“Saudade” Isn't Mysterious

March 12, 2022

Portuguese doesn’t really get a lot of recognition in North America. If people even remember that it exists, it’s usually filed in the mental category of “that language that’s kinda like Spanish”.

But there’s one word in Portuguese that doesn’t have a counterpart in English or Spanish: saudade, the feeling of missing someone or something.

In North America, this gets a lot of credit for being a particularly poetic or mysterious word for a specific or unusual feeling, akin to the invented word sonder. Here’s the first paragraph of the English Wikipedia page for “saudade”:

Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for something or someone that one cares for and/or loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again. It is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places, or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, and well-being, which now trigger the senses and make one experience the pain of separation from those joyous sensations. Saudade describes a feeling both happy and sad, and could be approximated by the English expression ‘bitter sweet’.

That’s a really heavy description. And while I don’t entirely disagree with it, I think it’s overstated. Like I said above, “saudade” is just the feeling of missing someone or something. The catch is that, due to some grammatical quirks, it ends up looking more mysterious than it actually is.

In English, feelings are something that you are. You are happy, you are sad, you are jealous, you are hungry.

In Portuguese, only some feelings are things that you are:1

English Portuguese
I am happy Eu estou feliz
I am tired Eu estou cansado
I am angry Eu estou zangado
I am worried Eu estou preocupado

Other feelings are instead written as something you have, with the feeling being a noun instead of an adjective:

English Portuguese Literal English Translation
I am scared Eu tenho medo I have fear
I am jealous Eu tenho ciúmes I have jealousy
I am hungry Eu tenho fome I have hunger
I am sleepy Eu tenho sono I have sleepiness

And “saudade” is just another word that fits that pattern:

English Portuguese Literal English Translation
I miss you Eu tenho saudade de você I have the feeling of missing you
I miss it Eu tenho saudades disso I have feelings of missing that
I miss that place Eu tenho saudade desse lugar I have the feeling of missing that place

And yes, sometimes it’s written in plural, as if you have many feelings of missing whatever you’re talking about.

The only time it gets weird is if you don’t attach it to a person, place, or thing.

English Portuguese Literal English Translation
I miss (something?) Eu tenho saudades I have the feeling of missing… something?

But honestly, this is weirdly abstract even in Portuguese. The only time you’d say something like that is if it were clear what you were missing from context:

“I just came back from visiting Toronto!”

“Wow really? Eu tenho saudades.

But there’s not really much mystery there. It’s not some unusual abstract feeling that people in Portuguese-speaking countries understand but you don’t. It’s just a noun. It’s a noun for the feeling of “I miss you”, notable only because English doesn’t have a noun for it.

In fact, there’s another way to say you miss someone in Portuguese, which I think is even more poetic when translated:

English Portuguese Literal English Translation
I miss you Eu sinto falta de voçê I feel your absence

Coming off a global pandemic, between social isolation, travel restrictions, and remembering those we’ve lost, I think we can all relate to feeling someone’s absence.

  1. Portuguese has a distinction between two different forms of “to be”: “ser” and “estar”. “Ser” is used for permanent, mostly unchangeable facts, whereas “estar” relates to temporary states of being.

    Feelings are always “estar”. If you say them with “ser” instead, it’s no longer a feeling, it’s a personality tendency. “Eu estou zangado”, means “I am angry”, but “eu sou zangado” means “I am an angry person”.

    This distinction is interesting on a philosophical level. Think about it: you can’t say someone or something “is” something without implying whether you think it’s temporary or permanent.