Category Archive: Language

Dec 12

Interruptions and Interjections

interruptions

 

When I first arrived in Rio, I naively thought that once I had a good grasp of Portuguese my communication woes would be over. What I went on to discover is that the actual language is just part of the challenge. The rules of conversation here are quite different.

While a certain amount of interruption is common in English, I found that Cariocas take the art of interruption to new heights. These interruptions were pretty annoying at first – I would be trying to describe some event or experience but the person I was talking to wouldn’t let me finish a sentence! And even when the person I was talking too was listening attentively, someone else would come along and barge in with their own topic with little regard for the fact that we were already speaking about something else!

I later found that Cariocas (this may or may not apply to Brazilians in general) have a suite of verbal tricks to counteract the constant interruptions:

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Nov 14

Brazilian Body Slang

homem-camarao

Homem Camarão image source

 

People can be cruel can’t they? They can also be pretty hilarious and at times the line between the two can be oh so slender. Just the other day I was absentmindedly listening in on a conversation between Mrs Eat Rio and one of her friends (let’s call her Maria) when I heard something strange. The conversation was focussing on one of Maria’s ex-boyfriends who, according to the conversation, had been rather dull and a complete gym-freak. What Maria said next caught my attention – she described the guy as a camarão.

“A camarão?” I thought to myself, “He was a shrimp?”. What could that possibly mean? Was his skin a strange shade of orangey-pink? Or perhaps he was kind of stinky? Wrong! It turns out that this is a way of referring to someone who has a tasty body but an ugly face. So, so cruel…(but also made me chuckle).

This set me off wondering what other funny phrases there are to describe people’s body parts. Turns out there are quite a few:

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Nov 08

I pooed and walked…

If I were feeling particularly pretentious creative, I might choose to describe learning Portuguese as being like an epic journey with no end. At the start there is the excitement of heading off into the unknown, when every step is accompanied by some new and exciting discovery (think Bilbo as he sets off from the Shire).

Bilbo-leaving-the-shire

I’m off on an adventure! A language adventure!

 

Later on you realise how far you have to go, you hit frustrating obstacles and exhausting uphill sections. Staying with the metaphor (apologies), there are also those great moments when you can look back and enjoy the view, realising how far you’ve come and how much you’ve achieved.

And (still with the metaphor) then there are the times you stumble across something truly odd, half-hidden on the side of the track. You pick it up and turn it over in your hand. ‘What is this?’ you ask your befuddled self. Well I discovered one such linguistic oddity just a few weeks ago.

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Jul 19

Ah Moleque!

In my ongoing quest to learn Portuguese, there have been certain words and phrases that have proven difficult to pick up and use with confidence. A commonly cited ‘tricky’ Portuguese word is “saudade“, that profound feeling of wistful longing; sadness offset with a wan smile. But in my experience, although saudade is a tricky word to explain (see previous sentence), it’s an easy word to feel, to understand and therefore to use.

The words I find most tricky are the ones that have multiple meanings depending on context. Gírias (slang words) and Palavrões (swear words) are probably the main culprits.

One such word that I still find a little bamboozling is moleque (sounds like “mul-ECK-y”). The dictionary on my phone lists the following translations: (nouns) urchin, scoundrel, young person; (adjectives) mischievous, funny. Google Translate gives me 2 nouns: kid and imp.

Ah-moleque

Dis iz da street-spelling innit…

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May 07

Nhac Nhac!

Some time ago I installed a Portuguese-English dictionary on my phone. It’s really useful as it doesn’t need an internet connection and it has the handy feature of keeping a list of all the words you look up – a ready-made revision list for when you’re feeling studious. It’s not 100% perfect though – there are rare occasions when it doesn’t list a word I’m looking for. This happened last weekend when we were in Cachoeira Paulista.

The word I was looking for begins with “Nh” which still strikes me as a strange combination of letters to start a word with. As far as I can tell (disclaimer: I know even less about Spanish than I do about Portuguese) “Nh” in Portuguese is the equivalent of the Spanish “Ñ” – it makes that “nya” sound that you hear in words like “new” and “lasagna” (jeez, now I’m straying into Italian! Turn back!).

When I checked my phone dictionary for words beginning with “Nh”, I found just 2 entries:

Nhoque

This is how Portuguese speakers spell Gnocchi, those little dumplings you find at the cheap end of the menu in Italian restaurants. It’s actually a great word to illustrate how the Portuguese language takes a word from abroad and adapts the spelling to fit the rules of Portuguese. As far as I know (disclaimer number 2), a word beginning with “Gn” would be pronounced “Ge-ne” (with a hard g), so they replaced that with the “Nh”. To make a hard “Ke” sound they needed to use “que”, so you end up with an identical sounding word that is spelt completely differently!

Gnocchi

Gnocchi, Nhoque, Ñoqui (Italian, Portuguese, Spanish). Source

 

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Apr 19

Good Morning, Good Afternoon and Goodnight!

Good morning everyone! Hmm, a time-of-day specific salutation like ‘good morning’ doesn’t make much sense on a blog page that can be read in any time-zone and at any time of day after it’s been published does it? Here in Brazil, time-of-day-specific salutations come in 3 flavours:

Bom dia (sounds like ‘bown JEE-ya’) – Good morning

Boa tarde (sounds like ‘boa TAHR-je’) – Good afternoon

Boa noite (sounds like ‘boa NOY-tche’) – Good night

 

And already I’ve run into trouble. “Bom dia” literally means ‘good day’, but it is used in the way that English speakers say ‘good morning’ (i.e. not used after midday). Also, I’ve translated “boa noite” as ‘good night’, but it is also used in the way that English speakers would say ‘good evening’. Everyone still with me?

Back in England I know instinctively when to switch from ‘good afternoon’ to ‘good evening’ – around 5.30pm – but here in Brazil, I am far less sure about when to make the switch from ‘Boa tarde’ to ‘Boa noite’.

For some reason it always seems to be taxi drivers who correct me when I get it wrong (and they appear to take great pleasure in doing so I might add!). However, seeing as several taxi drivers have wished me ‘bom dia’ at just a few minutes past midnight, I’m not sure I’m going to take too many lessons from them!

 

Taxista-carioca

The Carioca taxi driver. The caption that goes with this image says “he drives with his elbow out the window, pretends the air conditioning has broken down [TL: they always do this!] and definitely doesn’t believe that a straight line is the shortest path between two points!”. See the original post (in Portuguese) here it’s pretty funny!

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Apr 12

Brazilian Portuguese Tom

He tossed the coin up and I called “Heads!” – he looked down and the expression that appeared on his face told me I’d lost. My friend and I were 18, travelling round New Zealand and had just decided which of us was going to make a rather awkward phone call.

One of us had to call up the bus company and arrange a spot on the bus that was coming through town the next day. The problem was that we were staying in a town called Whakapapa.

whakapapa-tongariro

Whakapapa is in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand. Like much of New Zealand, it is spectacular. Source

 

“Er… so what? Just call up and tell them you’re in Whakapapa!” I expect you’re thinking. Well we had just read in our guide book that the Maori pronunciation of the letters “Wha” should sound like “Fu”. Seriously? One of us had to phone up a stranger and say all bright and breezy: “Hi there! Can I book two seats on the bus from Fuckapapa tomorrow?”.

Looking back I can’t think why we were so reluctant to make the call, but as slightly timid 18 year olds I guess neither of us felt very confident about this whole “Fuckapapa” thing (was that really the proper way to say it?). For the record, I made the call, I pronounced it “Fuckapapa” and the woman on the phone didn’t bat an eyelid! (As a footnote to this story, I just did a little search on Whakapapa and found I’m not the only one who has issues with the name!)

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When you’re not familiar with a language, it can be tricky to get the pronunciation right. In Portuguese, my name (Tom) means ‘tone’ which seems quite appropriate because although it is spelt the same, it sounds very different to its English equivalent. I discovered this the hard way when I first got to Brazil.

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Apr 02

Portuguese Idioms: Armless John and the fat chicken next door

Portuguese Idioms are a constant source of confusion and amusement for me. A few months ago, one of my Brazilian colleagues and I were discussing a technical issue at work (I won’t bore you with the details – if you knew the details, you’d thank me for not boring you with them). Things were going well until he said that he thought we might be “Procurando pêlo em ovo”.

[pause…]

“You think we’re…searching for a hair in an egg?” I asked, clearly baffled. I thought about it some more. “Is that like looking for a needle in a haystack?”. Now it was his turn to look confused! However, his confusion didn’t last long as he cleverly countered with “You know, like procurando chifre na cabeça de cavalo.

Touché! I scrambled for my dictionary to find the meaning of ‘chifre’ (it means ‘horn’). The full phrase translates to “Searching for horns on a horse’s head.” Both Portuguese phrases mean to look for something that isn’t there. The English phrase (to search for a needle in a haystack) has a slightly different meaning: to search for something which is there, but which is effectively impossible to find because it is hidden in such a huge space or amongst a huge number of other items.

portuguese-idioms-haystack

A haystack (Portuguese: palheiro) – the perfect place to hide a needle!

 

These things make sense once you have someone explain them to you, but they can stop you in your tracks if you’ve never heard them before. Since that day I’ve been collecting these interesting Portuguese idioms and today I thought I’d share a few more.

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Mar 15

Portuguese Shorthand

Despite my tendency to be a little grumpy at times, I have somehow managed to make some friends and acquaintances during my time in Brazil. This means that around 50% of the text on my Facebook time-line is in Portuguese.

This has proved to be rather a good learning aid. If I want to know why Maurício’s status update got 18 likes, I’m going to have to work out what he actually said! But deciphering text posted on Facebook, Twitter, emails and text messages is not just a matter of looking up words in a dictionary.

 

 

Winston-Churchill

OMG Churchill! Didn’t you know that gesture is rude in Britain? Rofl lol…

Portuguese Text Speak

Text Speak has been around for longer than you might think. Winston Churchill received a letter containing an “OMG” way back in 1917!

But this character- and time-saving communication form really proliferated with the introduction of text messaging and the internet. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the common English examples such as lol, rofl, etc (that last one is Latin!), but how well do you know Portuguese shorthand?

Below is a list of the abbreviations I’ve come across – have I missed any out?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jan 11

Opa! Oba! Eba! Eta!

Oba! …er… Opa? Anyone confused yet? I know I am! Believe it or not, what I’m trying to say is “hello”. Let me explain (or at least try to).

When I was a kid growing up in southern England, the casual, chilled-out way to say hello was to say “Alright?”. The correct response was not “Yes I’m fine thanks… well, except for this bruise on my leg from football”. Oh no. The correct response would be “Alright?” straight back! Weird right? Someone asks you a question and you just ignore it and ask the exact same question back! I didn’t encounter this form of greeting until I was 12 or 13 and at first I found the whole thing a bit confusing.

Well, as we discussed recently, Brazilians often use a similar structure for their greetings too, but it’s not always quite that simple!

 

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OPA

Opa!

Let’s look at “Opa!” first. This seems to be quite an international phrase – certainly it is also used in Spanish speaking countries and also in Greece. I suspect that the French houp-là, (an exclamation) is also related and who knows, maybe even the English “Whoops!”. This is a real multi-purpose phrase.

  • It can be used to say a cheery hello, especially for an unexpected meeting.
  • If you almost bump into someone when you turn a corner, they may well exclaim “Opa!” as they take evasive manoeuvres!
  • It can also be used in a similar way to the English “Oopsy-daisy” in an attempt to avoid tears when a child falls over.
  • I’ve heard it used when someone is helping a driver reverse into a parking space, as in “OK, stop now!”
  • Finally, let’s not forget the Breadman, who combines it with the word for Baker, “Padeiro” to make his famous morning call:

 

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