The process of implementing the language spoken in Brazil was the result of centuries of social struggle, says Caetano Galindo in the book Latim em pó: Um passeio pela formação do nosso português (Powdered Latin: A tour through the formation of our Portuguese) (Companhia das Letras, 2022). Galindo, a researcher and professor of languages and literature at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), reconstructs the formation of the Portuguese language from its Latin beginnings, attempting to correct misunderstandings and prejudices that, in his opinion, have prevented a more profound understanding regarding the Portuguese of Brazil.
Written in accessible language, the book is one of the developments to come out of the theatrical production Língua brasileira (2022), created by director Felipe Hirsch from songs composed by Tom Zé. Galindo acted as a consultant for the project, which also generated an album of the same name, released by Selo SESC last year, as well as a yet-unpublished documentary Nossa pátria está onde somos amados (Our homeland is where we are loved), also directed by Hirsch.
Galindo is also a highly regarded writer and translator, whose Portuguese translation of Ulysses (Companhia das Letras, 2012), the novel by Irish writer James Joyce (1882–1941), won the Jabuti prize in 2013. Later, he released Sim, eu digo sim: Uma visita guiada ao Ulysses de James Joyce (Yes, I say yes: A guided tour to James Joyce’s Ulysses) (Companhia das Letras, 2016), which, like Latim em pó, seeks to reach a broader audience. His first novel, Lia, originally published in serial form in the newspaper Plural Curitiba between 2019 and 2021, is set to be released as a book next year by Companhia das Letras.
In an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, Galindo argues for the preservation of linguistic diversity and suggests that the standard Portuguese grammar be made more flexible to recognize the language’s Brazilian variants. He believes this would allow retiring rules that have lost meaning due to the constant development of the language over time.
What audience did you hope to reach with this book?
The largest possible. I’ve been in the Languages and Literature program at UFPR for 30 years, including my time as a student. There’s a lot that I know about the origins and formation of the language, and that everyone in academia who studies the subject knows, but that the general population doesn’t even suspect exists. The book was conceived based on the need to make this knowledge available to a wider audience, without sacrificing intellectual rigor, without cheapening the information, and without pretending that I have an answer for everything.
How did you go about the research?
During my years at UFPR, I’ve always been a professor in some aspect of historical linguistics, and my focus has narrowed over time. I began teaching languages derived from Latin, moved on to the history of Portuguese, and eventually arrived at the history of Portuguese in Brazil. In other words, the book is a synthesis of this journey, but it’s also related to Língua brasileira (Brazilian language), the theatrical piece by Felipe Hirsch. I started writing the book shortly after the show’s premiere and completed the first version of the text in two weeks. Basically, I put on paper the course outline for my academic semester at the university and, while I was writing, on occasion consulted with specialists to confirm certain data. Then over the following three months, the book was read by ten colleagues from different areas of linguistics. The chapter on creole languages, for example, was rewritten at least twice, in constant debate with Professor Thomas Finbow, from the Department of Linguistics at USP [University of São Paulo].
Why do you define the process of implementing the Portuguese language in our territory as a drama?
In general, people believe that the Portuguese arrived here and implanted the Portuguese language without major problems. But in the book, I try to show that this process was much more complicated. During the first two centuries of colonization, the coexistence of the Portuguese and indigenous peoples led to the emergence of at least two general languages from the Tupi family. These languages gradually became the primary languages used by the local population: they were spoken by indigenous people, Blacks, whites, and mestizos. There was a general language, derived from Tupiniquim, known as southern, coastal, or paulista [from São Paulo state], which was spoken on the coast and in areas of paulista influence further inland. And there was another that later became known as Nheengatu, or “good language” in Tupi, derived from the Tupinambá from Pará, which emerged in the Amazon. Therefore, anyone looking at our sociolinguistic situation in that period would have bet that this country, if it became one, would become a nation speaking an original language, such as the Guarani spoken in Paraguay.
Did the imposition of Portuguese abort the development of a Brazilian language?
It will still take some time for us to understand more precisely how that occurred. But the interpretation I present in the book is that the establishment of Portuguese as the actual, official language of a nation that was yet to become unified did indeed contribute to disrupting prior movement towards establishing a language derived from Tupi as the official language. But this wasn’t completely due to the Portuguese Crown’s decision — beginning in the eighteenth century — to put an end to the language that everyone was speaking and adopt Portuguese as mandatory in our territory. It’s important to note that Brazil received a large number of enslaved Africans at the beginning of the sugar economy, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. They were in the Northeast region, where the predominant languages weren’t as prevalent, and Portuguese was more widely adopted. It was these enslaved people who would begin chewing up European Portuguese, transforming it into something new and spreading this version throughout Brazil. It’s ironic: the most vilified, most mistreated populations in the history of Brazil were the main people responsible for the process of linguistic construction in our land. If we are Brazilians mainly because we speak Portuguese, we must recognize that the Portuguese we speak in our country is basically a legacy of enslaved Africans.
Would developing a Brazilian language have been better than the adoption of Portuguese?
It’s hard to say. A part of me, thinking as a speaker, not a linguist, imagines that perhaps it would be better for us today if we belonged to a tradition that was more our own and spoke a local language. On the other hand, being part of the Lusophone [Portuguese speaking] world, for better or for worse, also opened doors for us, in cultural and economic terms. Today we have this very rare situation in the world, for any era of humanity, of having a large population contingent with an immense territory, in which practically everyone speaks the same language. And, what’s even more significant, practically everyone uses only that one language in their daily lives. Therefore, Brazil has an exceptionally strong, visceral connection with this language and that’s why it’s difficult to imagine how our future could’ve turned out differently.
You argue for changing grammatical rules that don’t adequately express our use of the language. To what extent do the inequalities in Brazilian society distance the population from the standard grammar?
Anywhere in the world, the standard grammar and the demand that it be used in formal contexts become part of a process of exclusion, which separates those who go to school from those who don’t. And going through school, especially for a longer time, is a privilege in the vast majority of societies on the planet. That is, this is always a process of symbolic violence, of exclusion, and this is part of what the standard grammar represents. It’s no use trying to get around it. What we can do, as language users, is try to make it clear to other users how much this process is prescribed and restrictive. What happens in Brazil, due to this great disparity in access to education, is that the standard becomes a very precious asset for a small elite, zealous to maintain its privileges. Instead of looking at the standard grammar and understanding that it’s merely one formalized form of the language, chosen to be used in formal environments, we think it’s the only correct form and that all others denote ignorance. And that’s what we need to fight. Saying “as coisa” [mismatch between plural article & singular noun] instead of “as coisas” is wrong according to standard grammar rules. But it’s not wrong linguistically, it’s not bad or worse than anything else. There are countless languages in the world that work exactly like this, some of which are even highly respected. Brazilian Portuguese is going in a similar direction to standard French, where this kind of marking the plural isn’t done as in learned Portuguese, but in a way closer to spoken, informal Portuguese. We’re not going to be able to resolve the issues of linguistic prejudice, access to education, or the problem of how much the impacts of this lack of access to education scar people and create distance and violence in Brazilian society. But we can try to relativize what is intended to be absolute in judgment, because it’s not an absolute.
But what do we do about written grammar? In your opinion, should we continue to ensure uniform rules for the language, or should we accept variants as part of the grammar?
A standardized written grammar is in a way a necessary evil. If we want to maintain some degree of intercommunicability, of inclusion, it’s useful to have these forms that don’t belong to anyone and that are, in a sense, almost artificial and conventional. They fulfill a role. But accepting variations doesn’t mean throwing out the idea of a standard grammar and replacing it with total informality. It means simply remembering that variability also has its place and can be accepted. In Brazil, we already have a sufficient degree of maturity, including from the point of view of literacy, such that it’s not required that all television announcers have the same pronunciation and that all people write according to the same rules. There are rules that are absolute in grammar. For example, in Portuguese I put the definite article before the noun and say, “o menino” [the boy], not “menino o” [boy the], as is done in Romanian. But there are rules that could be variable. Everyone accepts both when I do use the definite article before proper nouns, or when I don’t. I can say that I spoke “com o Pedro” [with Pedro], or that I spoke “com Pedro” [with Pedro], depending on where I am in Brazil, the social context, or the type of text I’m writing.
By defending the linguistic diversity of indigenous peoples as a heritage to be preserved, you compare its importance to that of forest biodiversity in the discovery of new medicines. How so?
I believe in the intrinsic value of diversity, in any sense, and obviously also in linguistics. A world where people speak more languages, where we need translation, seems more interesting to me than a homogeneous world. I also think that there’s an objective value in diversity. As a linguist, I study the mechanism of human language. So, the more data I have, the better I can understand how this occurs. Diversity is the guarantee that we will have an archive that will preserve interesting linguistic forms. If language is as central to the human experience as I believe it is, I think it’s of great interest to try to understand it in as deep and nuanced a way as possible.
You say in your book that the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões (c. 1524–1580) wouldn’t recognize the Portuguese spoken in Lisbon today. Is it possible to imagine a future in which the Portuguese we know today changes so much that our language becomes incomprehensible to our descendants?
Every language is a process in constant change. People are always inventing new words, pronunciations, different constructions. If we look to the past, we can see that the language of one generation always, at some point in its history, becomes incomprehensible to its descendants. The question is the time scale on which this occurs, whether it’s in the short, medium, or long term. We have reason to assume that in today’s world this change happens much more slowly. Unlike Camões’s generation, today we have access to the sound memory of earlier forms of our language through recordings, videos, films, and radio transmissions. It’s difficult to predict the future, but if things continue as they have been, it’s likely that we will now have a somewhat longer time span before we see this type of incomprehension.
If we look to the past, we can see that the language of one generation, at some point, becomes incomprehensible to its descendantsRepublish