As our cab inched toward Sao Paulo on my first day in Brazil what now seems like
many years ago, my friend pointed out the city’s old train station and the neighboring Portuguese language museum. He enthusiastically recommended the museum but advised me to consider waiting to go since everything is written in Portuguese. Thus it wasn’t until almost exactly three months later that I finally found myself back again on a Monday morning, emerging from the complicated underground network of Luz station and arriving in front of what felt like my ultimate test and reward for learning a new language. I snapped pictures of street signs, the Jardim da Luz across the street, the small plaque in front of the museum, everything I could think of to commemorate this most momentous of occasions. As I approached the gate, the security guard informed me that the museum is closed on Mondays.
With approximately 4,000 things to do and only two days left in the country, it felt like a significant setback. Still, I doggedly headed back the next day, determined to cash in on my Portuguese language-learning efforts. As some consolation, Tuesday is free admission day, and a quick elevator ride later, I was confronted with a large, dark room, with screens wrapping around each wall. These turned out to be audio-visual presentations on Brazilian cultural themes such as football and samba. As a non-native speaker, the music and the interviews seemed disjointed and were difficult to follow so I turned my attention to a large timeline. Here, starting in 4000 BC, Brazilian Portuguese’s roots are elucidated as three separate timelines of African, European and “Amerindian” languages, which begin to merge at the beginning of the 16th century upon the arrival of Portuguese explorers and the beginning of the slave trade.
The heart of the story begins, as all good ones do, in the 3rd century BC when the Roman Empire finally subjugated the Phoenician city-state of Carthage, in what is now the Iberian Peninsula. Common or “Vulgar” Latin quickly replaced any languages previously spoken in the region, and over the centuries that followed, efforts at linguistic fraternization, first by invading Germanic tribes and later by the Moors, were continuously rebuffed. Thus it was that a brief soaking in unique nasal Celtic vowels here, a sprinkling of Germanic fighting words and Arabic agricultural terms there, that Portuguese emerged, largely unscathed, some 15 centuries later.
Portugal’s history is, of course, an interesting one, particularly in the way it explains the diversion of Portuguese and Spanish—hint: Portugal ain’t got no answer to Spain’s alhambra. But the museum knows it’s not fooling anyone; no one’s here to learn about Portugal. We came for the Brazilian Portuguese! And as the 16th century panel proudly states: “from this point on, it is no longer possible to talk about the Portuguese language without talking about Brazil.”
In 1500, when the first Portuguese explorer stopped by Brazil on his way to India (as you do), he supposedly encountered more than 1,200 different peoples speaking at least 1,000 different languages. The majority of the coast though was settled by the Tupi people who spoke a common language, making communication easier for the Portuguese interlopers. Still, Portugal’s initial efforts at colonization failed and Portuguese settlers remained rare, leading the few that survived to adopt Tupi languages and women.
With any good colonization effort comes slavery and the death of a lot of Amerindians, but because the indigenous people were somewhat protected by proselytizing Jesuits, the Portuguese were unable to enslave them in sufficient numbers and, beginning in 1550, they turned to Africa. As a result, African languages such as Bantu (actually a large group of languages spoken in central and southern Africa) and later Yoruba (from Nigeria) began to influence communication in Brazil. And so it was that for another 200 years, Brazilians interbred with Africans and indigenous peoples and spoke not Portuguese but rather Nheengatu, which is essentially Tupi with some European/African flavor.
In 1808, when the Portuguese royal court fled Napoleon’s advances and arrived in Brazil, Portuguese finally began to take hold in Brazil. Decades earlier, the Jesuits had been kicked out of the country and the Portuguese language imposed, but it wasn’t until the crown arrived that speaking Portuguese, especially with a European accent, became cool and, for a split second in time, the two “Portugueses” merged. The unity was short-lived, however, since by 1850, Brazilians (officially part of an independent Brazil, as of 1822) had all but stopped using “tu” (informal “you”) or “vós” (plural “you”), and had started avoiding “nós” (we) when an “a gente” would do.
From this point on, Brazilian Portuguese began to carve out its own history, although a massive influx of Italian and German immigrants to southern states like Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, likely helps explain why, among other things, these states still use the European “tu” conjugation (as Ed pointed out in his comment). However, far from conforming to European Portuguese’s standards, these immigrants put their own special touches on Brazilian Portuguese. One of my friends from Santa Catarina told me he had no idea he had grown up using the Italian word for “ladle” until he got to college in São Paulo and his request for the “mestolo” was met with blank stares. Another important factor contributing to the divergence of Brazilian Portuguese was Brazil’s political alliance with the US during WWII in conjunction with the invention of the television. From American movies and TV shows, Brazilians picked up many English words and expressions (not to mention bad habits) and incorporated them into their own vernacular.
This last point, of course, makes Brazilian Portuguese much easier for Americans to learn, making me wonder if I would have been any “better” at Argentinian Spanish than I ever was at the European version. I mean I’m sure the only reason I still can’t understand “Love Actually’s” Aurelia is because she’s speaking European Portuguese—And yes, I re-watched it last week just to see if I could understand the few lines of Portuguese…
If I took away a unified message from the Portuguese language museum, it was the strong sense of pride Brazilians feel for their beautiful language that arises from a complicated history of relationships between European, African and indigenous peoples. It’s no surprise then that efforts to standardize written Portuguese, most recently in 2008, have been met with strong resistance—to be fair, not just from Brazilians. After overcoming decades of economic and political instability, a forced reunion with European Portuguese must have felt like being mandated to cede an important part of Brazilian identity.
On the other hand, when I asked a Brazilian friend if it had been hard to get used to all the new grammar rules, he sounded puzzled. “I don’t remember hearing anything about that.” So maybe my heart beats less with the pulse of the Brazilian people than I might have hoped, but I do know that there is one linguistic Truth. Every Brazilian will proudly tell you that Portuguese is difficult as it is beautiful, and not to worry about making mistakes because everyone, Brazilians included, speaks totally wrong. Well, it seems then at least in one sense, I have indeed arrived.