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Lusosphere: Reform in Portuguese Language Not Welcomed

Described by Brazilian poet Olavo Bilac as “the last flower of Latium, wild and beautiful”, the Portuguese language is about to change. As of 1st January 2009, the reform of its spelling begins to be implemented in Brazil over a four year adaptation period until the new rules are completely enforced. The same rules will eventually be implemented in Portugal, where the changes will be phased during the next six years, and also in the other 6 countries where Portuguese is an official language: Angola, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe.

The latest Portuguese orthographic agreement was signed in 1990 by seven out of eight Portuguese speaking countries. It intends to unify the two current orthographic standards and was meant to go into effect after all signatory countries had ratified it. However, by the end of the decade only Brazil, Cape Verde, and Portugal had done so, although in Portugal the change was passed into law only in May 2008. Brazil, which has nearly 80% of the Portuguese speakers in the world, is the first to implement it.

The spelling changes will affect about 1.6% of the words in the European norm (also adopted in Africa) and 0.5% in the Brazilian spelling. Across the Lusophone world, many linguists, philologists, politicians, journalists, writers, translators – and of course bloggers – do not quite understand the need for, or agree with, the international treaty meant to improve the language's international status through a single official orthography. The debate is a heated one, but most bloggers seem to be on the same side.

“A sign in both Chinese and Portuguese in Macau, China. Actually, “主教座堂辦公室” (in Chinese) or “Cartório Da Sé” (in Portuguese) means “The Office of the Cathedral.” By Wikimedia.

Starting with Portugal two petitions (1 and 2) collecting thousands of signatures calling for the suspension of the implementation are being evaluated by the National Assembly. There, the reform is perceived as a “abraziliament” of the language with no real advantage for the other countries. It is also claimed that the new spelling rules disagree with the way the Portuguese people pronounce words. A Portuguese citizen who has grown up in Macau, Ricardo José [pt] has taken an extreme decision:

Um país não é um hino ou um desenho numa bandeira. Um país é a sua língua e é a sua cultura.

E se um conjunto de políticos se arroga o direito de interferir na língua que é minha, contra aquilo que caracteriza a cultura dos cidadãos dum país, servindo interesses que não os dos portugueses, então repudio-os, porque já não são mais políticos de Portugal.

A partir de hoje e para sempre, se este acordo não tiver retrocesso, o meu voto será sempre público e será sempre o mesmo: votarei em branco.

A country is not an anthem or a flag design. A country is its language and culture. And if a group of politicians claims the right to interfere in a language that is mine, against what characterizes the culture of the citizens of a country, serving the interests of other [people] than the Portuguese, then I reject them, because they are no longer politicians of Portugal. From now on, if this agreement has no retreat, my vote will always be public and will always be the same: I'll cast a blank vote.

In fact, for what has become known as Brazilian Portuguese, changes will be kept to a minimum, and some bloggers have adopted them already [pt]. However, the majority of people are not happy with the reform either. A doctor of the Portuguese language, Marcelo Leite [pt], for one, seems to agree with the views of the blogger above, adding that the reform was an agreement which has much more to do with political and economic interests than language issues.

Na verdade, fizemos a comunidade lusófona engolir a maioria das regras para se unificar em nome de uma unidade lingüística que, assim como o Godot, de Becket, fica sob uma árvore esperando. Podemos até escrever do mesmo jeito, mas o que nos faz tão distantes, tão distintos não está na grafia das palavras, mas em uma herança cultural que, fora a língua, nos separa por mais de um oceano. E acho que essa diferença é que é o legal da coisa.

In fact, we have made the lusophone community swallow most of the rules to unite in the name of a linguistic unity that, like Becket's Godot, have been waiting under a tree. We can write in the same way, but what makes us so far apart, so different, is not so much in the spelling of words, but in a cultural heritage that, language apart, separates us far more than an ocean. And I think that this difference is the cool thing.

Eugênio Costa Almeida [pt], from Angola, agrees with the Brazilian blogger that a game of power is at play and wonders how this reform can be implemented in language prolific Africa:

Como será que a CPLP vai descalçar esta bota, bem apertada, quando há países que ainda nem ratificaram a nova ortografia, como Angola e Moçambique, sendo que o primeiro, ao contrário de Moçambique e Guiné-Bissau, já tem quase mais falantes em português que nas próprias línguas nacionais.

How will the CPLP [Community of Portuguese Language Countries] take off these very tight boots, when there are countries that have not yet ratified the new spelling, such as Angola and Mozambique, considering that the first, unlike Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, has almost more Portuguese speakers than of their national languages.

Talking about Mozambique, Nyikiwa [pt] thought that the country should stop models that much of the time are not in line with their reality:

A questão do acordo ortográfico, quanto a mim mostra claramente que a população não é consultada, nem ouvida. A população apenas serve para votar. Na verdade quem ratifica os documentos quer a nível nacional, quer a nível internacional são os dirigentes, que ignoram o facto de haver diversas culturas e diversos comportamentos no seio de um povo que aparentemente é homogéneo, quiça entre povos de diferentes culturas e comportamentos? Julgo que está na hora de antes de se avançar para esse tipo de acordos, se ausculte o povo e se faça ouvir suas ideias.

The spelling reform issue, I think, clearly shows that the population is neither consulted nor heard. The population is only good to vote. In fact, those who ratify documents, either at national level or international level, are leaders who ignore the fact that there are different cultures and different attitudes within a nation that is seemingly homogeneous, what about between peoples of different cultures and behaviors? I think it is time for, before moving on to such agreements, the people to be heard and that their ideas are voiced.

“– Here's to the spelling reform!
– Poor thing, he is dyslexic and is ever so happy with the multiple spelling words. He says that he will never make a mistake again.
” A cartoon against the agreement by Foram-se os Anéis.

Virgílio Brandão [pt], from Cape Verde, is not too happy either – the blogger also says that apart from Portugal and Brazil, the other Portuguese speaking countries had no say in the process – as if “these other speakers did not exist”:

Não existem senhores nem donos da língua; nem é preciso, em boa verdade, um acordo ortográfico como o que se tenta impor às comunidades falantes do português. Até porque, até me demonstrarem o contrário, a diversidade é um bem estimável.

É por essa razão – para não estarmos presos a um desejado e sub-reptício império da língua – que a língua cabo-verdiana deve ser implementada como língua de trabalho ao nível internacional. Se somos independentes, que o sejamos em tudo, caramba! Quem não tem coragem de fazer o que é preciso, que dê lugar a quem tenha. É, para os cabo-verdianos, uma questão bem mais importante do que aparentemente possa parecer.

There aren't misters or masters of the language; nor is it needed, truth be told, a spelling agreement like the one trying to be imposed on Portuguese speaking communities. Because, until I am shown the contrary, the diversity is highly desirable. It is for that reason – for us not to be tied to a desired and surreptitious empire of the language – that the Cape Verdean language should be implemented as the working language at international level. If we are independent, we should be so in everything, dammit! He who does not have the courage to do what is needed, should give way to those who have it. It is, for the Cape Verdean people, an issue far more important than it may seem.

Portuguese is a Romance language originating in what is now Galicia and northern Portugal. During the Portuguese colonial empire, the language spanned around the world: from Brazil to Goa to Macau, in China, where it still is one of the official languages. Nowadays, Portuguese ranks 6th in a list of languages according to number of native speakers, which makes it one of the world's major languages, with an estimated 240 million speakers in virtually every continent. It is spoken by about 187 million people in South America, 17 million in Africa, 12 million in Europe, 2 million in North America, and 0.61 million in Asia.

27 comments

  • Pedro Pimenta

    For most portuguese sepaking people this is not even an issue. Concerned with their economical and social survival, they have got no time or interest or even strat thinking about these issues.
    This is simply an imposition of Brasil power (demographics, economics, cultural etc..) and that’s it . I do not oppoose to this change simply because this is just how things function these days in our world..
    Lets move on and those who do not want to use the new ortographic way…well very simple …just stick to the old one and be original. I certainly and humanly win’t be able to change my ortography and the way I spell…for the enxt generation its not an issue…Real question is : will the next generation have education opportunities ???

  • Bruno

    Wow is all i have to say. Portuguese language should not be defaced because of colonial destortion.. Its Portuguese language not Brazilian..

  • Rodrigo

    There’s no colonial distortion. Portugal accounts for less than 5% of the world’s Portuguese speakers. Brazil accounts for more than 80%. Portugal has been isolated from the world for over 40 years under Salazar, its language did not evolve and desperately needs to be modernized.

    Kids writing sms’s today won’t be shocked if they learn to write “óptimo” without a “p”.

  • […] Said believes that the Portuguese language spelling reform will not make the main variants of the language uniform. Commenting on a BBC news which states […]

  • Acacio ANgel

    Hi,
    changes in ortogaphico is needed right now, things are changing drastically, people want to move fast and build the empire sooner. I do acknowledge that Portugues represent a people but I do not share the same sentiment with those who defends so hard to mantain the old spellings. Look, os Americanos uses english in all their technologies and are in power right now. Portugal, as many say, belongs to the past. But we can make it the “present” too if we want. THousand of youth in TImor Leste, for instance, prefer to learn English than POrtugues despite of the great historical affection we have. Brasil is the future of Portugues and it has all that needed to bring the language to be one of the great language in the world. In the globalized world, to stay – passive – means to be left behind. Well, we can not afford to wait another train, do we?

  • […] leído esta mañana la magnífica entrada de Paulissima en Global Voices acerca de una noticia de la BBC anunciando una nueva ortografía portuguesa y 190 millones de […]

  • […] was alerted this morning by Paulissima’s excellent post on Global Voices to a BBC News article announcing a new Portuguese spelling reform, which 190 million Brazilian […]

  • I’m a 28 years old Portuguese and i will never change the way i write or speak. I will even make an effort so that my children will speak the old language (European and African) and not the way they speak on the Brazilian TV soap operas. I have nothing agaist the Portuguese language evolution in Brazil which I find fantastic, but, that is not the continental version. It’s not my version. It’s not Europe nor African Portuguese.

  • Following on Acácio, Timorese children have struggled to learn Portuguese. Whether or not it is the right language for Timor (cuidado neste ponto!), it has been difficult for lack of reading materials.

    On top of it, donations and materials have come from Brazil and Portugal. Both Portuguese and Brazilians have been working with the Ministry of Education in different sectors and in the Ministry of Justice, I imagine it has been difficult to verify a universal Portuguese in what has been produced.

    The Accord would be welcome relief to Timorese students.

    Apparently Timor signed the Accord in 2004 but has yet to ratify as far as I know…

  • What A Joke

    This has got to be the biggest joke in all of the “luso” speaking countries.

    This is the reality of the portuguese speakers around the world:

    Mozambique:52% of the population is illiterate.

    Guinea-Bissau:63% of the population is illiterate.

    Angola:58% of the population is illiterate.

    East Timor:40% of the population is illiterate.

    Cape Verde:25% of the population is illiterate.

    Sao Tome and Principe:20% of the population is illiterate.

    *Brazil (updated data): illiteracy rate of persons over 15 years of age decreased from 14.7% to 10%; however, there were still a number of persons who could not read or write: 14.1 million illiterate ones…

    sources:
    -http://www.cbl.org.br/content.php?recid=6464&type=N

    *http://www.ibge.gov.br/english/presidencia/noticias/noticia_impressao.php?id_noticia=1233

    The data posted is of people who can not read or write(illiterate).

    The data for people who are classified as ‘functionally illiterate’ is actually even higher in all of the countries.

    To make matters even more confusing,countries in Africa who are officially portuguese speaking have more than one language spoken other than ‘portuguese’.Portuguese is not the first language which the citizens use as a first language of communication within those countries anyway.

    Example:

    “Mozambique, for example, the illiteracy rate reaches 56.2% of the population, that even with the Portuguese as official language, together with more than 25 national languages and 33 dialects, according to the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO).”
    http://www.abrelivros.org.br/abrelivros/texto.asp?id=1813

    And they say the problem of communication is a few silent letters?It never the problem!

    The real issue is between Portugal and Brazil.Brasilians claim to be proud of speaking portuguese but yet the push for spelling changes is from Brazil.

    This is not the first time in which Brazil has changed portuguese and Portugal followed.

    This ridiculous ‘Orthographic Agreement’ serves in the interest of Brazil and not the rest of the “luso” world.The rest of the “luso” speaking countries of the world was already in reform of “Gonçalves Viana”.

    Now every country Portugal,Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, and East Timor Macau and Indian territories of Goa, Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli has to change.

    The lie being spread is that the brasilian way is easiest and will help to combat illiteracy.When the reality is Brazil will not be changing anything or very little, therefor no money spent on changes.And with Brazil with 90% of speakers of portuguese anyway it’s easy to see why.

    Illiteracy is the real issue and the fabricated issue to cover up the interests of Brazil who produce the largest shares of printing portuguese books is that the reform is needed to help with illiteracy!What a joke.

    Combating illiteracy means building schools and spending money for education.With education society of the country will benefit from better health to better conditions of living ect ect.

    Corruption is the second bigget problem of the “luso” world.Even education will stop corruption because the citizens of the country will be able to read and write so that they can vote out corrupted officials.

    The problem is not that portuguese needs a reform it is that the “luso” countries individually need to address and reform there own country in the way they are neglecting EDUCTION.

    As I said in the first sentence the biggest joke in the “luso” world.

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