Tuesday, September 8, 2009

O Português Brasileiro

Recently I've been thinking a lot about Portuguese -- specifically Brazilian Portuguese -- as a language. I guess that's what happens when you take a Portuguese language class, an English to Portuguese translation class, a Portuguese literature class, and a Brazilian literature class all at once.

So here's the deal: I've come to understand that I didn't really speak Portuguese before I came to Brazil. Well, I spoke written Portuguese, but apparently that's so different from spoken Brazilian Portuguese that some people consider it a diglossic language

For example: no one, and I mean NO ONE ever uses the future tense. It's just not done (you use the "going to + infinitive" form instead). Likewise with the pronoun "lhe." I've never heard it used outside of the classroom.

Similarly, no one ever uses the standard third-person objects either. Instead of saying "Eu o vi," you say "Eu vi ele" (I saw him). As you can imagine, this rejection of almost everything I ever learned in Portuguese class was a little confusing for me, but it actually makes for a much easier language to speak.

One of my problems while learning French was remembering to put the direct and indirect objects before the verb. I'd arrive at the end of a sentence and realize I had left out most of the meaning. And once you've said the verb in French, it's usually either awkward or downright impossible to turn around and add your objects. One of the first times I realized that Portuguese would be easier for me than French was when I learned you could just say "Tenho três" (I have three... cookies, pillows, plates, whatever), you don't have to add that pesky little French pronoun en: "J'en ai trois." 

In my translation class, the professor is always reminding us not to forget our mid-sentence prepositions ("It was the book on which I wrote an essay"). As someone who already struggled with this problem in French, and someone still unfamiliar with the limits of the rules of written Portuguese, at first this seemed like a ridiculous and unnecessary reminder to me. But I'm coming around: If I can get away with forgetting to add in a preposition in the middle of a sentence, why not? Half the time I don't even know which preposition to use! 

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I quite often misplace my prepositions when speaking in English (that is something up with which I will put -- though I do try to avoid it in writing). And of course the French take all sorts of shortcuts in casual conversation as well (for example, avoiding the "nous" form -- which Brazilians do too). Every language definitely has a difference between its written and spoken forms. But it seems to me that Brazilian Portuguese takes it to an extreme.

The guest professor in my translation class today gave this example: If a Brazilian is talking about toothpaste, he'll call it "pasta de dente." But let him take out his shopping list, and he'll write "dentifrício." When the professor pointed this out, my Brazilian classmates nodded in agreement and laughed as if they suddenly perceived something that they had never before realized. Really?

The reason he was discussing this was to explain why Brazilians have such an awful time writing dialogue. I haven't read much Brazilian fiction yet, but apparently the dialogue is horrible and stilted, and it's only started to improve in the past 30 years. Spoken Portuguese has such a stigma here that it's hardly ever actually put to paper. 

Writers in English, this professor continued, are able to write fantastic dialogue because they actually write what people say, and the way they say it. Think of how often you read a person's accent transcribed almost phonetically into letters and words -- though they might not be words that appear in any dictionary. He gave the example of Huck Finn and Jim, neither of whom speaks Standard English, but whose two different dialects are quite evident through the written word. Brazilians just don't have the capacity to handle this in writing.

Though the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil over 500 years ago, Brazilians have been extremely slow to distance their written language from Continental Portuguese. On the other hand, according to this professor, the first strictly American dictionary came out just five years after we declared independence. And yet spoken Brazilian Portuguese has strayed even farther from written Continental Portuguese than American English ever did from British English. (Brazilians often have an extremely hard time understanding people from Portugal, who also have a really funny and ugly accent.)

Thankfully, Brazilians have given up on some weird quirks of the Portuguese language (like joining two objects -- lhe + os = lhos (instead they just leave one for after the verb) -- or putting the objects inside of verbs in the future or conditional tenses -- falaria para ele ("would speak to him") = falar-lhe-ia (no joke, that's really what they do in Portugal!)). And they've completely mixed together two whole forms of the second-person, leaving only one way to conjugate a second-person verb, which is really all I care about (it happens to be the same way to conjugate a third-person verb, which just makes things even easier). So it's definitely an easy language to speak -- now if only Brazilians would accept that they can sometimes write that way too. Though, like I said, such writing has become more and more accepted in the past 30 years, due in part, according to my guest professor, to the popularity of the novela, or soap opera. Which will be a topic for later in the week.

I found this article on Brazilian Portuguese  really interesting and informative (though according to Wikipedia it "has multiple issues"). Check it out if you're still interested.

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