Will Brazil and Portugal Ever Agree on a Common Language?

Portuguese dictionary

Brazil and Portugal have signed a few orthographic (spelling) reform
agreements in the past, but could never come to an understanding. Portugal
enforces the 1943 agreement. Brazil goes by the one signed in 1945. If all
Lusophone countries sign the new agreement now in gestation, it will be in
effect in 2009.

The idea behind the proposal to again update the Portuguese language is unifying spelling rules in Brazil, Portugal and Lusophone countries Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé & Príncipe, Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau. There are other countries in the world, though, where Portuguese is one of the official languages.

In a monkey-like imitation of Americans who love quantifying everything, calculations have already been published stating that the new grammar will change 1.6% of the Luso vocabulary and 0.5% of the Brazilian vocabulary. Nobody knows who supports these changes.

As we can see, political independence alone can’t resolve certain subtle complexities of languages. Maybe Hegel (“the Lord is also within you”), who attended seminary with the poet Holderlin (“man is God when he dreams and a pauper when he thinks”), or maybe Freud (“in the beginning there was no word, it was all action”) could explain the reason why we only refer to two vocabularies, Brazilian and Luso.

What about the Portuguese-speaking African nations, where do they come in? I am glad that the Camões Prize in Literature has awarded writers from Portugal, Brazil and the Lusophone African nations alternatively.

Pontifices Maximi
The agreement is controversial and has been stirring criticism. Much of it is poorly grounded, because we are not talking about prohibiting spoken language variations but about unifying the written language such as in the case of Arab language, which is spoken differently in 15 countries but still is written the same way by all of them.

A good Portuguese dictionary has some 200 thousand palavras (words) these days. Actually, the right word here is not palavra, but verbete or entrada (entry).

Let me give you a small example. The Houaiss Portuguese Language Dictionary states in its electronic version (2.0, revised) that it contains 228,500 verbetes with 380,000 meanings. The editing team for the project that bears the name of its founder Antônio Houaiss are two people – Mauro Salles Villar and Francisco Mello Franco.

There are some etymological errors such as in urucubaca (persistent misfortune), an entry that existed in Portuguese way before the Spanish influenza epidemic, as I have demonstrated in another article.

Together with its congeners Aurélio and Michaelis, Houaiss is insufficient for fiction writers but a comprehensive tool for any other consultees.

In Brazil, unfortunately, many short story writers, novelists and poets, even the best known among them, are still not well explored in schools, universities and academies. The reason is very simple: first you have to submit the author’s death certificate, a requirement these authors can’t meet, of course.

Let me give you the example of Clarice Lispector. When I was a young college teacher I found it very difficult to bring Clarice’s books to my classroom and into bibliographies. Many of the people who make money with her work today – at the very least scholarship money or as advisors for dissertations about her work – looked down on her books while the writer was alive – and actually needing the attention that she of course deserved.

A simple writers roundtable would be enough to dilute certain pranks played by illustrious professors who insist that we don’t need to study Portuguese grammar because the role of language is merely to communicate.

People who think like that should resign their positions in favor of Chacrinha* or someone like him. At least the time spent in the classroom would never be boring. So many college kids give up during their very first semester exactly because of difficulties to read, write, think or debate in the Portuguese language!

To believe these Pontifices Maximi, if you can speak or write in a way that everyone understands, everything is fine. You don’t need to study so much. We don’t need the butt-chair-hour ratio without which nothing can be well learned.

And these idiots, resting on diplomas granted by their peers who think the same way, go about categorically stating that we don’t need to read and even less to study the founding texts of our Portuguese language. This situation could well be described by the scientific term fim da picada (dreadful, the last straw)

The Way We Are

Known by their good mood, Brazilians have forever used a curious and humble epithet for dictionaries which is, however, unfair to the actual beast: pai-dos-burros (father of all donkeys, meaning father of all idiots).

If you know anything about riding, you know by experience that donkeys are highly intelligent. If you want stupidity, consider horses: when spurred, a horse goes where it is not supposed to go and make life miserable for the horseman. Donkeys, on the other hand, empacam – they know when to balk – for example, at the edge of a swamp.

The verb empacar comes from alpaca in the Quechuan language, meaning a red-skinned animal smaller than the llama. When the alpaca doesn’t want to continue walking, it lies down on the ground and the only way to move it is to drag it away, because there is no way it will get up.

Pai-dos-burros is an expression of controversial origins. It could be a reference to the occupation of the parents of Aurélio, Brazilian lexicographer and philologist Aurélio Buarque de Holanda Ferreira, a true man of letters, translator and essayist, who was a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Today the copyrights of the Aurélio dictionary belong to Grupo Positivo.

Aurélio’s father built wagons and carriages which were very comfortable not only for the users who rode on their seats, but also for the donkeys who pulled them. In those times we already had the well-known expression “Não tenho palavras para agradecer” (I can’t find the words to express my gratitude) and people used it to praise the perfection of those carriages.

Aurélio did find the words and he actually wrote a little textbook of praise words which was his very first dictionary. In that book his father’s customers could find the appropriate words to endorse his father’s craftsmanship.

And slowly the son of the builder began to help his father less and less with that very concrete means of transportation and started transporting words, becoming the author of the most translated Brazilian dictionary in the world (some eighty languages).

One of the researchers who recorded this version was Diógenes Praxedes (Jornal de Brasília, DF, 12/8/2001 edition). Almanaque Santo Antônio 2003 (St. Anthony’s Almanac) endorses the same version and uses the same newspaper as a reference.

The agreement has been technically in effect since January 1st, 2006, following a decision made by the Chiefs of State of all Lusophone nations in a meeting held in São Tomé & Principe and attended by President Lula.

This is a lot like Brazil. The agreement is enforceable, but will only be for real in 2009. Maybe.

* Chacrinha – notorious and deceased variety show host in Brazil who once said that communication was everything (“if you can’t communicate, you’re screwed”)

Deonísio da Silva is a Brazilian journalist. This article appeared originally at Observatório da Imprensa.

Translated by Tereza Braga. Braga is a freelance Portuguese translator and interpreter based in Dallas. She is a certified member of the American Translators Association. Contact: terezab@sbcglobal.net.


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