of the Miranda and Picote hydroelectric dams, which brought in large numbers of workers from other parts of Portugal. The completion of the work saw the departure of the workers as well as marking the start of a great exodus of Mirandese people - about 40% of the total population at that time - who emigrated to other parts of Portugal and to foreign countries because of a surplus of agricultural labour. Over the last few years an increase in commercial exchanges with Spain has led to a slight improvement in the demographic situation.
The Mirandese-speaking population - 10,000 who normally speak the language - is almost entirely concentrated in the small villages with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. Since the sixties, there has been a continuous decrease in the number of Mirandese speakers as a result of the waves of emigration caused by the closure of several mines in the area and the immigration of Portuguese speakers. To the habitual Mirandese speakers should be added some 5,000 occasional speakers, most of whom are Mirandese emigrants who return from the large urban centres of Portugal to spend their holidays in Miranda.
The economy of the area is based on agriculture (wheat, potatoes and oil), wine-growing and livestock farming (sheep and cattle), while commerce, services, building and the hotel business provide work for the majority of the population of the town of Miranda do Douro. There is virtually no industry. Other economic resources are the Miranda and Picote hydroelectric dams and tourism, although tourist facilities are underdeveloped. The standard of living in the area is close to the national average with no pockets of poverty, thanks to the financial resources invested by the emigrants.
The known origin of the town dates back to 1286. As a result of its economic development during the 14th century, Miranda became the main cultural, social and religious centre of Trás-os-Montes from the mid-15th century. During the War of the Spanish Succession, the town was captured and occupied by Spanish troops (1710-11).
The history of the language has been shaped to a great extent by the agrarian nature of the region, if we consider the social and economic imbalances that have resulted from the modernization process of the past few decades. Compulsory schooling, the growing influence of the mass media and the changing mentality of the younger generations have had a critical effect on traditional values in the area, as have the decline in the number of speakers and the loss of interest in Mirandese. Young people, in fact, regard Mirandese as an archaic and underdeveloped language, little suited to the needs of modern communication. Besides, the fact that the Mirandese tradition is more oral than written and the fact that there is no abundance of Mirandese literature only help to reinforce such attitudes.
The Mirandese linguistic community has done little to promote its language. Only a few activities, based purely on folk arts and traditions, are organized by some associations, but promotion of the Mirandese language is left to the local authorities. Nevertheless, some articles in the local newspapers as well as radio and television features have demonstrated that the language is still alive in the region.
The national Government recognizes the linguistic and cultural heritage represented by Mirandese and does its best to preserve it and encourage its propagation through the compulsory teaching of Mirandese, which is recognized as the second language in the area, in the senior primary-school classes (pupils aged 9, 10, 11 and 12 years) and in the first three years of secondary school (pupils aged 13, 14 and 15).
The local authorities in the area promote Mirandese by publishing works in the language and specialized linguistic studies, through folk arts and culture and by organizing a festival of song, funding theatre productions and using Mirandese in some official speeches.
Mirandese is not used or taught at any of the following stages of education: preschool, the first years of primary school, the final years of secondary school, technical education, adult education and university.
On the other hand, the local authorities have encouraged the inclusion of the language as an optional subject in the first three years of the secondary schools in the area. The legal status of Mirandese in the education system derives from a decree issued by the Assistant Secretary of State at the Portuguese Ministry of Education in September 1985. At the present time, Mirandese is taught as an optional subject to a fairly small number of pupils in the first to third year at the Miranda do Douro secondary school. However, there are huge gaps in the system for teaching Mirandese in that there is neither a course inspectorate nor training and in-service secondments for teachers.
The only official language used in court is Portuguese, although Mirandese is sometimes spoken and interpreters are normally available.
Portuguese is the only language used by the public services. Although Mirandese is used on signs indicating place names in the area, the authorities tend to be rather reticent when it comes to the adoption of forenames and surnames in Mirandese.
Mirandese is not used at all in the mass media, apart from a very few articles that have appeared in the local press.
The production of literature in Mirandese (about ten works) comprises mainly anthologies of poetry, religious works and a few school textbooks. On the other hand, traditional Mirandese music is alive and well, and numerous performances of folk songs and dances are given every year. A disc produced by the Centro de Estudios de Folclore de Zamora, with recordings of several such performances, was awarded the National Prize for Culture in Spain in 1987.
There are some companies of amateur comedy players within the cultural circles and associations of the area. Plays are staged at very irregular intervals (twice or three times a year) despite the support provided by the Miranda Municipal Council and the Juntas de Freguesia (district councils).
Mirandese also plays a part in other cultural activities, such as conferences and seminars on the cultural heritage and folk traditions of the region, exhibitions of craftwork, of local costumes, paintings, photographs, etc. For example, we must highlight the Primeiras Jornadas de Língua e Cultura Mirandesa staged by the Miranda do Douro Escola Preparatória in 1987, and the Encontro Regional de Variaçao Linguística, which was organized by the Associaçao Portuguesa de Linguística in September 1993.
Lastly, it should be noted that in 1992 the Portuguese Government founded the Museu Terra de Miranda, for which the Instituto Português do Patrimonio Cultural is responsible and which has staged various exhibitions. In addition, the Municipal Council of Miranda do Douro established a municipal library, the books provided by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and by the Directorate-General for Educational Extension and Adult Education.
Mirandese is spoken, though never exclusively, in the course of particular commercial and agricultural activities.
Outside the town of Miranda do Douro itself, it seems that the vast majority of parents continue to pass on Mirandese to their children. As far as the social use of the language is concerned, the fact that Mirandese speakers are perceived as somewhat backward by comparison with Portuguese speakers does constitute an obstacle to the extension of the language. For that reason the inhabitants of the area are quite pessimistic about the prospects for the survival of Mirandese and believe that their only hope lies in securing the active support of the public authorities and motivating young people to speak Mirandese.
Mirandese is very clearly in a state of decline at the present time, a process that has been accelerating since the sixties. With scant support from the public authorities and a lack of interest among its own speakers, the oral tradition of the language, its prestige and its social use are visibly dwindling. Most public manifestations of Mirandese are limited to displays of folk culture. Besides, its linguistic similarity to Portuguese contributes to Mirandese being regarded in the popular mind as a dialect of Portuguese.