Macau or Macao — which one’s the correct spelling?
Both spellings are correct, but in most English speaking countries, it’s “Macao”.
In 1557 the Portuguese were welcomed into Macao, making it one of the first European settlements in East Asia. The Portuguese explorers landed at the mouth of a sheltered harbour near a place the locals called A Ma Gao (now A-Ma Temple)–a sacred site dedicated to the goddess of seafarers. Mistaking the temple’s name for the name of the land, the Portuguese adapted it and named the peninsula “Macao”.
Several hundred years later in 1911, the Portuguese changed the spelling from “Macao” to “Macau” as part of the Reforms of Portuguese orthography; a standardised spelling system for the language.
Later that century, in 1974, Portugal unilaterally relinquished its sovereignty over the enclave. And, in 1999, Macao became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Nowadays, the government of Macao officially recognises both “Macau” and “Macao” as acceptable spellings of the name. “Macau” remains the official modern Portuguese spelling and is adopted by many European countries. “Macao”, the original spelling, is officially used by The People’s Republic of China and commonly used by many English-speaking governments, including Australia and New Zealand.
So which one is correct?
“Macao” is the correct spelling in Australia, New Zealand, many English speaking nations and China. “Macau” is the correct spelling in Portugal and many European nations.
What languages are spoken in Macao?
Chinese (Cantonese) and Portuguese are the official languages, with the latter only spoken by a small percentage of people in Macao.
Although not an official language, English is commonly spoken in Macao as well.
There is also a third language, Macanese Patois. Known as Patuá to its speakers. This portuguese-based creole language has influences from Malay, Cantonese and Sinhalese. Nicknamed Dóci Língu di Macau (“Sweet Language of Macao”) by some poets, the unique language was spoken by the Macanese community of the Portuguese enclave of Macao. Now spoken by fewer than 50 people, Patuá has been classified as a “critically endangered” language by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
The mix that makes Macao unmissable
Nowhere else in the world, or in history, will you find a place like Macao. The mix of languages and spellings is one sign of the great diversity of the city, but its unique blend of both European and Chinese cultures can still be seen and enjoyed across the city in architecture, food, events and festivals and tradition, too.
Wander around Senado Square, the pastel-coloured town square that was a central meeting place for the Portuguese and Chinese over 450 years ago.
Take a bite of the first fusion cuisine in the world at Riquexo restaurant, the oldest Macanese restaurant upholding local food traditions.
Or step foot in the region’s oldest, most famous temple, A-Ma Temple (Ma Kok Miu), and visit the historic site where East would meet West and give birth to the name ‘Macao’.