THE CHARM OF PORTUGUESE
If you are still not yet a fan of the Portuguese language, Dr. A. W. Glyn Court‘s opinion on the subject might persuade you to have a “thrill of pleasure” ( to use his own words) learning this charming language. Let’s see what he wrote in the “New Linguist” in August 1974.
“I, José da Silva, who am dying of hunger in the little cavern on the north side of the mountain where there is no snow…” How many of us can still recall the thrill of excitement with which we read as children the message of this long-gone Portuguese adventurer in King Solomon’s Mines!
But for most of us, Dom José’s letter, “escrita com um pedaço de osso e o meu sangue num pano da minha roupa” – though I quote from memory – has remained the total of our Portuguese reading.
Learning languages is one of my hobbies, and since it is impossible to master any language to perfection, even one’s mother tongue, I hold it better to acquire a working knowledge of as much as possible, if only because each new literature multiplies one’s facilities for understanding and enjoyment.
But a wholly irrational reservation had kept me from Portuguese, simply the subconscious memory of an unfortunate phrase from George Borrow – “to hear the sonorous Castilian after the whining tones of Portugal” – and my daughter’s gift of ‘Teach Yourself Portuguese’ remained unopened for two years, until a colleague asked to start up a Sixth Form Course in the language.
I do not like to have a language in the department that I cannot cope with, so down came the book and, to my surprise, unlimited enjoyment began.
No language has ever given me more pleasure to learn. It has been a succession of baroque discoveries, for although Portuguese has, of course, the familiar Latin basis, the sound-changes over the centuries have been so considerable and ‘unexpected” that one has a recurrent thrill of pleasure. Latin and Spanish ‘pla-’ appear as ‘pra-’ (la plaza – a praça; la playa – a praia), ‘ple-‘ (Spanish ‘lle-‘) becomes ‘che-‘ (plenum, lleno, cheio);
intervocalic nasals and dentals disappear (mediem becomes meio, senum – seio); the diminuitives are delightful: Luísa – Luisinha; doente (ill) – doentita (slightly ill); manhã (morning) – manhãzinha (early in the morning); fascinating peculiarities of construction await you at every turn: the object pronouns are used as suffixes to the verbs and combine with one another: mando-os (I send them);
mando-lhe (I send to him); mando-lhos (I send them to him); in the future and conditional tenses the object pronouns are epenthetic: falarão (they will speak), falar-me-ão (they will speak to me); and there are even personal infinitives: pôr a mesa (to lay the table) – depois de pormos a mesa (after we laid the table): so that all the time the unexpected adds spice to the familiar.
There are many words of Moorish extraction and a few which are the legacy of distant Swabian ancestors, and through all the language runs a gentle, rarely melancholy musicality which, while it does not permit the sonorous pride of the Castilian, makes it the perfect medium for a patient, hospitable people, a people who are acquainted with poverty and grief but still know the virtue of laughter.
The pronunciation is not easily come by. Consonants vary according to their position and even, it seems, arbitrarily; vowels vary according to stress; the Portuguese elide many vowels and nasalize the rest, and the nasalized triphthongs are both delightful and unique.
At the cost of comparatively little labour I have reached the stage at which a whole new literature is opened up: the voyages of the explorers, half a century and more before our own Elizabethans and every whit as daring; the exploits of Vasco da Gama and a whole high-spirited nation as recounted and transmuted in the matchless high Renaissance epic of Camões’s Os Lusíadas;
the gentle humour and pathos of country life in Julio Diniz, the passionate intensity of the novels of Camilo Castelo Branco, the panoramic scope of Alexandro Herculano, and, perhaps most rewarding of all, the elegiac tone of so much lyric poetry from the fourteenth century even up to the present day, that tone caught so perfectly and deepened with self questioning by Fernando Pessoa: Montes e a paz que há neles, pois são longe… (…)
Economic and numerical arguments for learning a language often seem to me unconvincing, and I am not pressing the claims of the 100,000,000 Lusophones against the 90,000,000 speakers of German and the 70,000,000 speakers of French. Notorious and suspect are statistics, in any case! But for sheer delight – which ought to be a persuasive argument for a linguist – I know of no languge and no literature to excel it.
I hope these remarks will induce a reader here and a reader there to set out on the same voyage of exploration and prove the truth of these traveller’s tales for himself."
Just one word about Dr. Court’s statistics of Lusophones (Portuguese-speaking natives): they are too low, even though we know they date back to 1974.
Present-day statistics regarding the top 10 languages in the world show that, if we include languages spoken only locally, like Mandarin or Bengali, Portuguese is top five;
if we consider world-wide spoken languages, Portuguese is top three in the ranking, according to the following order: Spanish (350 million), English (340 million), Portuguese (203 million).
© Dulce Rodrigues