Saturday, March 14, 2009

English versus Brazilian Portuguese

The Financial Times invited a series of guest columnists to opine about the future of capitalism this week, and one of those guests was the president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula's essay ("The Future of Human Beings is What Matters"), which was mocked by a letter writer later in the week1, doesn't offer much revelation. Lula recounts his hardscrabble background, which may be of interest to those still unfamiliar with his biography, and describes some of Brazil's recent successes in growing its economy while increasing aid to its poor. In truth though, the Brazilian president deserves more credit for what he hasn't done. He has avoided the radical populist policies of some of his neighbors, and Brazil has continued some sensible macroeconomic policies on his watch. As a result, it looks to be in a better position to weather the current downturn.

That op/ed by the Brazilian president reminded me of something I read years ago, a comparison of American English to Brazilian Portuguese in Mark Helprin's 1997 novel, Memoir from an Antproof Case. The speaker below, the narrator of Helprin's novel, is an elderly American who has settled in Brazil after a long and rather picaresque life, and teaches English at the Brazilian naval academy in Rio de Janeiro:

Portuguese is a magnificent language -- Intimate, sensual, and fun. The great poets make it sound like a musical incantation of slurred elisions and rhythmic dissolves, and day-to-day, corrupted, vital, and undisciplined, it is ideal for the dissolute life of a modern city, though what it gains in humor and intimacy it loses in precision and resolution. In fact, it is, when compared to English, almost like a baby language.

Do not misinterpret me. I love baby language, for babies, but among adults it can be rather annoying, especially if you have been here thirty years with not a day of relief, having arrived fully formed and mature, and having come, as I did, from a place where language is not a perfumed cushion but a tightly strung bow that sends sharp arrows into the heart of everything.

The language of my boyhood was the language of ice and steel. It had the strong and lovely cadence of engines in a trance. The song of the world in snow, it was woefully inadequate for conveying material ecstasy, but more than enough for the expression of spiritual triumph.

Portuguese of course isn't a "baby language", but it does lend itself well to song, for reasons Helprin lyrically describes above.

The photo above is a snapshot Cheryl took a few years ago of part of Rio de Janeiro from the top of one of the local tourist sites, Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) mountain.

1Letter writer Prof. Alex Callinicos wrote, in part:

Sir, I’m delighted to learn that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, thinks that “the future of human beings is what matters” (March 10). Evidently your series on the Future of Capitalism is stimulating real thinking outside the box. But even worse than the familiar banalities of grandees (at least you seem to be sparing us Bono) is your own special pleading.

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