Brazil - BRAZZIL - So Many Reasons to Learn Portuguese - Portuguese Language - September 2001

September 2001

Portuguese Spoken Here

Those learning Portuguese will find good-humored
words to deal with major or minor "headaches.”
A small problem may be described in Portuguese
as um pepino (“a cucumber") while a big one is
considered to be um abacaxi ("a pineapple").

John Robert Schmitz

During my frequent trips to different parts of the world, I have met many people who even though they have a good deal of formal education seem to know little or nothing about Brazil or the Portuguese-speaking world. My aim is simply to get more people interested in knowing more about this universe. Hopefully, some might even want to learn Portuguese and visit one of the countries where the language is spoken.

A conservative estimate is that Portuguese is spoken by 180 million people and some specialists claim that the total may be as high as 220 million speakers in the world. In ranking, Portuguese is in sixth place with more speakers that Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Korean, and surprisingly German and Italian. This information points to the fact that Portuguese, spoken in Europe, Africa, the Far East (West Timor,) and in the Americas is a force in the world.

Based on statistics from the year 1999, Mozambique has a population of 20 million people while Angola has approximately 13 million inhabitants. The three other Portuguese-speaking nations—Guinea-Bissau, The Cape Verde and Saint Thomas & Principe Islands together have a population of about 2 million.

Many people do not know that there exists an association of these nations whose official language is Portuguese. This entity bears the initials PALOP (Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa—African Nations with Portuguese as Official Language). With so many speakers, certainly those who want to learn Portuguese will have plenty of people to talk with.

There are other facts that point to the importance of Portuguese as a major world language. In the year 1999, over 43,000 titles were published in Brazil alone. In this country, more than 6,000 titles were translated to Portuguese from six different languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Japanese. In Brazil approximately 290,000 copies were sold. The figures cited here are limited to Brazil. To be sure, if we add the other Portuguese-speaking nations, the totals would be higher. These numbers taken from a study by the Câmara Brasileira do Livro (Brazilian Book Chamber) may appear to be low compared with the number of books published in France, Germany, Britain or the USA but they do indeed indicate that a lot of ideas and a wealth of facts and information are being communicated in Portuguese. The sheer volume of material in Portuguese might very well be used as a good reason to invest in the study of the language. It is also important to remember that Brazil is the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world with a population in 1999 of 164 million people. In ten years’ time the population will no doubt pass the 200 million mark.

For those who speak Spanish, it is fairly easy to learn Portuguese. But those who have studied Spanish will have to work hard for Portuguese has its own specific grammar, distinctive vocabulary, pronunciation and intonation. Those who begin their study of Portuguese should not be deluded by the similarity between the two languages. The differences are often subtle. Spanish speakers indeed have to make a concerted effort when learning Portuguese for there is the danger in their case of the development of a fossilized "intermediary" language called in Brazil "portunhol", a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese.

Spanish pronunciation has been characterized in popular terms as sounding like the marching of soldiers in a parade or the noise of a heavy thundershower on a tin roof. Portuguese to some ears may seem more mellifluous than Spanish.

For those who like to study different languages and enjoy grammar (or syntax) Portuguese will provide some interesting surprises. In formal written Portuguese, in passive expressions in the future tense such as "it will be said", "it will be stated", the pronoun "se" ( which signals passive) is inserted between the root of the verb and the marker of the future: "dir-se-á" (it will be said) and "dar-se-á uma ordem” (“an order will be given”). This process is called mesóclise in Portuguese or mesoclisis in English. Another interesting characteristic of Portuguese is the fact that infinitives can be conjugated. Some examples with personal endings conjugated (shown in bold type) are: "idéias para eles considerarem" (“ideas for them to consider”) “um assunto para nós refletirmos" (“an issue for us to think about”). English grammar does not have this refinement.

It is indeed a fact that English has only one first person plural pronoun— “we” as in: "We the People" and Martin Luther King's famous "We shall overcome". Portuguese happens in this instance to be more expressive with two subject pronouns —"nós" for formal use and "a gente" for informal use. Thus, there are two possible ways to translate the English, "we work all day long": Nós trabalhamos o dia inteiro" and "A gente trabalha o dia inteiro". “A gente” is very flexible and functions as well as an object pronoun. An example taken from the 19th Century Brazilian novelist Aluísio Azevedo's O Mulato, (The Mulatto) "...despeça-se da gente" ("Say (farewell) good-bye to us"), [Aluísio de Azevedo, O Mulato. São Paulo: Martins, 1959, p. 109]. In informal Portuguese, a gente functions as a personal pronoun: “um amigo da gente meaning “ ("a friend of ours").

Portuguese, similar to its sister language Spanish, can handle subtle semantic and pragmatic distinctions with the choice of two verbs, "ser" or "estar", while English has to get along with just one— "be". So, to render the Portuguese "João está feliz" and "João é feliz" in English, with the presence of only one verb, more information would have to be provided. For the first, "John is happy today/ right now" and for the second, "John is happy by nature or always that way".

Quite different from its sister Romance Languages, Brazilian Portuguese has shown its originality by adopting a strategy called “pro-drop” (pronoun dropping) by linguists. Many of the world’s languages employ this strategy to simplify communication. In English or Spanish, speakers are obliged to employ object pronouns. For example, English speakers say, “Give me the book” or “Give it to me”. Spanish speakers say, “Déme el libro” or “démelo”. Speakers of informal Brazilian Portuguese say, “Me dá” or “”. Quite different from English, Brazilian Portuguese is quite economical for its speakers are not obliged to insert object pronouns “I like it” or “I want some” in responding to questions like “Do you like ice cream?” or “Do you want some coffee” for they can simply answer respectively “Gosto” e “Quero”.

Those who have studied Spanish, Italian or French are familiar with the names of the days of the week. Monday respectively in these languages is lunes, lunedì, lundi. Many people are not aware that Portuguese breaks this pattern with numbered days, "segunda-feira" (second market day = Monday), "terça-feira” (third market day = Tuesday), “quarta-feira” ( fourth market day) and so on.

The point of my description of Portuguese is to show that the language is linguistically distinct and original. As in the case of other languages, it is very rich with an impressive number of words, ranging from very formal and cultured ones to very expressive and colloquial vocabulary items. A very dramatic example in the formal language is the expression tomar providências meaning "to take measures to get something done". Very expressive indeed for sometimes to get something done quickly requires "providence", and for some, it may be a question of Divine Providence!

Portuguese also has a nice word for the English "ordeal" — the word peleja is heard quite frequently in the beautiful, quite mountainous heartland state of Minas Gerais (General Mines), famous for its small towns with exquisite baroque churches.

Those who enroll in Portuguese language courses will meet some very good-humored words and expressions to deal with major or minor "headaches" of every-day existence, especially in our dealings with other people. A small problem facing us may be described in Portuguese as um pepino ( "a cucumber") while a big one where a solution is too difficult to reach is considered in Portuguese to be um abacaxi ( "a pineapple"). This word is picturesque indeed for to peel a pineapple is a real chore and no doubt this is why Americans prefer their pineapples in cans. When a person who displeases us finally decides to go away, we often mutter the words "Good riddance". In Portuguese, one often says, já vai tarde or "he is leaving late"!

Only those who have learned Portuguese can appreciate the very pithy idiomatic expression "golpe do baú", which describes the situation in which one not very well-to-do individual finds a very affluent marriage partner and lives "happily ever after". This expression, literally "the coup of the trunk" reveals its age for it refers to a time when rich spouses kept their money and jewels in trunks rather than in safety deposit boxes.

A look at color terms in the different languages of the world will indicate their specific nature and provide a glimpse of different cultures. In Portuguese, when things are going great and life is fine, Brazilians say Tudo Azul! Quite different from English where the color "blue" designates just the opposite. In Portuguese one can buy "red eggs" or ovos vermelhos while in English they are brown. People who are jealous of their neighbors' goods in Portuguese are roxas de inveja ("purple with envy). In English, jealousy is associated with the color "green", that is, "green with envy".

All languages show distinctiveness in their use of numbers in idiomatic expressions. The number 13 is not unlucky as in English. In Brazil, the thirteenth floor of apartment houses and office buildings are duly marked. In some countries the 13th floor is simply skipped. A nice name for a business that sells lottery tickets is “Bola 13” (“Ball 13”). There is also a chain of supermarkets in São Paulo (the largest city in Brazil) that bears the name “Bazaar 13” . The English expression “half a dozen of one and a half dozen of another” is eight or eighty (“oito ou oitenta”) in Portuguese. Cats in Brazil are tougher than their counterparts in Britain and in the USA for they get along very well with “seven lives” rather than nine.

There are many other reasons for leaning Portuguese. The most obvious reason is that knowing another language can open up job opportunities in a variety of fields. Candidates for employment in the USA who know Portuguese can find a variety of jobs in tourism, social work, sales and services, translation and interpreting and in teaching.

The Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC) offers in July or December of each year—a proficiency exam for the Certificate of Proficiency in Portuguese as a Foreign Language ( This test has both a written and oral component to evaluate linguistic and communicative competence in Portuguese.

Many people believe that globalization at the present time is slowly undermining cultural, economic and political distinctions. While it is true that the varied forces of internationalism are contributing to the inter-dependence of nations, fortunately there exist in the world pockets of resistance to globalizing tendencies. Groupings of different nations such as the Hispanic countries in Latin America in addition to Spain, the Francophone nations that include a number of African countries, Quebec, France and Haiti (among others), and the different Portuguese-speaking countries all with their different heritages serve to offset, to some extent, the threat of cultural domination and homogenization.

A knowledge of things Luso-Brazilian, of the Luso-Brazilian world, replete with its varied cultural practices and identities provides those who are interested with a vast storehouse of information. Those who work in the area of Luso-Brazilian studies often specialize in one region or set of nations or in a particular discipline, be it literature, anthropology, economics, music or art. An important journal in this field is the Luso-Brazilian Review published at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). []

In the field of literature, Portugal has given the world the epic poem, the famous Lusiads penned by Luiz de Camões (Camoens). This poem celebrates the adventures of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama. The Portuguese have their own Charles Dickens, the writer Eça de Queirós, whose novels have been translated to English. A recent Portuguese writer well known in literary circles in the USA is José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

The Portuguese-speaking nations of Africa have produced as well a vibrant literature in Portuguese that has been translated to English, French, German, Spanish and other major world languages. To cite Angola as a case in point, one can enjoy the writings (poetry and fiction) of Pepetela (Artur Mauricio Carlos Pestana dos Santos), Manuel Rui, Uanhenga Xitu and many others. But, to be fair, it has to be recognized that without the existence of Brazil and its linguistic and cultural input, the Portuguese language would not be as important as it is at the beginning of this twenty-first century.

To gain influence in the world, languages need to increase their number of speakers and widen their geographical space. Continental in size, Brazil is larger than the USA if Alaska and Hawaii are not considered in the comparison. Brazilian Portuguese is indeed distinctive with its mix of European, African and Indian cultures. Worth citing is the volume "Brazilian Civilization" (A Cultura Brasileira) first published in 1943 by the Brazilian educator and writer, Fernando de Azevedo.

The famous New York City-based publishing house, Alfred Knopf for many years specialized in the translation of the Brazilian writers—Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado and Guimarães Rosa to English. No other South American nation has received this distinction.   

Some Brazilians are somewhat fearful about the effects of globalization, the increasing penetration of English words and expressions into their language, and the threat of Americanization of their culture. My belief is that as long as Brazilians continue their specific cultural production, their heritage will not be in danger. The identity of a specific nation lies not in words but in people and their cultural production.

Villa Lobos, Caetano Veloso, Vinicius de Moraes, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, Chico César in the area of music, as well as Clarice Lispector, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Cecília Meirelles and João Ubaldo Ribeiro in the field of literature are true representatives of Brazilian cultural heritage. Of course, the cultural contribution of these individuals has to be disseminated, that is, “exported” to the four corners of the world. Diplomats, cultural specialists, linguists, teachers of Portuguese as a foreign language, university professors and educators in general in the Portuguese-speaking countries indeed have their work cut out for them in the coming years.

In a recent visit to Europe, I came into contact with people from all parts of the world. Surprisingly, many people who I thought were informed about world affairs, asked me quite ingenuously: “what crops are grown in Brazil?” My answer to all those who queried me was the following:    “Airplanes, automobiles, computers, refrigerators, armaments, shoes, clothes, medicine, and many other items”. I believe that my answer helped many people to see Brazil from a different perspective.       

I hope I have convinced my readers that the Portuguese language and Luso-Brazilian studies offer vast opportunities for study, research and cultural enhancement. It is also my fervent wish that this article might encourage readers to visit Brazil, Portugal and other nations where Portuguese is spoken.

John Robert Schmitz is a member of the Department of Applied Linguistics of the Institute for the Study of Language at the State University of Campinas, Campinas, State of São Paulo. He has lived in Brazil for 30 years. He holds a BA degree from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University and a doctorate in Applied Linguistics from the Catholic University of São Paulo. He was a Fulbright exchange student at the University of São Paulo (1961-1962). His research interests are in the fields of lexicography, translation studies, Brazilian culture, contrastive analysis and language teaching. He has published papers and reviews in Hispania, Meta, Language Problems and Language Planning and Discourse & Society. You can contact him at 

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