26 March 2012

Why, Oh Why, Oh Why, Oh . . .

A few years ago I had a very intelligent Brazilian lawyer taking private English lessons with me here in Búzios. But he had one obstacle in his otherwise solid progress, so I decided to try a visual aid. I came to class one day carrying a large letter Y with me. I plunked it down on the desk. "This is a Y," I said, "The 25th letter of the English alphabet. It is considered a semivowel. When you see it at the end of an English word, you must pronounce it. You must." My student nodded, laughed, and the lesson began. No more than ten minutes passed when he began to talk about the years he spent in the Brazilian Neiv. (I'm writing it phonetically because if I write it "nave," native English speakers will see and hear "neiv" but Brazilians will see and hear "nei-vee" because Brazilians pronounce that final e that is normally silent in English and, you see, it's all very confusing.) I held up my cardboard letter Y. "Say it again," I prompted. "Neiv," he said, confused. "Nei-VEE," I said. "Vee, vee, vee, you must pronounce the Y." This was years ago. Our lessons dwindled to a precious few, then ended, and I still regret having lost that battle.

It's a battle I continue to lose. Brazilians, as a group, learn English quickly and speak it very, very well, almost with no accent. But even some of the most competent Brazilian speakers of English drop the Y. And why shouldn't they? It's simply not part of their alphabet, or wasn't until 1990, when it was welcomed into the fold by yet another in a long series of spelling reforms. In fact, three letters were welcomed that year, Y, K and W. Brazilians do fine with the K, after all, they know all about kilograms, and the W is not a problem, given the penchant of Brazilians for naming their kids Washington, Wellington and Wagner. But they don't know what in the world to do with the Y. So most of the time they just ignore it.  I think they're hoping we won't notice.

Which leads to some charmingly confusing moments. Take Tom Brady. In the U.S. he's best known as the quarterback for the New England Patriots. But in Brazil, he's known as the husband of Gisele Bündchen, Brazil's greatest gift to the modeling world, and he's called "Tomee Breid" — dropping the Y and adding "ee" to the final M. In conversation, it takes a while for native English speakers to get it.

Same thing with poor Amy. When she died, we heard about it over and over again on the news. Took us a few beats before realizing who it was, since the announcers were all speaking about the tragic death of Eim WineHAUzee.

I was galloping along pretty well one day in Portuguese, talking about this and that, when my interlocutor asked if I liked "Bub SHORchee." Well, I couldn't think of anyone with that name in Brazil. "Quem (who)?" I asked. "Bub SHORchee, Bub SHORchee!" It took some minutes before I found myself finally saying, "Oh, yes, I love Bobby Short!" "Quem?" my friend asked.

Well, there are many examples, each more charming than other. We hear the most competent announcers on Radio MEC, Brazil's classical radio station, say, "You've just heard the Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35, of Tchaikovsk." I find that amusing, but I'm easily amused. And speaking of "easily," there's my biggest challenge in English classes. The word "ease" (eez) tends to be pronounced "ee-zee" here, and the word "easy" (ee-zee) tends to be pronounced "eez." As for that letter Y . . . I know it will continue to be dropped, and I know I will continue to lean forward, waiting for that last syllable that I'm wired to hear.


  1. Hi! You have an interesting blog!

    You are right! I have Brazilian friends with whom I communicate mostly in English (also in Portuñol) and that's how they do it!
    I wonder what Brazilians then say of how we speak their language! haha (I actually know, there are many videos on YouTube teasing Argies with the way we speak Brazilian Portuguese!)

  2. Glad you're enjoying the blog, Aledys! Thanks for your comment!