According to many Portuguese people 160 million Brazilians speak the
language wrongly. Are all Brazilians illiterate? Would they all be bilingual if they had
to learn Portuguese?
By A. Fabres
My translation course confirmed what I already suspected: When we say that we speak
Portuguese it is as if we were lying! Most Brazilians in the class were having problems
apart, of course, from those who were already accustomed to continental Portuguese. But I
will not be talking about them as those `bilingual people’ did not experience any trouble
at all. Usually, they are the ones who ask: Are you used to having Portuguese people
around? And when I say `no’ they tell me that that is why! But if I have to get used to
them to understand what they say then we don’t speak the same language.
When he couldn’t recognise our vocabulary, our teacher would say: "Poor you,
already forgot your language!" Sometimes the class was so chaotic that it was
hilarious. I have never seen a teacher finding so many mistakes!
I am not saying we never made mistakes, we did, I am talking about differences in
vocabulary, punctuation, sentence patterns and idiomatic expressions. They are real. When
all those things are considered to be mistakes there isn’t one single Brazilian in the
Imagine the student’s frustration! Some abandoned the course, others resigned to the
fact that they had forgot their own language. Some, like myself, took the opportunity to
learn about the extent of the changes we have made to the language in the last decades. It
is a lesson we will never forget. I believe that if the class was in Italian
insteada language I have never studied but understand wellI would have done
better. Unfortunately, for the Portuguese, we Brazilians do not speak or write Portuguese
anymore. This is an undeniable fact!
The French call it brésilien, and that is not because they don’t know that in
Brazil we speak Portuguese but simply because they recognise the difference. Very often,
it is the Brazilians themselves who ignore the fact, maybe because of those 20 years of
military ruling that isolated us from the rest of the world. Only now can we see how we
changed the language during that period.
Those academics, purists and nostalgicBrazilians and Portugueseinsisting
that we spoke the original Portuguese cannot see that it is already too late to go back.
The only thing we can do now is to try and establish a certain standard for our
`Portuguese’ and, this is up to our government and the Academia Brasileira de Letras
(Brazilian Academy of Letters). If we did that we would certainly end the snobbery and,
the intimidation we still face with things like: `poor you, already forgot your language.’
Nobody needs to be a genius to see that the unificação ortográfica
(orthographic standardisation) will never work. There are several reasons for that. The
main one is the fact that we’d rather forget our colonial past. We will continue to resist
those regulations, it is psychological. We will carry on writing purê not puré,
mídia not média (media), fato not facto (fact), vitrine
not vitrina (window-shop), xampu not shampô (shampoo), Aids not
There are differences in vocabulary too: parasol (Brazil), chapéu de sol (Portugal);
arrecadar (Brazil), angariar (Portugal)to raise (money). There are
also problems with words that are spelt and pronounced in the same way with totally
different meaning, like terno (Brazilian) and fato (Portuguese), a men’s
suit. The word fato in Brazilian is the new version of the word facto
(fact). The Portuguese say viajar para o estrangeiro (to travel abroad) while we
say viajar para o exterior. If you use the word exterior in that context in
an exam, Portuguese teachers would consider it a mistake.
To make the confusion even worse you can find differences in masculine and feminine
forms, such as: o caixa eletrônico in Brazil as opposed to a caixa eletrônica
in Portugal (cash-point machines).
The list is huge and it keeps growing, making things even more confusing. During the
whole length of the course I had the impression that I was dealing with a different Latin
language. It was exhausting and the teacher had to work double. Hadn’t he insisted that
they are the same he would have had less trouble.
The truth is that teachers and translators are the ones who most benefit from that
situation, they are still been offeredand acceptingwork which they should
refuse if they don’t know much about Brazilian Portuguese. Never mind holding a diploma in
translation, it is practically impossible to follow the evolution of the language in both
countries at the same time. The same apply to us in relation to Portugal, but the
Portuguese are the ones most interested in saying that `Brazilian language’ does not
exist. It is advantageous to play with the insecurity of those Brazilians who, through
lack of vision, still do not acknowledge the importance of embracing those differences.
It is still true that most employment agencies and companies in various fields haven’t
yet realised what is going on. They still believe those people who maintain that the
difference between the two versions is minimal. Those people are not helping translators
or anybody. They are not professionals, they ignore the implications those differences can
have for employers. A company (or employment agency) searching to hire a Portuguese
speakera translator or an employeeto do work related with Brazil, for example,
should be informed that they could end up in the losers side.
By principle I refuse to translate into Portuguese if it is for Portugal, because I do
not know enough about it and never lived there, it would not sound right. However, things
are changing, now the best translation agencies are aware of the changes and are adopting
a new attitude to recruitment of translators and interpreters, choosing them according to
their nationality as well. I think it is high time we took responsibilities for our
problems, being they social, economical, the bad and good points and our language.
We must stop behaving like victims, the colonised land. We do not need to obey Portugal
in any way.
Don’t we celebrate our Independence Day every year? When a culture accepts itself it
imposes more respect and that is what the people need. Only then can they change for
The English and the Americans have already established their linguistic differences and
the famous English joke about it: `we are two nations divided by a common language’ could
well apply to us. As their languages are similar Scandinavians can often understand each
other but Norwegian is called Norwegian not Danish. Similar does not mean same.
No language has much value outside its own cultural context, it would lose its meaning.
This explains why some of them die whereas others survive. Since the beginning of the
times, cultural, geographic, demographic and financial aspects have played a vital part in
the changes, survival or death of a language. It is such a powerful means of
communication, sometimes used as a weapon to oppress people.
The invention of the dictionary in the 17th century is very recent
considering that the vocabulary in use at the time was already vast. That was the most
efficient way to preserve it but it is impossible to avoid the insurgence of new words,
after all most of what is in dictionaries was invented by the average person not the
academics. Every time a dictionary is revised, new popular expressions and words are
included. The versatility of human beings knows no limits.
It is, of course, normal for academics to try and maintain the standards of a language
as found in the books but they cannot ignore the reasons why it changes. The Catholic
Church does not recognise divorce, it is as if the word did not exist, although it is a
fact of modern life and affects millions of families every year. A word had to be invented
in order to defame it.
All throughout Brazil people use the word cachaça for água ardente
(sugar-cane spirit), but only recently the producers acquired the right to use the word cachaça
in the bottles. As foreign importers kept saying that they liked the latter best, the
authorities decided to allow the producers to use the name officially. Once again the
opinion of outsiders was necessary for a practical change to happen. That is the proof
that we still are linguistically oppressed and conditioned to the past. It is obvious that
the word cachaça is more original as also is caipirinha (margarita made
with cachaça) instead of coquetel de água ardente com limão verde (lime
and água ardente cocktail). It is more practical, more Brazilian.
English language is also very practical with small words. Maybe that is the reason of
its success. It does reflect the Anglo-Saxon system very well in its dislike for
bureaucracy, whereas Latin countries seem to thrive in it. Names for example: Anthony
becomes Tony, practical, approachable. Rodney becomes Rod, Elizabeth becomes Liz and so
Some English people say that when Brazilian authors use their entire names in their
books it does not help to promote Brazilian literature in Anglo-Saxon cultures because it
is difficult for them to pronounce and memorise those long names. Although the same people
maintained that Jorge Amado or Paulo Coelho it is already better. As for the nicknames we
give to football players such as Pelé, Zico, Sócrates and Zagallo they find it original
and humorous. Outside Brazil practically nobody knows the real name of Pelé.
Those nicknames are great because they express originality, humour and creativity. Some
years ago, in France, there was an attempt to launch a French cocktail, which was a copy
of our caipirinha. It didn’t work because the Brazilians claimed their rights to
it, fair enough. That is yet another reason for us to acknowledge and take
responsibilities for what we are changing. Many Portuguese students also think that our
differences should be recognised and accepted, one of them even talked about his
frustration with a Brazilian teacher. That suggests that the problem exists in both senses
and it is pointless to try to ignore it. Many students are wasting time because of it.
A mother tongue is that of the motherland, which we learn instinctively. Ours is
Brazilian. It is normal that we have words of diverse origins because we all have
different origins. Not only we are in another continent we are also a melting pot. This
linguistic battle the Portuguese have already lost. Numbers speak for themselves, a
mistake made by 160 million people soon becomes a rule.
A. Fabres is a Brazilian linguist who lives in London.