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The Taming of the Tongue PDF Print E-mail
1999 - December 1999
Sunday, 01 December 2002 08:54

The Taming
of the Tongue

If Brazilians are now proudly imitating the French, with web sites devoted to the "rescue" of Portuguese from its process of unwanted Anglicism, they ought to recall the similar power and charm which the French idiom once held in the four corners of the world, including our Europeanized Brazil.
By Dário Borim Jr.

House Representative Aldo Rebelo has recently introduced a bill in Brasília, which contemplates heavy fines for the abusive borrowing of strange and/or foreign words by the Brazilian media, public institutions, and many other social and cultural domains. As a result, the ABI (Brazilian Press Association, has posted sites and chat forums for the exchange of ideas regarding this controversial bill that mainly targets the employment of English in the South-American country.

Curiously enough, the whole history of the English language may be described as "one chain of borrowings," argues Danish Otto Jespersen, one of the world's greatest philologists, in his classic study, Growth and Structure of the English Language 1. The crisscrossing of Indo-European dialects that led to the current make-up of this remarkable idiom testifies to the scholar's synthesis. This essay aims at conveying a sense of this extraordinary historical development and enriching the debate on the use and purity of Brazilian Portuguese.

English is said to be approximately 1,300 years old. The oldest texts in Anglo-Saxon (that was later named English) were written in 700 A.D. In reality, such writings came about three centuries after the beginnings of the language. In 449 A.D. members of three Germanic tribes started to invade the lands known as British Isles.

By late 5th century the Germanic had already established control of most of the Isles. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who spoke five different dialects, had conquered the Celtics, or Britons, who still spoke Celtic after being ruled and linguistically influenced by the Romans for several centuries. During those centuries Latin was spoken from the liturgies in towns, while Celtic remained strong in the countryside.

Among the Germanic invaders there were more Saxons than Angles or Jutes, but the Angles imposed their name as the name of the language and the name of the country that the three groups formed together with the Celtics. The word England comes from Old English Englaland; however, the language spoken in Great Britain ever since 449 reflects the enormous variety of influences from previous invaders and the ones that came thereafter.

In 600 A.D. England was Christianized—with "far-reaching linguistic consequences," as Jespersen puts it (41). The general people of the Isles had been acquainted with Christian words for centuries. Some of them came from Greek, and they resisted the new influx of Latin. "Church," for example, was not replaced by Late Latin "ecclesia" (that comes from Greek "ekklesia"), because it was well-known. The English utilized resources of their own language to form new ones from foreign loans by adding native affixes, changing the meaning of words, or forming new words from native stems. They also employed existing native words to express Christian ideas-like "God."

Jespersen argues that the English people had become used to preferring "strange and exotic words." One of his anecdotes regards the word "handbook," which was applied to the small books of liturgical guidance. In Old English the English people generated the new term in the form of "handboc," a combination of two native terms. However, "manual," from the Latin "manus," was adopted into Middle English, and when "handbook" reappeared in the 19th century, it was as an unwelcome intruder (49-51).

In 790 A.D., after four centuries without invasions, the English started to fight the Scandinavian newcomers, the Danes and Norwegians. Old English and Old Norse, spoken by the new invaders, were similar, but new loan-words like those in the infinite "to call" settled in for good. There seems to have been an even mixture of the two cultures and peoples, a notion corroborated by the "marriage" of two languages. They joined one another, for instance, while shaping the conjugation of verbs as common as "to be": "he is" is Anglo-Saxon, and "they are" is Norse. This linguistic blend has numberless other parallels between Anglo-Saxon and Nordic: "wife" versus "husband," and "arm" versus "leg," respectively 2.

In 1066, when the French from Normandy invaded the Isles, they became the ruling class for a long period of time. Norman, their language, became the language of the court. The country became bilingual again, but the English borrowing was undeniably extensive. As a result, English has its unique mix of Germanic and Latinate structures, which allow for different syntactic patterns, such as "the world's problems" and "the problems of the world." The English lexicon also displays a revealing duality: "cow," "calf," and "pig" are the words for the animals raised by poor people, who spoke Old English; and "beef," "veal," and "pork" are the words for the meat eaten by aristocrats, who spoke French.

The amazingly large number of French loans one finds in English come from different eras. Interestingly enough, the ways in which such words are pronounced in English reveal the time of their assimilation. Where, in an originally French word, the letters "ch" are pronounced by the phoneme /ch/, as they are in "change," the loan is an old one. If, in another word borrowed from French, the letters "ch" stand for the phoneme /sh/, as they do in "champagne," we have a recent assimilation. Even words that share a common base form may display the same dichotomy: "Charles" is an old phenomenon, but "Charlotte" is a modern one.

The last lavish import of linguistic terms happened during the Renaissance in the 1500s, which witnessed the dawning of Modern English and enacted the rediscovery of the classic cultures and languages. Apart from the genius of Shakespeare, the English language was thus infused with a profusion of Latin and Ancient Greek words. This flood of classical influence did not stop with the demise of that artistic trend. From Greek we have borrowed "telegraph" and "telephone"; and, from Latin, "escalator" and "penicillin."

So, if today part of the world is stunned by the widespread use of English and by its easy way into other languages, everyone should know—or remember—that all spoken languages are living, protean bodies that borrow and share linguistic traits. If Brazilians are now proudly imitating the French, with web sites devoted to the "rescue" of Portuguese from its process of unwanted Anglicism 3, they ought to recall the similar power and charm which the French idiom once held in the four corners of the world, including our "Europeanized Brazil," of course.

Furthermore, we ought to consider the paradox: while chauvinistic French bureaucrats are willing to sue and punish French individuals for applying English into their written communication (and Brazilian counterparts want the same!), they should know it is going to take a good many years of intense borrowing (perhaps centuries), before French has received as many English terms as English has received French ones.

Maybe the Brazilian contemporary intellectuals' campaign only makes sense. After all, it is true that our intelligentsia has gladly inherited concerns and attitudes of the Mediterranean cultural empires of the past and now resents the powers of English, today's world language. The English people, says Jespersen, have never "suffered an Academy to be instituted among them like the French or Italian Academies" . One of the Academies' chief tasks was to regulate vocabulary, so "that every word not found in their Dictionaries (sic) was blamed as unworthy of literary use or distinction" .

Appealing to the intellectual power and nationalist representation attributed to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, the Bill 1676 of 1999 proposed by the Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B) legislator not only punishes people, businesses and institutions for their "abuse" of foreign idiom, but also rewards those who spontaneously replace "the established use of words or expressions from foreign languages with equivalent words or expressions from the Portuguese." The fines range approximately from 650 to 2,000 US dollars to individuals, and 2,000 to 6,400 US dollars to legal entities. The bill also determines the doubling of such fines after every re-occurrence.

In the Brazil of previous centuries, the "nobility" not only envied the French finesse but also resented the fact that someone like José de Alencar would disgrace the Portuguese language by incorporating discreet Brazilian ways in his lexicon and syntax. In the Brazil of late 20th century, power over language is more diffused. This power is so clearly boundless and random that Brazilian Portuguese reaches and influences European Portuguese through music and television.

If anybody, it is the media and those that produce and sell entertainment goods (not a group of intellectuals) who have great control over linguistic use. Most importantly, people are getting what they want. If they have loved to use the language of Hollywood, jazz, blues, rock'n'roll and the Internet, for a variety of obvious reasons, one thing is certain: it is not nationalist bureaucracy or high-brow intellect that will tame our tongues right here, south of the Equator.


1 1905; Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1955. All other references included parenthetically in the discussion are paginated after this edition.

2 See "The World of English." Speak Up 1 (April 1997): 28-29.

3 The web sites are:   and  

Dário Borim Jr., a professor at Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto, state of Minas Gerais, is a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities and has been a professor of Brazilian literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. Borim's articles on literary and cultural issues at large have appeared in a variety of journals and books from Brazil, USA and France. You can contact him at 

The new bill posted by the ABI (Associação Brasileira de Imprensa—Brazilian Press Association) at :

PROJETO DE LEI N°1676, DE 1999


Dispõe sobre a promoção, a proteção, a defesa e o uso da língua portuguesa e dá outras providências.

O Congresso Nacional decreta:

Art. 1º Nos termos do caput do art. 13, e com base no caput [sic] I, § 1° e § 4° do art. 216 da Constituição Federal, a língua portuguesa:

I- é o idioma oficial da República Federativa do Brasil;

II- é forma de expressão oral e escrita do povo brasileiro, tanto no padrão culto como nos moldes populares;

III- constitui bem de natureza imaterial integrante do patrimônio cultural brasileiro. Parágrafo único. Considerando o disposto no caput, I, II e III deste artigo, a língua portuguesa é um dos elementos da integração nacional brasileira, concorrendo, juntamente com outros fatores, para a definição da soberania do Brasil como nação.

Art. 2º Ao Poder Público, com a colaboração da comunidade, no intuito de promover, proteger e defender a língua portuguesa, incumbe:

I- melhorar as condições de ensino e de aprendizagem da língua portuguesa em todos os graus, níveis e modalidades da educação nacional;

II- incentivar o estudo e a pesquisa sobre os modos normativos e populares de expressão oral e escrita do povo brasileiro;

III- realizar campanhas e certames educativos sobre o uso da língua portuguesa, destinados a estudantes, professores e cidadãos em geral;

IV- incentivar a difusão do idioma português, dentro e fora do País;

V- fomentar a participação do Brasil na Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa;

VI- atualizar, com base em parecer da Academia Brasileira de Letras, as normas do Formulário Ortográfico, com vistas ao aportuguesamento e à inclusão de vocábulos de origem estrangeira no Vocabulário Ortográfico da Língua Portuguesa

§ 1º Os meios de comunicação de massa e as instituições de ensino deverão, na forma desta lei, participar ativamente da realização prática dos objetivos listados nos incisos anteriores.

§ 2º À Academia Brasileira de Letras incumbe, por tradição, o papel de guardiã dos elementos constitutivos da língua portuguesa usada no Brasil.

Art. 3º É obrigatório o uso da língua portuguesa por brasileiros natos e naturalizados, e pelos estrangeiros residentes no País há mais de 1 (um) ano, nos seguintes domínios socioculturais:

I- no ensino e na aprendizagem;

II- no trabalho;

III- nas relações jurídicas;

IV- na expressão oral, escrita, audiovisual e eletrônica oficial;

V- na expressão oral, escrita, audiovisual e eletrônica em eventos públicos nacionais;

VI- nos meios de comunicação de massa;

VII- na produção e no consumo de bens, produtos e serviços;

VIII- na publicidade de bens, produtos e serviços.

§ 1º A disposição do caput [sic] I- VIII deste artigo não se aplica:

I- a situações que decorram da livre manifestação do pensamento e da livre expressão da atividade intelectual, artística, científica e de comunicação, nos termos dos incisos IV e IX do art. 5º da Constituição Federal;

II- a situações que decorram de força legal ou de interesse nacional;

III- a comunicações e informações destinadas a estrangeiros, no Brasil ou no exterior;

IV- a membros das comunidades indígenas nacionais;

V- ao ensino e à aprendizagem das línguas estrangeiras;

VI- a palavras e expressões em língua estrangeira consagradas pelo uso, registradas no Vocabulário Ortográfico da Língua Portuguesa;

VII- a palavras e expressões em língua estrangeira que decorram de razão social, marca ou patente legalmente constituída.

§ 2º A regulamentação desta lei cuidará das situações que possam demandar:

I- tradução, simultânea ou não, para a língua portuguesa;

II- uso concorrente, em igualdade de condições, da língua portuguesa com a língua ou línguas estrangeiras.

Art. 4º Todo e qualquer uso de palavra ou expressão em língua estrangeira, ressalvados os casos excepcionados nesta lei e na sua regulamentação, sera considerado lesivo ao patrimônio cultural brasileiro, punível na forma da lei.

Parágrafo único. Para efeito do que dispõe o caput [sic] deste artigo, considerar-se-á:

I- prática abusiva, se a palavra ou expressão em língua estrangeira tiver equivalente em língua portuguesa;

II- prática enganosa, se a palavra ou expressão em língua estrangeira puder induzir qualquer pessoa, física ou jurídica, a erro ou ilusão de qualquer espécie;

III- prática danosa ao patrimônio cultural, se a palavra ou expressão em língua estrangeira puder, de algum modo, descaracterizar qualquer elemento da cultura brasileira.

Art. 5º Toda e qualquer palavra ou expressão em língua estrangeira posta em uso no território nacional ou em repartição brasileira no exterior a partir da data da publicação desta lei, ressalvados os casos excepcionados nesta lei e na sua regulamentação, terá que ser substituída por palavra ou expressão equivalente em língua portuguesa no prazo de 90 (noventa) dias a contar da data de registro da ocorrência.

Parágrafo único. Para efeito do que dispõe o caput [sic] deste artigo, na inexistência de palavra ou expressão equivalente em língua portuguesa, admitir-se-á o aportuguesamento da palavra ou expressão em lingua estrangeira ou o neologismo próprio que venha a ser criado.

Art. 6º O descumprimento de qualquer disposição desta lei sujeita o infrator a sanção administrativa, na forma da regulamentação, sem prejuízo das sanções de natureza civil, penal e das definidas em normas específicas, com multa no valor de:

I- 1.300 (mil e trezentas) a 4.000 (quatro mil) UFIRs, se pessoa física;

II- 4.000 (quatro mil) a 13.000 ((treze mil) UFIRs, se pessoa jurídica.

Parágrafo único. O valor da multa dobrará a cada reincidência.

Art. 7º A regulamentação desta lei tratará das sanções premiais a serem aplicadas àquele, pessoa física ou jurídica, pública ou privada, que se dispuser, espontaneamente, a alterar o uso já estabelecido de palavra ou expressão em língua estrangeira por palavra ou expressão equivalente em língua portuguesa.

Art. 8º À Academia Brasileira de Letras, com a colaboração dos Poderes Legislativo, Executivo e Judiciário, de órgãos que cumprem funções essenciais à justiça e de instituições de ensino, pesquisa e extensão universitária, incumbe realizar estudos que visem a subsidiar a regulamentação desta lei.

Art. 9º O Poder Executivo regulamentará esta lei no prazo máximo de 1 (um) ano a contar da data de sua publicação.

Art. 10. Esta lei entra em vigor na data de sua publicação


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