The horizon of the bandeirante (wild country explorers) language

Research shows the old Portuguese language, that left São Paulo in the 17th Century and still survives in the daily language of other states

reproductionMeeting of bands in the backlands, by Pereira da Silva: the exchange of information and words at these meetingsreproduction

Gold hunters, Indian tamers, devourers of forests: the half-castes from the São Paulo of Piratininga advanced into the backlands at the twilight of the 17th century. With blunderbusses, cutlasses and a tattered flag, they opened their way in the forest, razing villages, precious stones, Jesuit missions and slave hideaways. The bandeirantes were unscrupulous mercenaries, but heroes for geography and for the language. They expanded the frontiers of the country, and the signs of their influence proliferate to this day in the local cultures and languages. With this certainty in mind that a group of language scholars ranged the hinterland of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso and Goiás to pluck out the backland traces in Brazilian speech.

A professor of philology and the Portuguese language at the University of São Paulo, Heitor Megale is the flag-bearer of the new expedition, with his project Bandeirante Philology, supported by FAPESP. “On the route to the backlands, many villages arise. Some turned into cities, like Cuiabá. After the end of the gold cycle and of slavery, many of them remained isolated, halted in time”, he explains. “With their customs, cultural and religious expressions, they kept the linguistic variant of the colonial days, or, at least, some trace of it”.

The project sought to collect traces of the language of colonization that have remained or undergone variation. The idea is to catch the oral heritage in places founded by the frontiersmen or that arose with their advance. “There is no more important colonizing route with continuous demographic movement for over half a century”, Megale confirms. “That is why it is possible to come across traces of the old linguistic layer, which have expanded, come into writing, and ended up limited to rural speech.”

The researchers took as their basis the route of the 1674 march, started by the 40 men led by Fernão Dias Paes. The original journey was an adventure without parallel. Fernão Dias was a 65 year-old veteran, when he commanded an immense band in pursuit of silver and emeralds. He went from São Paulo to the headwaters of the Velhas river (MG), crossing the Mantiqueira mountain range. He rested at hamlets like Ibituruna, Sumidourodo Rio das Velhas, Esmeraldas, Mato das Pedreiras and Serro Frio, future settlement nucleuses in Minas.

“Around this trail, we gave priority to the paths followed exhaustively in the 17th and 18th centuries prospect gold”, says Megale. The group retraced the route, to the furthest west (in the Cuiabá lowlands) to the far north, in Niquelândia (Goiás), Sumidouro and Diamantina (MG). “We included places that had suffered other incursions, and avoided spots with a strong modern influence, like Ouro Preto”, adds one of those taking part in the project, Sílvio de Almeida Toledo Neto. Beyond Cuiabá, the team followed the Goaís trail, through Pacaratu and Catalão.

The team of 19 researchers worked on two fronts. One effort concentrated on collecting the traces of speech identifiable in documents of the time. The other was to record the speech of illiterate old people in the regions. With this, they want to catalogue oral marks that do not belong to standard Portuguese, to ascertain what they retain of the archaic. “The root of Bandeirante Philology lies in the comparison between the data of the period and the speech of the informants”, says Toledo Neto.

As there is no database of the speech of the period to become a point of reference for the research in the field, Megale’s team’s first act was to look for it in 17th century documents. There were boxes with hundreds of notaries’ documents. “Inventories in wills, letters and reports on incursions into the backlands used to transcribe the oral communications of the people”, says Toledo Neto. In Taubaté, the Historical Archives hold official letters on the incursions, such as those by Borba Gato and Amador Bueno, in the 18th century. “Protests, civil lawsuits and auctions are the indirect harbingers of the spoken language of the period”.

In all, there are 975 sheets and copies of manuscripts from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the digital files of older documents, from 1723. Added to this volume were dozens of 74 minidisks (MDs), with the interviews with illiterate old folks, walking archives of a remote, popular way of speaking, less influenced by contemporary oral usage.

The more far-flung the place, the better for the project. In the hinterland of Minas Gerais, 12 boondocks were rummaged through by Maria Antonieta Cohen’s team. In São Paulo, there were six localities, while, in Goiás, Maria Sueli Aguiar’s team scoured 14, two more than Manoel Mourivaldo Santiago Almeida’s group, in Mato Grosso.

The choices in São Paulo were strategic one. The demographic movement towards the Cataguá backlands, as the region they entered was called in those days, followed the Paraíba valley to Pinheiros, after crossing the gorges of the Mantiqueira range. “This was why the Taubaté and Cunha region interested us, since it was the way to cross the Mantiqueira and for the gold to come back to the smelters in Taubaté or Parati”, Megale explains.

In each far corner, the care was taken to choose the interviewees individually. “We were less concerned in having a large number of informants than with the value of a single record of high quality”, Megale explains. His team had a hard time finding them. “We had to walk a lot and talk with the largest number possible of inhabitants of the place, always keeping the institutions like the city hall, the church and the government agricultural post at a distance”, he recalls. When we turned to the city hall, they would send us people who spoke ‘wrong’, but who had some schooling and used the slang picked up from the TV”.

There were countless interviews before closing in on names like the people from Minas Gerais like José Felipe dos Santos, aged 72, from Ibituruna; Maria Cristina Reis, 86, from São Tiago, and, in Bom Sucesso, José Pedro de Oliveira, aged 92. What they found left made the researchers jaws drop. “We caught traces that we never imagined to exist”, Megale recalls. “Part of the wealth of the research is finding people who live without running or sewage and suffer from vital problems already solved in the cities. However, they soon feel at ease, as if they were childhood friends”, he went on. “It is an encounter with a kind of Brazilian that urban life would regard as the past, in its way of acting and speaking”.

The team’s preliminary work began in 1997, with the mapping out and selection of the localities, and the fieldwork stretched out through last year. The footwork part of the project ends on February 28th this year, but the analysis and tabulation of the data, like the publication of the work, will go into 2003.There is, however, no lack of results. In the course of the research, findings ranged from obsolete words to pronunciations with a São Paulo heritage in the territories of Minas Gerais, Goiás and Mato Grosso. “They must all have been incorporated after the expansion of the bandeirantes”, Megale believes.

There are forgotten terms like “mamparra” (pretending), caught from the mouth of José Pedro de Oliveira, from Minas, and from informants in São Paulo. Typical 17th century pronunciations like “tchapéu” (the word means hat and the standard pronunciation is shapaw but the bandeirantes pronunciantion is chapew) – tchuva (rain. The standard pronunciation is shoova and the bandeirante is choova)” or the nasal diphthong [õ] for [ãw], as in “mão” [mõ], “muntcho”, for “muito”, which have been snuffed out, even in upstate cities, and even today are heard in the north of Portugal, can be found in the hinterland of Mato Grosso, Goiás, Minas Gerais and São Paulo.

In the south of Minas and hinterland of São Paulo, expressions are to be found like “dá uma esmolna pol’amor de deus” [ give alms for the love of God], which go back to 13th century Portuguese, in which today’s “esmola” used to be “eleemosyna”, afterwards “esmolna”. There are many obsolete words in use. In Minas, there is “demudar” used instead of “mudar” [change or move], and instead of “possuir” [possess], the preference for “pessuir” or “pessuido”, from the 18th century. The likewise obsolete “despois” [after, instead of depois], in use in the south of Minas, goes back to archaic works, educated usage in the 15th and 16th centuries. “Preguntar” [ask], used in the 17th century as an alternative to “perguntar”, was also found.

From the archaic Portuguese of the 13th century to the mid-16th century are such forms as “quaje” or “quage” (now “quase” [almost]), “quige” (“quis” [wanted]), “fige” (“fiz” [did]). The suffixes of derivation, such as in “mensonha” (which goes back to the 13th century), and “mentireiro” (Gil Vicente), synonyms of “mentira” [lie] and “mentiroso” [lier], still punctuate the speech of the backlands, preserved by the informants of Bandeirante Philology.

Although, all is likely to be published by 2003, some of the subprojects of the central theme are already starting to be published, with interesting results for the specialists. Megale’s group’s aim, at the end, is to show that an ancient layer of language survives in other points of the country as an inheritor of colonial São Paulo. “Everything leads to believe that the language that went there came from São Paulo”, he says. “The fact is that there are historical marks of a language along the trails of the gold expeditions that set off from São Paulo, running along the old paths of the Indians and opening up others”.

Bandeirante language is still a mystery

The language of the period is a problem for those researching the bandeirantes. First, there is no exhaustive description of the language spoken in the 17th century. Second, the Portuguese used by the bandeirantes is still full of mysteries. Tupi (indigenous language) reigned during Brazil’s first centuries. The colonizers only imposed themselves on the coast in the 17th century, and, inland, in the 18th. The most Portuguese of the frontiersmen had to use a mixed language, based on Tupi, called the indigenous Brazilian or general language.

In the 17th century, it is believed that only two out of every five inhabitants of the city of São Paulo spoke Portuguese. ccording to Bruno Bassetto, in Elementos de Filologia Românica [Elements of Romance Philology], in the mid-18th century the language in common was still Tupi: only one third of the population used Portuguese, as well as Tupi. “Indian women married with white men were excluded from learning to read and write, but their children were exposed to the mother tongue. And the bandeirantes needed to be bilingual to carry on their business”, says Professor Silvio Toledo Neto.

The project to redeem the traces of language left along the route of the bandeirantes can be a decisive step in the reconstitution of the language. “The history of the ancient language is being written now, by ventures such as this one”, says Heitor Megale. “The subject has to be surrounded in various manners. Leaving the facts to speak for themselves, through the notaries’ documents and the vestiges found in today’s speech”, adds Toledo Neto.

The documents found by Megale’s team are revealing as to the condition of the language of the period. “There is no other language but Portuguese in the documents, an indication that the bandeirantes were predominant, even in writing. There were signatures of the ‘entrants’ and transcriptions of their speech by the notaries, in the registers”, says Megale.

The very term “bandeirante” is controversial. Documents confirm that they used not to go under that name. The movement of going into the backlands was called “outfit”, “entry”, “journey” or “troop”. It only acquired the term “bandeirante” in the 19th century, on the initiative of historians and writers. 

The project
Bandeirantes philology: thematic project in Philology and Portuguese linguistics (nº 96/01265-0); Modality Thematic project; Coordinator
Heitor Megale – University of São Paulo; Investment R$ 19,280.00