Quite the Brazilian language, I say
Analysis of historical texts and interviews reveals the hallmarks of language in Brazil, the extent of the Hillbilly R and places where old ways of speaking can still be found
The opportunity for simplicity, dispensing with theoretically essential grammatical elements and answering, “Yes, I did,” when someone asks, “Did you buy the car?” is one of the features that give Brazilian Portuguese flexibility and identity. An analysis of historical documents and field interviews over the past 30 years indicates that Brazilian Portuguese can already be considered as unique and different from European Portuguese as American English is different from British English. But Brazilian Portuguese is not yet its own language: perhaps it will be – in about 200 years according to experts– when it amasses the uniqueness that keeps Brazilians from fully understanding what a Portuguese native has to say.
The spread of Portuguese in Brazil, its regional variations and their possible explanations that cause an urubu (vulture) in São Paulo to be called a corvo in Brazil’s south, not to mention the sources of the language’s innovation, are emerging through the research being carried out by nearly 200 linguists. According to studies at the University of São Paulo (USP), one innovation of Brazilian Portuguese, which as yet has no equivalent in Portugal, is the Hillbilly R, whose pronunciation is so heavy that it could easily be rendered through the use of two or three ‘r’s, such as in porrrta (door) or carrrne (meat).
Simply associating the Hillbilly R with inland São Paulo State, however, is a geographical and historical inaccuracy, although the unabashed R has been the trademark of the hillbilly style made famous by actor Amácio Mazzaropi in 32 films produced from 1952 to 1980. By following the routes of the bandeirantes,17th-century Portuguese gold-seeking adventurers from the São Paulo region, linguists found the R, supposedly typical of São Paulo, in cities in the states of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraná, western Santa Catarina as well as in Rio Grande do Sul, shaping a way of speaking that is similar to 18th-century Portuguese. Those who have patience and keen hearing can also find, in Brazil’s central region – and in cities along the coast – the ‘sh’ sound, known as S chiado, a feature typically found in today’s Carioca accent associated with Rio de Janeiro, but which came over with the Portuguese in 1808 and was a sign of distinction because it represented the type of speech heard in the Portuguese Court. But even the Portuguese were not original: experts say that the S chiado, which turns esquina (corner) into shquina, came from the French nobles who were so admired by the Portuguese.
The study of the history of the Portuguese language in Brazil is bringing to light the characteristics that have been preserved from the Portuguese, such as the use of R in place of L, resulting in pranta (plant) instead of planta. The famous Portuguese author Camões recorded this replacement in Os Lusíadas – there we see frautas (flutes) in place of flautas – and São Paulo singer and composer Adoniran Barbosa left evidence of it in several compositions, among phrases such as “frechada do teu olhar”, (“your piercing look”) from the samba Tiro ao Álvaro. USP researchers have noted in field studies that inland residents in both Brazil and Portugal, especially less educated ones, still talk this way. Another sign of language preservation identified by experts from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, this time in historical documents, is use of a(s) gente(s) (the people) as a synonym for “us,” today one of the very signatures of Brazilian Portuguese.
Célia Lopes of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) found evidence of the use of a gente in documents dating back to the 16th century, and more often from the 19th century. It was a way to indicate the first person plural, meaning todo mundo (everyone), necessarily including oneself. According to Lopes, use of a gente often connotes disengagement and lack of definition: one who uses a gente does not generally make it clear if there is intent to commit to what is being said, or if the person uttering it sees himself as part of the group, like in “a gente precisa fazer” (“the people need to make”). The pronoun nós (we), as in “nós precisamos fazer” (“we need to make”), expresses responsibility and commitment. In the last 30 years, she notes that a gente has inserted itself into places previously occupied by nós and has become a resource commonly used by all ages and social classes throughout Brazil, despite the fact that grammar books continue to look somewhat askance at it.
Linguists from several Brazilian states are unearthing the roots of Brazilian Portuguese by studying personal and business correspondence, wills, travelogues, legal proceedings, letters to editors and advertisements from newspapers dating back to the 16th century, collected in institutions such as the National Library and the São Paulo State Public Archives. The team led by Célia Lopes has also found often underappreciated old letters and other linguistic treasures at the weekly antique fair held Saturdays at the Praça XV de Novembro in downtown Rio de Janeiro. “A student brought me wonderful letters found in the garbage,” she says.
From vossa mercê (your grace) to cê (you)
Historical documents provide proof that the Portuguese spoken in Brazil began to differentiate itself from European Portuguese at least four centuries ago. One indication of this separation is found in the 1793 book Memórias para a história da capitania de São Vicente (Historical Records of the Captaincy of São Paulo) written by São Vicente-born Father Gaspar da Madre de Deus, and later rewritten by Marcelino Pereira Cleto, a Portuguese, who was a judge in Santos. In comparing the two versions, José Simões of USP found 30 differences between the Brazilian and European Portuguese. One of them exists to this day: speakers of Brazilian Portuguese explicitly state the subject of sentences, such as in, “o rapaz me vendeu o carro, depois ele saiu correndo e ao atravessar a rua ele foi atropelado” (“the boy sold me the car, then he ran off and was run over as he crossed the street”). In European Portuguese, it would be more natural to omit the subject, which is already defined by the verb tense – “o rapaz vendeu-me o carro, depois saiu a correr…” (“the boy sold me the car, then ran off…”) –, resulting in a perfectly grammatical sentence, although it sounds a bit off to the Brazilian ear.
A resident of Portugal, if asked if he bought a car, would naturally respond “Sim, comprei-o,” (“Yes, I bought it”), making the verb complement explicit, “even among less educated speakers,” Simões says. He notes that the Portuguese use mesoclisis – “Dar-lhe-ei um carro, com certeza!” (“Of course I’ll give you a car!”) –, which would sound pedantic in Brazil. Another difference is the distance between the spoken language and the written language in Brazil. Instead of pronouncing the word ‘many’ as muito, Brazilians instead say muinto. The pronoun você (you), which is already an abbreviated version of vossa mercê and vosmecê (the honorific “your grace”), is compacted even further to cê, and stuck onto the verb as in cevai? (“Are you going?”)
“The language we speak is not the same as the language we write,” says Simões, based on examples such as these. “Written and spoken Portuguese in Portugal are much closer to each other, although there are still regional differences.” Simões is adding to the textual analysis in his journeys through Portugal. “Ten years ago my relatives in Portugal said that they couldn’t understand what I was saying” he notes. “Today, probably due to the influence Brazilian soap operas have had on television, they say that I’m speaking a more correct Portuguese.”
“We have maintained the rhythm of speech while the Europeans began to speak more quickly starting in the 18th century,” notes Ataliba Castilho, professor emeritus of USP, who, over the last 40 years, has planned and coordinated several research projects about spoken Portuguese and the history of Portuguese in Brazil. “Up until the 16th century,” he says, “Brazilian and European Portuguese were like Spanish, with clearly enunciated syllables. The spoken word was much closer to the written word.” Célia Lopes adds another difference: Brazilian Portuguese keeps most of the vowels while the Europeans generally omit them, emphasizing the consonants, and calling ‘telephone’ a tulfón.
There are also numerous words that have different meaning depending on which side of the Atlantic one is on. In Portugal, students at private universities pay not a mensalidade (monthly tuition), but rather a propina. A bolsista (scholarship holder) in Portugal is a bolseiro. Since the Europeans did not adopt certain words used in Brazil, such as bunda (buttocks), a word originally from Africa, embarrassing moments often ensue. Vanderci Aguilera, a senior professor at Londrina State University (UEL) and one of the linguists tasked with recovering the history of Brazilian Portuguese, once took a Portuguese friend to a store. To see if a dress the friend had just tried on fit well over her backside, the friend asked: “O que achas do meu rabo?,” a question a Brazilian would understand as: “What do you think of my butt?”
The soldier and the farmer’s daughter
Found in the collection of documents about the evolution of Paulista Portuguese is a letter from 1807 written by Manoel Coelho, a soldier who allegedly seduced the daughter of a farmer. The girl’s father was furious when he found out and forced the young man to marry the girl. The soldier, however, put his foot down: he would not marry her, as he wrote, “nem por bem nem por mar”. Simões thought the reference to mar (sea) was a bit odd, considering the quid pro quo took place in what was then the village of São Paulo. But then he realized: “of course, the Hillbilly R! He meant to say ‘nem por bem nem por mal!’ (willingly or not)”. The soldier had written the words just as he would have spoken them. We do not know whether he ended up marrying the farmer’s daughter, but the exchange left valuable evidence of how people spoke in the early 19th century.
“The Hillbilly R was a characteristic of the spoken language in the village of São Paulo, which with gradual urbanization and the arrival of European immigrants, was pushed to the periphery or to other cities,” Simões says. “It was the language of the bandeirantes.” Experts believe that the earliest residents of the village of São Paulo, besides using porrta, would skip over the consonants in the middle of words, saying for ‘woman’ muié instead of mulher, for example. In order to capture indigenous people and later find gold, the bandeirantes first had to conquer inland São Paulo, taking with them their vocabulary and way of speaking. The exaggerated R can still be heard in the cities of what is known as the Mid-Tietê area, which includes Santana de Parnaíba, Pirapora do Bom Jesus, Sorocaba, Itu, Tietê, Porto Feliz and Piracicaba. The residents of these areas, especially those from the countryside, appeared in paintings by Ituan artist José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior until he was murdered by his lover’s husband in Piracicaba. The bandeirantes then proceeded to other forests in the huge Captaincy of São Paulo, established in 1709 with land from the current states of São Paulo, Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso, Rondônia, Tocantins, Minas Gerais, Paraná and Santa Catarina (see map).
Manoel Mourivaldo Almeida, also from USP, found signs of ancient Paulista Portuguese in Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso State, which experienced relatively little linguistic or cultural interaction with other cities after the peak gold mining years ended two centuries ago. “Refined Portuguese from the 16th and 17th centuries had the S chiado,” Almeida concludes. “When they traveled to the Central-West region, Paulistas used to speak like today’s Cariocas!” Actor and theatre director Justino Astrevo de Aguiar from Cuiabá recognizes the Paulista and Carioca heritage, but thinks a more marked feature of the local way of speaking is the tendency of adding a D or T before or in the middle of words, as in djeito (way), cadju (cashew) or tchuva (rain), a feature of the pronunciation typical of the 17th century that Almeida also identified among residents of the states of Goiás, Minas Gerais, Maranhão and the Galicia region of Spain.
Almeida was able to develop his ear to Brazilian variations of Portuguese because of his own family history. The son of Portuguese parents, he was born in Piritiba, in inland Bahia State from where he left at age 7 to live in Jaciara, in inland Mato Grosso State. He became a professor at the Federal University of Cuiabá after spending 25 years there, and then moved to São Paulo in 2003. He acknowledges that he speaks like a Paulista in the most formal of circumstances – although he prefers to say éxtra (extra with an open ‘e’) instead of êxtra (with the closed ‘e’) as the Paulistas would –, but when he relaxes, he falls into the speaking rhythm of Bahia and the vocabulary of those who live in Mato Grosso. He has been studying the way people in Cuiabá speak since 1991, at the suggestion of a colleague, Professor Leônidas Querubim Avelino, an expert on Camões who had found signs of ancient Portuguese in that area. Avelino had told him about a blind backwoodsman from Livramento, a town 30 kilometers from Cuiabá, who had mentioned that he was “andando pusilo” (feeling faint), meaning weak. Avelino recognized pusilo as a shortened form of pusilânime (fainthearted), which is no longer used in Portugal.
“The residents of Cuiabá and some other cities, such as Cáceres and Barão de Melgado, in the state of Mato Grosso, and Corumbá, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, preserve the 18th-century Paulista Portuguese more than those who live in the city of São Paulo. Inland Paulistas as well as those from the capital now say dia (day), with a hard d sound, while almost all of the rest of Brazil pronounces it as djia,” Almeida notes. “The manner of speaking can change depending on access to culture, motivation, and the ability to perceive and articulate sounds differently. Those who look to places further away from the large urban centers will find signs of preservation of the old Portuguese.”
From 1998 to 2003, a team led by Heitor Megale of USP followed the route of the 16th-century bandeirantes in search of traces of the ancient Portuguese language that had been maintained for four centuries. The interviews with residents ranging in age from 60 to 90 from nearly 40 cities and towns in the states of Minas Gerais, Goiás and Mato Grosso revealed forgotten words such as mamparra (pretending) and mensonha (lie), a word from one of the 15th-century poems by Francisco de Sá de Miranda, treição (treachery) used in inland Goiás to mean surpresa (surprise), and popular words still used in Portugal today such as despois (after), percisão (precision) and tristura (sadness), commonly found in the south of Minas Gerais State. What once seemed an anachronism has taken on value. Saying sancristia (sacristy) instead of sacristia was not an error, “but rather an influence that has been preserved from the past when the word was pronounced that way,” says the report in the Paracatu, Minas Gerais Jornal da Manhã dated December 20, 2001.
To the north, the Portuguese language expanded inland from the city of Salvador, capital of colonial Brazil for three centuries. Salvador was also a melting pot for language because it received large numbers of African slaves who learned Portuguese as a foreign language but who also offered their own vocabulary, to which indigenous words were added.
To prevent the language of Camões from becoming spoiled by mixing with the native dialects, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis de Pombal, state secretary of the Portuguese crown, decided to act. In 1757, Pombal expelled the Jesuits for, among other political reasons, teaching Christian doctrine in the local language, and he decreed Portuguese the official language of Brazil. Portuguese imposed itself on the native languages and is still the official language, although linguists warn that it cannot be called a national language because of the 180 indigenous languages spoken in Brazil (it is estimated that these numbered 1,200 when the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil). The linguistic amalgamation that reflects the mixture of those who founded Brazil largely explains the regional variations in vocabulary and rhythm, summarized on a map of speakers by the Museum of the Portuguese Language, in São Paulo. It is easy to find variations in a single state: residents in northern Minas Gerais State talk like Bahians, those from the central part of the state preserve mineirês, the authentic language spoken in Minas Gerais, those in southern Minas Gerais are heavily influenced by São Paulo and those in the east speak with a Carioca accent.
Of paper kites and worms
For the past 10 years, a group of linguists has been studying one of the results of the linguistic amalgamation: the various names that a particular object could have, determined by interviews with 1,100 people in 250 locations. All over Brazil, the toy made with paper and sticks sent into the wind on a string known as a kite is called papagaio, pipa, raia or pandorga – or even coruja in the cities of Natal and João Pessoa –, according to the first volume of the Atlas linguístico do Brasil (Brazilian Linguistic Atlas) published in October 2014 with the findings of interviews from Brazil’s major cities (Editora UEL). The device with red, green and yellow lights that is used to regulate traffic at intersections goes by only one name in Rio de Janeiro and in Belo Horizonte: sinal. In Brazil’s northern and northeastern cities, however, it is also referred to as semáforo. Goiânia uses four names to refer to the same object: sinal, semáforo, sinaleiro and farol.
Now the search to explain these differences begins. “Where I was born, in Sertanópolis, 42 km from Londrina,” said Vanderci Aguilera, one of the Atlas coordinators, “we called a worm bicho de goiaba instead of bigato because of the Italian immigrants from inland São Paulo.” She says that the residents of Brazil’s three southern states use the word corvo because of the European influence, while people from the Southeast have preserved the Tupi name for vulture: urubu.
Each state – or region – has its own linguistic heritage, which has to be respected, say the experts. Aguilera cautions that Portuguese teachers should not reprimand students who call a hummingbird a cuitelo instead of a beija-flor, as is the custom in inland Paraná State. Nor should they reproach those who call a barbeque caro, churasco or baranco, as is customary among the many German and Polish descendants in the South. Instead they should teach other ways of speaking and let the children express themselves however they want to among family and friends. “No one speaks incorrectly,” she emphasizes. “Everyone speaks according to their life story, as it was transmitted to them by their families before school changed it. Our way of speaking is our identity and we have nothing to be ashamed of.”
There is such diversity in Brazilian Portuguese that, despite the efforts by national news announcers to create a neutral language, free of any local accents, “there is no national standard,” says Castilho. “There are differences in vocabulary, grammar, syntax and pronunciation even among the well-educated,” he says. Dissatisfied by theories from outside Brazil, Castilho established a multisystemic approach to language, whereby any linguistic expression operates on four planes (identified as grammar, semantics, discourse and lexicon) simultaneously, as a complex whole rather than individually. In his work with Verena Kewitz from USP, he has discussed this approach with graduate students and other experts from Brazil and elsewhere.
It is also clear that Brazilian Portuguese is constantly changing. Words may go out of fashion or take on new meaning. Almeida explained that Celciane Vasconcelos, one of the students in her group, determined that only the oldest residents of the coast of Paraná knew the word sumaca, which was the term for a particular type of boat that was once common, but is no longer built, making use of the former meaning of the word that today refers to a beach in Paraty (Rio de Janeiro State). The old ways of speaking may also come back into fashion. Linguists assure us that the Hillbilly R is making a comeback, even in São Paulo, and regaining status among country music singers. “The Hillbilly R is all the rage now,” says Aguilera. Or at least it is acceptable and part of one’s personal style like that of TV newscaster Sabrina Sato.
Linguists have observed an increased use of informal forms of address. “I am 78 and should be addressed by senhor (formal you), but my younger students call me você (informal you),” says Castilho, apparently unbothered by the informality, inconceivable back when he was a student. The use of você, however, is not the only thing. Célia Lopes, along with her team from UFRJ, found that the tu form is prevalent in Porto Alegre and lives alongside você in Rio de Janeiro and Recife, while você is the prevailing pronoun in São Paulo, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte and Salvador. The tu form was once closer and less formal than você in the nearly 500 letters found in the online collection at UFRJ, nearly all written by poets, politicians and other personalities from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Since they still needed to determine how common people expressed themselves, Lopes and her team were overjoyed to find 13 notes written by Robertina de Souza to her lover and her husband in 1908. This material was part of a lawsuit brought against the husband who kicked his friend and his own wife out of their home when he found out that the two had an affair, and then he killed the former friend. In one of the 11 notes to her lover Álvaro Mattos, Robertina, who signed her notes Chininha, wrote: “Eu te adoro te amo até a morte sou tua só tu é meu só o meu coração e teu e o teu coracao é meu. Chininha e todinha tua ate a morte” (“I adore you I love you until death I am yours alone as you are mine alone my heart is yours and your heart is mine. Chininha, yours truly until death”). Her husband, Arthur Noronha, who was the recipient of only two notes, was treated much more formally: “Eu rezo pedindo a Deus para você me perdoar, mas creio que você não tem coragem de ver morrer um filho o filha,” (“I pray to God that you will forgive me, but I don’t think you’re brave enough to see a son or daughter die”). And later: “Não posso me separar de voce e do meu filho a não ser com a morte,” (“Only death will make me leave you and my son”). We do not know if she ever went home, but her husband was acquitted, claiming he killed the other man to defend his honor.
Another sign that Brazilian Portuguese has evolved is visible in hybrid constructions that feature a verb without pronoun agreement, such as tu não sabe? (“Don’t you know?”), as well as the combined use of personal pronouns você and tu, such as in the construction “se você precisar, vou te ajudar” (“If you need help, I can help you”). The European Portuguese would claim that this is just another example of Brazilians’ ability to mutilate the Portuguese language, but just maybe, they have no real reason to complain. Célia Lopes found a mixture of personal pronouns of address, which she and other linguists do not consider to be an error, in letters written by the Marquis do Lavradia, who was Brazil’s viceroy from 1769 to 1796, as well as in an interview given by the former President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, two centuries later.
Project for the History of Paulista Brazilian Portuguese (PHPP – Hillbilly Project) (nº 11/51787-5); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Manoel Mourivaldo Santiago Almeida (USP); Investment R$87,372.10 (FAPESP).