Tuesday, March 23

The Speech of Belém, Brazil

Sometime ago, I had the opportunity to meet a person from Belém, situated in the state of Pará, in Brazil.

I was waiting for someone, so I decided to go into the bookstore on that street. While I waited, I browsed through the language books. At times, I like to check out how each source teaches, in different ways, any of the languages that I speak. I look to find out whether each book, respectively, decides to concentrate, for instance, on the speech of Brazil or Portugal; to see which is more relevant on the publishers' minds. As I have seen, the speech of Brazil generally holds this position with them.
In the case of Spanish, for example, I like to see whether the form vosotros, exclusively used in Spain, is included. I have found that some books present it, but advise of its European-only use, making optional learning its forms. Very few books have I encountered that fully integrate vosotros and the distinction in pronunciation between orthographic Z and S, again, a European feature.
As I waited at the bookstore, that's exactly what I looked at. During that time, a young lady arrived to the language section asking one of the store employees where she could find the Portuguese dictionaries. While she looked for what she needed, I asked her, in English, if she was studying Portuguese. She told me that she was. I told her that I spoke the language myself, first in English, then, in Portuguese. From then on, we continued the conversation in the latter language. I asked her where she was from. She responded that she came from Belém. I realized then that she didn's speak much English, hence when I asked her if she studied Portuguese, she answered affirmatively. I noticed in her speech that she pronounced syllabe-final S as /x/, that is, the sound in SH in English show1. I had always known that this peculiarity was a characteristic from Rio De Janeiro[see previous entry]. She told me that she was from Brazil, from Belém. I honestly did not know where that city was located, so I asked her if it was near Rio. She told me that it wasn't; that it was actually quite far from it. I was surprised to hear that because her talking sounded very much as if she were from Rio. I even told her so and she said that many people, outside of Belém and Rio, have told her the very same thing. This is due, like I said, to her pronunciation of S in syllable-final position as \x\. Some examples of this would be: escola » \excola\; escova » \excova\; costa » \coxta\. In the rest of Brazil, it would be rendered as \s\. As you can see on the map above, Belém is indeed distant from the city of Rio De Janeiro. This is exactly what amazed me: that the two localities are so far away, yet the same phenomena exactly in both of them. So what's so special about that? This pronunciation of syllabe-final S is particular to Rio De Janeiro. In all Portuguese dictionaries and references, one is told that in Brazil, for example, the word «escola» is pronounced \escola\ [with /s/], except in Rio De Janeiro. Before meeting this girl, I never once knew that this was found outside of Rio; no sources ever state otherwise. Not only that, but this pronunciation is also current and standard in Portugal. It is said that when the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil, the realization of this S as \x\ did not occur yet; that it developed separately in Portugal, while Brazil kept the form without evolving. Later, when Napoleon invaded Portugal in the 1800's, the Portuguese Royal Family fled to Rio De Janeiro. Hence, the arrival of the Royal Family helped approximate the speech of Rio to that of what was current in Portugal. This includes pronoun «tu» for direct address and, as I have said, the \x\ pronunciation, while the rest of Brazil kept \s\ and the pronoun «você». As of today, throughout my experience with Brazilians, that is how things are, with a some changes in morphology with the pronoun «tu», which I shall discuss in a future entry. Like I said before, I thought that this was solely found in Rio de Janeiro due the historical fact of the Royal Family having brought closer the speech in that city to that in the peninsula. Nevertheless, it exists as well, at least, in Belém.
After I talked to that Brazilian girl, I did some research on Belém. I found out that city prides itself in its Portuguese heritage that's not only in its art, culture, and architecture, but, most significantly, in its speech. As you might know, Brazil is composed, like the U.S., of people from many different ethnic backgrounds, generally European, African and Indian. Most Brazilians know where their ancestors came from, and have pride in displaying their ancestry, whether it be Polish, German, Italian, French, or the in case of Belém, Portuguese. I also found an article by the most famous Portuguese language teacher in Brazil, Prof. Pasquale. There, he talks about how the idiom of Belém resembles that of Portugal, especially, besides its accent, the use of the pronoun «tu». As I stated, «tu» has become an archaism in Brazil, having being replaced by «você». Prof. Pasquale says that in Belém one finds quite alive the «tu» forms, conjugated as the grammar prescribes. He says: In Lisbon and in Belém, it is very common to hear: "Foste lá?", "Fizeste o que pedi?", "Trouxeste o livro?", "Queres água?", "Sabes onde fica a rua?". In these same sentences in the rest of Brazil, the standard would be:Você foi lá? Você fiz o que pedi? Você trouxe o livro? Você quer agua? Você sabe onde fica a rua?. So, the forms for familiar address used in Belém are the same ones used in Portugal.
This has been rather interesting to me. Rio and Belém, so far, yet so close in their ways of speaking; not to forget, to an extent, Portugal with this duo. Just like these habits in Rio were caused by the arrival of the Royal Family, I imagine that the corresponding ones in Belém were brought upon by heavy Portuguese migration to the city in the 1800's, as the /x/ shift took place, while the rest of the country received people from elsewhere in Europe.
To finalize, I said before that the girl that I met did not have much practice with English. What revealed that to me even more was when I asked her if she was living here or had come just as a tourist. She told me that she was staying here for three months; that she lived on "17th Street", pronouncing it as seventeenth SHtreet, with the syllabe-final S as /sh/. Cheers to Belém.

1.Within the Portuguese-speaking community, the letter X is often used to indicate this sound when in lack of the IPA, since it's found in words like caixa » /caisha/, deixar » /deishar/.


Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam said...

I have a friend from Belém. I'll have to listen in more carefully next time I hear her speak. Good that you pointed out the Royal Family's influence on the Carioca accent.

The 'tu' form is relevant once again among the poor and now among the cool, especially in Rio. One can even see one of the Ídolos judges using 'tu' with the contestants. The problem with this is they don't conjugate 'to be' (or any other verb for that matter) correctly...so they end up saying 'tu é' all the time.

Another interesting thing happening in the favelas is the use of the plural article with the singular noun. Example, 'os cara' instead of 'os caras' for 'the guys.' It's enough to get your hands on MV Bill's documentary Falção to see how the Portuguese language is being assassinated little by little.

This of course, could lead me into a discussion of the overuse of anglicisms in Portuguese too...but I'll leave it there for now.

- Adam
Speaker of Spanish & Portuguese
(I'm half way there on the Italian)


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Anonymous said...

You might try comparing usage in other Brazilian coastal cities. Language has a way of morphing along trade and migration routes; coastal commerce has historically propagated rapid change elsewhere, so the Rio connection may be prevalent along the coast.

Otavio Macedo said...

The realization of syllable-final "s" as /ʃ/ is common in most of north and northeast regions of Brazil, as well as in the whole state of Rio de Janeiro (not only RJ city), Espírito Santo and some parts of Santa Catarina.

The 19th century Portuguese influence hypothesis is very reasonable. But, regarding Santa Catarina, it must be due to Polish or German influence.

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