28 October 2013

Americanisms in Portuguese (Part 1)

For years now the defenders of the French language, the Académie Française, have fought valiantly against the insidious contamination of French by English-language words and expressions. The Académie believes that French is rich enough not to need terms like "un briefing" (they prefer une réunion préparatoire), "prime time" (l’heure de grande écoute) and "éco-friendly" (respectueux de l’environnement), among many, many others. I once took quite an interest in that fight, but find myself tuning out the longer I live in Brazil. Of much more immediate interest to me are the Americanisms that are constantly popping up in Portuguese. These English words have their detractors here, too, and I’ll touch on the efforts being made in Brazil to contain the spread of English in next week’s blog. Today I’ll concentrate on the eagerness of regular Brazilians to receive these invaders with open arms.

Most Brazilians know that these adopted words come from English, but the words have so insinuated themselves into everyday usage that it doesn’t even seem to matter anymore. I enjoy tripping over them while reading some article or other: "numa sala cheia de objetos vintage," "o cover une todos os estilos," "carros para levar e trazer o staff," "para mim, é um hobby," and"empresas com know-how e experiênça." The list is enormous and ever-growing: sale, upgrade, test drive, check-up, offshore, hub, show, recall, hit, DJ, skate, chip, royalty, penalty, ranking, piercing, mouse, tablet, pen drive, site and personal trainer. In most cases there are Portuguese equivalents, but no one feels the need to use them.

But Mark and I have sometimes gone from being amused to being downright puzzled. There are some English words that are spelled and pronounced as if they were Portuguese, and many people don’t even know that they are from English. So it often takes those of us who are native speakers of English a few beats before we realize what’s being discussed. In this group we have "blecaute" (pronounced blehk-OUCH-ee) for blackout, "nocaute" (nauk-OUCH-ee) for knockout, "picape" (pick-AHP-ee) for pickup, and my all-time favorite, "raquear" (HAHK-ay-ar), to hack, though it took me quite some time to figure that one out, forgetting as I momentarily did that in Portuguese the initial "r" is pronounced like a hard "h."

There are also English words that are spelled the English way, but pronounced as if they were Portuguese. So when we just hear the word, instead of seeing it written, we really have no idea at first what’s being said since we’re not expecting to hear English in a Portuguese-language conversation. "Don’t buy a new bath cleaner," my cleaning woman tells me. "Just buy a HEE-fiu." A what? I desperately want to get her what she needs to clean, so . . . a what? HEE-fiu, HEE-fiu! I ask her to write it down. A refill! Oh . . . And while doing some new electrical wiring in the house, I remember being asked if we wanted a JIM-ehr. Here we go again . . . a what? JIM-ehr, JIM-ehr! We were in the electric supply store, so the electrician pointed the product out. Aha! A dimmer!

Another English word that’s been cropping up here of late is "bullying." Fine as long as it’s written in a newspaper article. But when it’s just pronounced, even enunciated carefully by a news anchor? Takes a while before the penny drops. You’ve got two "Ls" there in the middle, which in Portuguese are pronounced, but very, very softly, and the "y" and the final "g" are simply ignored. So what’s left? Something that sounds like BULH-eenh. I think that in this case the Brazilians might consider sticking to their very own "intimidação física e psicológica" — even though it lacks the punch that "bullying" packs!

21 October 2013


I bet you’re all wondering, "This is it? Are you really going to write a blog about a two-letter word? Are you that desperate for topics?" Well, yes and no. Yes, I am writing about it, and no, I’m not desperate for topics. Here in Brazil it is actually a topic unto itself (no pun, etc.), especially for language lovers. Portuguese speakers are hard-wired not to say the direct or indirect object it (because for them it’s understood), and they can’t imagine why we English speakers seem to need it so. We of course are hard-wired to say it, and can’t imagine how the Brazilians can drop it. How do you know what you’re talking about? Well, I’m told, you just do, so get with the program. (Or, as we would say, "Get with it!")

The first time this issue surfaced I was opening a present from a friend. "Gostou?" (Did you like?) she asked, as I succeeded in ripping off the wrapping paper. I knew the correct answer was "Gostei!" (I liked!) Now, this is good Portuguese, but it all sounded — and profoundly felt — wrong to me. First, there’s the fact that the exchange is conducted in the past tense, which seems strange because I’d only just unwrapped the present. I mean, we’re talking seconds here. But also, it seems wrong because without that direct object you’re just treading water. I need the it. Did you like it? Yes, I liked it. Otherwise, for us it’s baby talk, you know?

I’ve made a real effort to ignore it when speaking Portuguese. In point of fact, it’s become almost natural — normal even. I kind of get it. But I have found it hard to convince Brazilians who are learning to speak English of the importance of it. They don’t need it, so they don’t even hear it. For younger students I try to appeal to their everlasting love and admiration for Michael Jackson. I mean, listen carefully to this song. He’s not singing "Beat, beat," is he?

An awful lot of English-language communication would fall apart without the all-important it. Remember what our parents told us about our brains? They sure didn’t say "use or lose." 
And did your mother tell you that "You can’t have your cake and eat too"? I don’t think so. Can you imagine those old American Express card commercials, with that sonorous voice intoning, "Don’t leave home without!" Without what? Did Cole Porter write "Birds do, bees do, even educated fleas do?" No, because that would make English speakers scream, "Do what?!" (The actual title in Portuguese: Façamos — Let’s Do!) And what if you called the classic Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis-Marilyn Monroe movie, "Some Like Hot!" I mean really, people, let’s get serious here. In that particular title it’s the it that’s it — isn’t it?

14 October 2013

Comin' 'n Goin'

The very first time Mark and I heard of the direito de ir e vir (the right to come and go) we were driving home with a friend. We had turned off the main road into our street only to be immediately blocked by a large political rally being held by one of the candidates for mayor. There was a huge platform set up in the middle of the street for speechifying, there were dozens of food and drink stands, and there were hundreds of people milling about, laughing and eating and dancing. Our friend, a Rio native, was scandalized. "How about our right to ir e vir?" she yelled at a cop. Well, you could tell the cop was a bit intimidated by a citizen who loudly demanded her constitutional rights, so he began to clear a path for our car. I don’t remember exactly how we managed to get through the rally and reach our house, but it took a lot of careful maneuvering and a certain amount of creative sidewalk driving.

Since that night I have heard this ir-e-vir thing referred to a lot. The right of Brazilians to move about freely in Brazilian territory appears in Article 5 of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, though the actual words "ir" and "vir" are not in the article. (Calling it the right to ir e vir has simply become a convention.) We Americans, too, have the right to freedom of movement, found in the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Section 2, Article IV of our Constitution. Originally defined narrowly — if fancifully — by the courts as the "right of free ingress into other States, and egress from them," it has been redefined and extended repeatedly over the years. Nowadays we can pretty much come and go as we please, taking freedom of movement as much for granted as we take freedom of association and freedom of expression.

In Brazil the right to ir e vir is invoked so often, and with such conviction, that one might think it’s the most sacred of constitutional rights. It’s certainly the right I most hear about, from friends, in on-the-street interviews on television news shows, and I read about it in newspaper and magazine articles. I’ve even used it myself! And it seems to trump all other rights and laws, like the Brazilian Transit Code, for example. You’re stopped at a Stop sign, like the good driver you are? Watch out, because the guy behind you has the right to ir e vir, and you can be sure he’s going to claim it, even if it means going through you. The idea of alternate merge? You’re joking. There’s no alternating when everyone claims the right to ir e vir all at the same time. You’ve stopped at a pedestrian crossing to let the little old lady cross the street? Better hope she crosses fast, because the guy behind you . . . you get the idea.

The right to ir e vir also seems to trump good behavior. Check out the poster pictured here. It’s part of a publicity campaign to get people to put their right to ir e vir into proper perspective on public transportation. "You have the right to come and go," the poster concedes. But then it continues: "And you have the duty to respect your fellow passengers." Then it goes on to explain in detail just how to respect your fellow passengers. Oh, well, it’s time to go, so I’m outta here. After all, it’s my right.

"My, people come and go so quickly here!"

07 October 2013

That Coveted Garage Parking Space

Mark and I used to belong to an organization in New York called Audience Extras. For a small annual fee we had access to a wide choice of theatrical events for just $3 apiece on a last-minute basis. Seats that would otherwise have been vacant got filled and we got to go to the theater at low cost. It was a real win-win. We saw innumerable shows through Audience Extras, very few of which either of us remembers. What we do remember, though, are the venues, because outside of a few theaters actually on Broadway, most of the plays on the Audience Extras list were in interesting off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway spaces. They were mounted in drafty old factories, in churches, in no-longer-used schools, and in rooms hidden away on the upper floors of Lower East Side commercial buildings. Sometimes our seats were right on stage, sometimes we had to stand around the edges of the set. But the play that Mark and I just saw this past weekend in Rio de Janeiro wins the prize for the most unforgettable venue.

Garagem (Garage) tells the story of a guy who loses his job and his marriage, and finds himself with no place to live. While going through his papers he finds the deed to a second garage space in his name in the condominium where his ex-wife still lives, and decides to move down to his space and live there. What really makes the play is that it’s set in a real garage, specifically on Garage Level 3 of Rio Sul shopping center. As it happens, this particular section of Garage Level 3 is slated to become part of the shopping center’s movie complex, but the shopping center agreed to turn it over to the play’s producers for two months. The producers mounted a large "set" with enough room to park 15 cars, along with an elevator and 80 seats for the audience. This was seriously cool.

There was a time when stories were set in hotel lobbies, because that was where people "milled about" and crossed paths with others (Grand Hotel comes to mind). Dining rooms were also good meeting places (Separate Tables) as were train stations (Brief Encounter). But this fresh idea of using a condominium garage as the place where people come and go and interact is as original as it seems obvious. Once I dismissed the thought that crossed my mind a few times about the slight danger of our sitting right in the midst of fast-moving cars ("Mark, what if the brakes fail tonight?!") I was able to get into the story. Billed as a comedy — and indeed there were plenty of garage and parking jokes — the play turned fairly tragic at the end. (However, as a former New York co-op board president I had to appreciate how the building’s resident manager finally outmaneuvered the poor guy in the garage space.)

Just get the car and go . . . but  imagine living here!
This has to have been the easiest cultural event we’ve ever attended in Rio. In a city where parking spaces are getting harder and harder to come by, there sure was plenty of parking! After the last bows were taken, Mark and I blithely strolled up to Garage Level 4 and drove home. Too bad the plan is to turn this great theater space over to enlarge an already too large movie complex. But I’m glad to have seen Garagem before it moves to São Paulo, into some parking garage there.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TROPICAL DAYDREAMS! Wednesday marks my two-year blog anniversary. When I started blogging, I thought I would do it for just one year, yet here I am at the two-year mark. One year more?