Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The phenomenon of language: some ponderings on Brazilian Portuguese

Language fascinates me.  We can explore tiny subtlities of syllable count in poetry and play with rhymes and puns.  And we can step back and stare at it as a meta-discussion on society, fraught with social tensions and the impacts of migration.  Struggling to get by for three months in a country whose language I'm still learning has made it painfully clear how essential fluency is to a meaningul conversation.  It's also presented the opportunity to realize some cool linguistic phenomena.

Some things in this world are so incredible we give them really obvious names, but those names vary from language to language.  At least that was my first thought. Sunflower is girasol, sun-turner.  Hummingbird is beijaflor, flower-kisser. But then neither language calls a giraffe a "longneck".  And, really, all words have their beginnings in literal descriptions ("science" comes from scire, to know), some have just gotten lost.  Why are some meanings so still so obvious? Maybe it's because Portuguese and English, which are European languages, came into contact with these creatures relatively recently, when the languages were already quite similar to how they are today -- hummingbirds and sunflowers are only found in the New World.  I'm not sure about jellyfish, which is aguaviva, living water

Quite a few Portuguese words are similar to English words that are used only in formal contexts or to describe something abstract like behavior or ideas.  Incêndio is a literal fire, but an "incendiary comment" is just one that tries to rile people up.  Pensamento is the word for a thought and in English you might describe someone's mood as "pensive".  You'd think since the guy hosting me is a member of the Brazilian Communist Party and designs propaganda for a living, he'd be putting Che's face on banners.  But nope, the word is Portuguese for "adverstisement" and his are for mineral water. 

After hearing slang over and over again you kinda get the idea what it means, but it doesn't hurt to have it explained.  Sometimes the literal translation is pretty divorced from the usage.  Like how New Englanders use the word "wicked".  Porra is used constantly by college students much the same way "shit" is used in the U.S. -- sometimes as a good thing, but most times used to express frustration.  The first time I asked what it meant the people laughed for a while and had a good ol' time taking shots at explaining it.  Finally someone said, it's like mingal.  I still haven't tried mingal yet, but someone had told me earlier that it was a local speciality of sugar cane juice, manioc flour, and conconut milk.  Now, what kind of noun would make a good exclamation and resemble a frothy white liq... oh, got it guys, thanks.  I'm not sure rapaz, which literally means young man or lad, has a translation in English.  People say it as a drawn out expression of pondering -- "How much do you think you spent?" "Ra-paaaaz." It certainly doesn't make sense literally, "Young mannnnnn."

When a song comes on, people tell me it's such-and-such type of music, but because they're all so different I can't really tell what features make up any one.  The only common strand I can see in forro is that there is always an accordion.  The bizarre thing is that the word "forro" comes from the word for railroad "estrado de ferro (road of iron)" and the music is somehow derived from the folk music the Americans who built the first railroads in Brazil brought over.  Really, accordion is the American gift to the Brazilian music?  

I've heard a number of borrowed English words, a lot of them for modern things that got their start in the United States.  In Italy people pronounced these words the way they're pronounced in America.  But in Brazil, because English isn't as widespread (and because the words sound funny prounced phonetically like Brazilian Portuguese and Brazilians have fun with their language) they're given new pronuncations:

Some of the English words I've heard:

Crack (prounouced cuh-rack-ee) -- the drug
Face (fay-cee) -- how Brazilians refer to Facebook
Site (sai-chee) -- like an internet site
Big Brother Brasil (Big-ee Buh-rother Brasil) -- the TV show, way more popular here than in the U.S.  You have to say it like an over-caffeinated television announcer.
Rap (Hap-ee) -- the music genre
Rock (Hock-ee) -- when I first heard someone say this I was having a conversation about music and all of a sudden I thought I was being asked about an ice-sport.

A completely random linguistic coincidence:

Turkey (the bird with the same name as a country) is peru in Portuguese, which also happens to be the name of a country. 



  1. :) Enjoyed this post! Thanks :)
    SW :)

  2. Do I smell a human ecology forum?