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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

  • What A Joke

    I want to comment on ‘Giant panda’ opinion.

    Portugal and Brazil of course are the only ones making donations for portuguese matierials.But if Brazil was really concerned with portuguese in Timor it would supply and help with portuguese that is already commonly used in Timor.

    Now to make matters worse the portuguese language in Timor has to change meaning Brazil is the number one supplier on “brasilian portuguese” in a country where european portuguese has always been taught!

    I suspect the reason why Timorese children are having difficulty learning portuguese has to do with the fact that it is most likely a language not used at home and a language not used as a way of communication in the day to day life.

    Do not tell me it has to do with the fact that there few reading materials.

    Fact of the matter is the educational system in Timor is not by majority portuguese speaking or taught anyway.So sending public funds from Portugal or Brazil is absolutely ridiculous,considering the fact that Portugal and Brazil do not have the public funds anyway!If anything the donations should be made by private non-profit organizations.

    Since I am on the topic of “Luso” world and charitable donations can anyone name me one independent watchdog group from any portuguese speaking country which watches and reports on the charitable funds??How they are being used, where they are being used and if they are being used how much of it is actually used as a donation and where the majority of the money ends up.

    I have yet to see any oversight.

  • Dear What a Joke

    I’m not going to argue with you about Brazil’s interest in the Agreement. You clearly have a chip on your shoulder.

    As for Timorese education, the issue of official languages aside, which is a Timorese choice, there are plenty of countries in the world where children learn to read, write and speak in a language in school that they do not speak at home.

    In many parts of Indonesia this is the case, and children learn Indonesian through a combination of television and school.

    Books make all of the difference. Timorese community organizations rightly take whatever donations they can get of reading materials. (Are you suggesting these be monitored?)

    Have you ever been to a place where there is virtually NO accessible written material in the official language? Timorese people are so thirsty for reading material that when a floating bookstore arrived late last year, people waited in long lines to get in.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jp-esperanca/3147148834/in/pool-easttimor

    In the education sector in Timor, there are no mystery “Luso” agencies at work. It is the Portuguese government and the Brazilian government.

    Portuguese and Brazilian bilateral aid budgets are public, if you would like to read more, just do a little research. The Timorese government also reports on its budget execution so you can track what aid has been spent where.

    And FYI, Brazil is a net donor country now on the world stage, even though it does not like to advertise that fact. So it does have money to spend.

  • Lino Goncalves

    The spelling reform has not gone far enough to truly unify the language across all lusophone countries. However, the changes are still positive and will mean that the difference in spelling between Brazil and Portugal will be comparable in magnitude to those of the USA and the UK in the English language.
    In the portuguese and brazilian media it often claimed by officials that portuguese is the only major european language with two spelling norms – they clearly don’t know the differences in standards between the US and the rest of the English-speaking world. An these differences have not stopped the dominance on English today.
    I will adopt the new spelling reforms, but what is truly need in the lusophone world is more exposure of each countries variets of the language and cultures. I was in Brazil on holiday for 6 weeks and did not hear a single song from Portugal, Angola, etc. Same goes for TV, Cinema. You’d be hard-pressed to find a book from a Portuguese author bar perhaps those from Jose Saramago.

  • jordan

    i am greek, i speak greek as mother tongue, english, french and italian as foreign languages and i really enjoy your discussion.it gives me hope that if such an issue as the one discussed is still so important for the speakers of a language other than english, multilingualism in the world will continue for ever and ever. i totally angry with João Leitão.agapi from greece.

  • Angela

    I don’t think this reform is a bad thing to happen to the Portuguese language. See the Spanish language. Its orthography is easier to learn than Portuguese, the grammar seems simplified when compared to Portuguese grammar. People speak Spanish in different ways all over the world, but the basic orthography is the same. Portuguese written language needs to evolve in this new globalized world. Let’s forget about fighting which version of Portuguese is better. Let’s unite ourselves in one Portuguese language.

  • This is clealry a sensitive issue in the Lusophonic world, and rightly so.

    I personally like local and national linguistic distinctivness and inimitability. These are what give communities and cultures and regions and nations uniqueness. Wouldn’t the word be a more boring (though somewhat simpler place) if everything was streamlined into charcterless and manageable uniformity?!

    As an intermediate (Brasilian)-Portugues speaker I do understand the desire on some fronts for linguistic clarity and uniformity. I also understand that internationally the Portugues language ultimately is represented in today’s world by Brasil. No doubt in the future European Portugues will lose even more of its influence internationally (outside of the Eurozone that is).

    I don’t think that Portugues usage needs to be united, but perhaps Portugues grammer could be simplified.

    Read the blog:
    http://www.craigdylan.blospot.com

    Craig Dylan – The Abstract Gaucho

  • jt

    It wouldn’t all be bad, if it wasn’t for the poor execution. Corner cases still abound in the use of hyphens.

    Not only that, dropping the acute accent in the diphtongues of paroxytones (so “idéia” becomes “ideia”) was totally dumb. This renders Portuguese a language whose writing does not match the reading.

    On the other hand, in terms on information technology, it helps to have a single dictionary. Currently, people have to keep up different customizations for both the Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese versions.

  • […] Not everybody is happy, as you can tell. In my case, it was as if my mother had just deserted me. In this case, it was actually just my mother tongue, but still I felt a bit betrayed after all those years learning when to use diacritics, accents and hyfens. Then I found that the Portuguese alphabet had grown to 26 letters, adding K, W and Y. As a kid in kindergarten it annoyed me that I could not spell my own name using the letters in the wood blocks. So it’s not only bad news after all. […]

  • […] Not everybody is happy, as you can tell. In my case, it was as if my mother had just deserted me. In this case, it was actually just my mother tongue, but still I felt a bit betrayed after all those years learning when to use diacritics, accents and hyfens. Then I found that the Portuguese alphabet had grown to 26 letters, adding K, W and Y. As a kid in kindergarten it annoyed me that I could not spell my own name using the letters in the wood blocks. So it’s not only bad news after all. […]

  • cilene

    this post is not available in portuguese.

    =/

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