Portuguese: a 'neglected' language?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Oct 23 16:29:18 UTC 2006

>>From the NY Times, October 23, 2006
Sao Paulo Journal

At Long Last, a Neglected Language Is Put on a Pedestal

By LARRY ROHTER SAO PAULO, Brazil More people speak Portuguese as their
native language than French, German, Italian or Japanese. So it can rankle
the 230 million Portuguese speakers that the rest of the world often views
their mother tongue as a minor language and that their novelists, poets
and songwriters tend to be overlooked. An effort is being made here in the
largest city in the worlds largest Portuguese-speaking country to remedy
that situation. The Museum of the Portuguese Language, with multimedia
displays and interactive technology, recently opened here, dedicated to
the proposition that Portuguese speakers and their language can benefit
from a bit of self-affirmation and self-advertisement.

We hope this museum is the first step to showing ourselves, our culture
and its importance to the world, said Antnio Carlos Sartini, the museum
director. A strategy to promote the Portuguese language has always been
lacking, but from now on, maybe things can take another path. The museum,
which opened in March, has already become the most widely visited in
Brazil, drawing schoolchildren and scholars as well as tourists from
Brazil and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa.

In the interests of linguistic harmony and unity, it sidesteps a basic
issue: whether dominion over the language ultimately rests with the
country where it was born or this rambunctious, overgrown former colony
where it is most widely spoken. George Bernard Shaw once described the
United States and Great Britain as two countries divided by a common
language. Much the same could be said about Brazil, with its 185 million
people, and Portugal, with barely 11 million.

The issue is not just the contrast between the mellifluous, musical accent
of Brazil Portuguese with sugar, in the words of the 19th-century realist
Ea de Queiroz and the clipped, almost guttural sound in Portugal. There
are also marked differences in usage that have traditionally led to
misunderstandings and provided fodder for jokes. In Portugal, for example,
a word for a line (the waiting kind) is to Brazilians a derogatory slang
term for a homosexual. A Portuguese word for a mans suit of clothes means
a fact or piece of information in Brazil.

Some purists in Portugal object to the slangy, colorfully casual version
of the language that is spoken here and increasingly spread abroad through
Brazilian telenovelas, or soap operas. They regard such informality as
unworthy of the language of Cames, the 16th-century poet whose seafaring
epic Os Lusadas is often compared to the masterpieces of Homer and Dante.
Thats certainly not my reading, Maria Isabel Pires de Lima, Portugals
culture minister, said, though, when she visited the museum in August with
Jos Scrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa, her countrys prime minister. Language
is a living instrument, always moving, evolving and changing, so I dont
see this phenomenon as pejorative. On the contrary, telenovelas are an
important tool in creating more awareness of the Portuguese language and

In 1996, Brazil and Portugal joined with five African nations Angola, Cape
Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and So Tom and Prncipe to found the
Community of Portuguese-Language Countries. Portuguese was recently
designated an official language of the Organization of African Unity as a
result of the communitys efforts. Leaders think that more can be done and
hope that Brazil can lead the way. One of our objectives is to disseminate
Portuguese so that it has greater visibility in international
organizations, Jos Tadeu Soares, deputy director general of the group,
said in a telephone interview from its headquarters in Lisbon. But aside
from Brazil and Portugal, the other countries have only been independent
for 25 or 30 years and dont have the resources to project themselves on
the world stage the way Brazil can.

Though the group recently granted observer status to China, where the
language still has official standing in Macao, Portuguese is fading there
and in places like Goa, Damo and Diu in India, three other former colonial
outposts. But when East Timor obtained its independence from Indonesia in
2002 and joined the community, that inspired an outpouring of sympathy and
support from Portuguese-speaking countries. For the Timorese, Portuguese
is a way of asserting their identity vis--vis Indonesia, and, for that
matter, even Australia, Luiz Fernando Valente, director of the Department
of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, said in a
telephone interview from Providence, R.I.

But, he added, the aspiration of some Portuguese-speakers to see their
language gain official status at the United Nations is probably beyond
reach. Portuguese is a global language, spoken on every continent, he
said, but it is not an international language, used in diplomacy and
business the way that French is, and I dont know if that problem is
solvable. Mr. Sartini, the museum director, said the museum planned to
send roving exhibitions abroad, to disseminate Portuguese language and
culture.  Ideally, he said, such displays would visit not only
Portuguese-speaking countries but also those, like the United States, with
Portuguese-speaking minorities.

The largest and oldest United States enclave is around Providence, R.I.,
and Fall River and New Bedford, in southeastern Massachusetts. There are
others, in the Central Valley of California, around Fresno, for example,
as well as in southern Florida and Newark. At a literary festival near
here in August, though, the Anglo-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali was quoted in
the local press as saying that only three languages are assured of
surviving to the end of this century: English, Chinese and Spanish. Even
Jos Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate who lives mostly
in Spain, has fretted publicly over the possibility of Portuguese being
overwhelmed by English and Spanish.

Spanish-speakers have sometimes jokingly dismissed Portuguese as simply
Spanish, badly spoken. But because of Brazils huge size and dynamic
economy, cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago, in neighboring countries,
are now awash in fliers and billboards offering Portuguese language
courses. For 850 years, our neighbors next door have been saying that
there is no future for Portuguese, said Mr. Soares, of the community,
referring to Spain. But here we are, still. The dynamic for the language
may come from Brazil, but there is no doubt in my mind that Portuguese as
a language will remain viable.



N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list