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The linguist of language as it is

Going back to the origins of grammar in Ancient Greece, Maria Helena de Moura Neves became an exponent of functionalist studies in Brazil

Maria Helena de Moura Neves: “What makes a people develop the grammar of their own language?”

Publicity / Editora Unesp

One of the foremost names in Brazilian linguistics began her university career at almost 40 years of age, after more than two decades dedicated to teaching Portuguese in primary and secondary education. Maria Helena de Moura Neves, who died from a stroke in Araraquara, São Paulo on December 17 of last year, had already raised her three children when she started studying Portuguese and Greek Letters at Paulista State University (UNESP), Araraquara campus, in 1967.

Her research subject emerged while still an undergraduate, stemming from a curiosity that was to guide her career: “What makes a people develop the grammar of their own language?” Neves completed her doctorate based on this question in 1978 at the University of São Paulo (USP). Under the guidance of José Cavalcante de Souza (1925–2020), she defended the thesis “The emergence of the grammatical discipline among the Greeks.” Earlier, in 1974, she also received her bachelor’s degree in German so she could directly consult works that interested her.

She began teaching Greek at UNESP in 1971 and was made a tenured professor seven years later. Neves gained full professorship in 1984, retiring three years later. She continued, however, to work at the university as a volunteer professor and, later, as an emeritus scholar. In 2003, she also began teaching at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, in São Paulo. Professor Neves was coordinator of the Portuguese Grammar Research Group, registered with the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

Her curiosity regarding the impulse to formulate grammar was what led Neves to research the Greeks, the first people in the West to formalize the study of their language, according to Latinist Carlos Renato Rosário de Jesus, from Amazonas State University (UEA), who concluded a postdoctoral project in 2020 supervised by Neves. This and other questions are explored in the book A vertente grega da gramática tradicional (The Greek strand of traditional grammar) (Hucitec, 1987), published as a result of Neves’s doctoral research, later revised and republished in 2005 by UNESP publishing. “It’s a work that explores philosophical issues around grammar, which opens up several avenues of investigation,” de Jesus says.

In partnership with her undergraduate Greek professor, Daisi Malhadas, from UNESP, and one of her students who is now a professor at the same university, Maria Celeste Consolin Dezotti, Neves organized the first Greek-Portuguese Dictionary, initially published in five volumes between 2006 and 2010, and collected in a single volume in 2022. She referred to this work as one of the “most significant” chapters of her professional life.

The linguist’s career, which resulted in the publication of more than 20 books, can be divided into three main strands. Her studies in Greek and classical grammar constitute the first. According to linguist André Vinícius Lopes Coneglian, from the School of Letters of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (FALE-UFMG), this might be considered the main “point of entry” to her thinking, which guided and organized the entire set of her theoretical concerns.

The second key aspect of her career is the functionalist theory of grammar, for which the UNESP professor became one of Brazil’s leading exponents. This theory emerged simultaneously in different parts of the world in the second half of the twentieth century, when linguists began to dedicate themselves to grammatical issues, based on their individual theories about how people communicate with language, orally or in writing, says de Jesus. “Maria Helena did not join a specific functionalist line of thought, but built her own vision based on various influences,” observes Coneglian. “Her grammar is organized based on the construction of utterances. Categories such as noun, verb, and adjective are subjected to the process by which language is constructed. In this process, the verb takes a central position and around it are distributed the other parts of the utterance,” he summarizes. Two works are identified as fundamental in this aspect of Neves’s work: the Gramática de usos do português (The grammar of Portuguese usage) (Editora UNESP, 2000) and the Dicionário de usos do português (The dictionary of Portuguese usage; Ática, 2002), coauthored with Francisco da Silva Borba and Sebastião Expedito Ignácio, et al.

The third strand in Neves’s career is the teaching of the Portuguese language. One of the books that the linguist left ready for publication, in coauthorship with Coneglian, is called Laboratório de ensino de gramática (Grammar teaching lab). Intended for both beginning teachers and continuing education in literature or pedagogy programs, it is set to be released this year by Contexto. Coneglian says the book offers exercises based on theoretical points of the usage grammars developed by Neves. “Formulating exercises is one of the most difficult things for a teacher who is starting out. Pedagogy students learn little about how to prepare them,” observes the UFMG professor.

Her colleagues and students remember Neves as an energetic person, who made a point of maintaining constant communication with her advisees and collaborators. “I started interacting with her when I was still an undergraduate and quickly realized that she was very dedicated,” recalls Coneglian, who had Neves as his advisor for his master’s degree and doctorate. “I wasn’t even officially her student yet, and we would already get together every week. I would send her texts and she would send them back corrected.” “Receiving the news of her death was like hearing that a young person had died, not someone in her nineties. Because she was very active, full of projects and new ideas,” says de Jesus. The linguist was still working intensely. She supervised research, wrote articles, and left three books in press. In February, she received the Ester Sabino award, established in 2022 by the São Paulo State government to honor women scientists.

For Coneglian, her love of language epitomizes Neves’s personality. It was a passion that began spontaneously during her childhood in the state of São Paulo. Her parents, both primary school teachers, subscribed to magazines in Spanish and Italian and she dedicated herself to comparing the structures of these languages with Portuguese.

Regarding her workload, which led her to put in 20-hour days, Professor Neves didn’t complain about excessive work, saying it gave her great pleasure. Her main source of contentment, however, came from family life, Coneglian observes: Neves liked to tell colleagues about the dinners she prepared on Sundays for her two sons (a third died young), seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren, in addition to her son- and daughter-in-law, whom she also regarded as her children. Neves was widowed in 2010. She was 91 years old.