The Schizophrenia of Brazilian Portuguese

Posted on 20 September 2011


Oswald de Andrade battled for Brazilians to think of Brazilian Portuguese as their own

Oswald de Andrade battled for Brazilians to think of Brazilian Portuguese as their own

I remember a teacher correcting me at school: It’s not “none of us were”, it’s “none of us was. The same went for “less people”, “the amount of times”, “me and my friends”… Wrong, wrong, wrong. Black and white.

And for a lot of my formative years I believed this. Following the “rules” religiously, blindly, with my fingers in my ears. It almost felt good when other people got it “wrong” and I got it “right”. I even corrected my parents. What a little shit I was!

And I’m not totally convinced I’ve shaken the habit, it’s just I manage to keep it in my head these days. Mostly…

The truth was and is, of course, that spoken language (not the artificial, arbitrary rules we assign to writing standards) is constantly evolving and that at some point you just have to give in to it to something that was previously “banned”, accept it, go with how people use it and relax.

After all, the language of the masses is the “correct” form and no amount of stomping up and down, bashing someone over the head with an OED, or locking them in some Académie Française dungeon will change that fact.

As it happens, Brazil sometimes has a troubled perception of its own language.

For a long time it didn’t feel like it had one at all. It was as if they borrowed or had inherited someone else’s language, and as with all things we borrow or inherit, we try to keep them artificially safe, in tact and treat them as special. But there’s no need to do this with language.

The point is that Portuguese from Portugal and Portuguese from Brazil parted company a while ago (given Brazil was officially “discovered” 511 years ago), and in truth they are fast becoming two separate languages – mutually intelligible, yes, but often with little stumbling blocks that are getting ever bigger, and quite frankly, as everyday spoken languages go – they are sometimes poles apart.

Sometimes Brazilians and the Portuguese strain to understand each other...

Despite it being from Portuguese – what is spoken here is now Brazilian.

It has its own vocab, its own pronunciation, its own grammar, its own musicality and rhythm.

The ludricrous culmination of this is that as someone learning Portuguese as a foreign language in Brazil you have to learn a variety of forms – (1) the official “grammatically correct” forms for formal writing; (2) everyday written forms; (3) the “nicely spoken” forms; (4) the everyday, “incorrect” way of speaking.

Learn this. Great. Now forget it: we never say that, but if you’re ever writing a legal document, you’ll be thankful…”

ARGH. When I sit in my Portuguese classes, we learn some things two, three or four different ways – with only one really useful to us in everyday Brazilian life.

We really need another Oswald de Andrade to say “Stop this madness”.

He was the person who put his foot down the most in the past. In 1922 at the famous Semana da Arte Moderna, where different artsy  factions were formed, Oswald de Andrade helped form a group called the Antropofágicos – the man-eaters, as called as the group was prepared to chew up regular Portuguese from Portugal and expectorate, unashamedly, good ol’ Brazilian Portuguese – warts and all, however it came out.

He wrote a poem about pronouns called “pronominais” (notice the rebellious lack of capitalisation in the title), where he writes about the different ways you can ask someone for a cigarette.

Dê-me um cigarro
Diz a gramática
Do professor e do aluno
E do mulato sabido
Mas o bom negro e o bom branco
Da Nação Brasileira
Dizem todos os dias
Deixa disso camarada
Me dá um cigarro

(Loosely translated: “Give me a cigarette,” say the teacher, the student and the learnèd mixed-raced people – but every day the genuine Brazilian black and white men say to their mate, “Give us a cigarette”.)

The musicality and natural rhythm of Brazilian Portuguese means it favoured the “ungrammatical” “me dá” (“give us”, meaning “give me”), rather than the literary, “correct” version “dê-me”.

In fact, if you used the “correct” form in Brazil, you’d get laughed out of town – it sounds like a formal command.

In our Portuguese classes, we’re taught that “I saw himis “eu vi-o (mega formal using an enclitic pronoun, -o), “eu o vi” (regular writing, formal speaking – using simple pronoun “o” before verb), and “eu vi ele” (using a subject pronouns and just saying “I saw he). The “incorrect” spoken form is actually the least ambigious, as “o” can mean him, it or you – and the feminine “a” can mean her or it, too. By using subject pronouns as objects, you eliminate this ambiguity. Better, right? Who cares if it’s “wrong”.

But some people’s ears burn when they hear this. Others are resigned to it. For a third group, it’s already the way they speak and no doubt, this group will win and, in 50 years’ time, it’ll be the norm: just like “none of us are…” is today.

The problem is you can’t just learn the informal, everyday stuff – infuriating as the fact might be. The second you’re writing a letter everything turns formal and an alien, medieval version of the language comes wheeling back into view. And there’s no excuse for not knowing it – you are instantly seen as poorly educated.

However, use it in spoken everyday situations, and you’re instantly seen as a weirdo – completely unnecessary, willy-nilly formality.

But as the situation stands, you can’t escape knowing a whole range of forms for different situations – even if 99% of the time you’ll only use one of them.

Instead you have to submit to the schizophrenia of Brazilian Portuguese or have a very thick skin for all the screwed-up faces grimacing in your direction.

Of course, in English the way we speak and the way we write in different contexts and registers differs – and can differ greatly – but in Brazilian Portuguese sometimes it’s as if you virtually need a different language.

Tragically and slightly bewilderingly, a lot of Brazilians – especially the educated ones – consider the language they speak day-in, day-out as wrong. Of course, it’s not wrong – it’s just different. A modernised, progressive, intuitive and no doubt improved version of the original.

If you step back and really see both the enormous amount of time that has passed, the distance from Portugal (figuratively and geographically), and the waves of vastly different influences that Brazilian Portuguese has been subjected to, it’s no wonder it’s gone its own way – taking on its own musicality, grammar, vocab and form.

You can’t leave a living organism like a language on a beach thousands of miles away from home for hundreds of years and expect it to stay the same.

Another blog is needed to talk about all the different languages and cultures involved in making Brazilian Portuguese different – so watch this space, I promise it’ll be an interesting read.

So, Brazilians everywhere, be proud of your language. It’s YOUR language. And please ask Google translate to differentiate Brazilian Portuguese and the European one. It makes cheating on my Portuguese homework really hard…


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