Portuguese LanguageMid Atlantic Drift
The treaty eschews silent letters, sheds hyphens, rationalises the use of capitals, and belatedly grants K, W, and Y legitimate places in the alphabet.
In spite of bough, trough, though, and through, color and colour, theatre and theater, lift, elevator, and the conflicting meanings of ‘pants’, language reform is not high on the agenda in the English speaking nations. Aside from a brief flirtation with orthographic spring cleaning in the 1970s that led, temporarily, to an Australian Ministry of Health, the ‘rules’ of written English are not to be tinkered with. Like English, Portuguese is spoken the world over, and includes all the subtle (and not so subtle) regional variation that globalisation entails. Like English, too, its major fault line lies somewhere along the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Africans, Asians, and Europeans say facto, ideia, comboio, Brazilians say fato, idéia, and trem. You say ‘to-may-to’, I say ‘to-mah-to’. In contrast to English, which seems more than happy to continue with catalogues, catalogs, programs, programmes, encyclopedias, and encyclopaedias, the difference between voo and vôo has long been deemed an insufferable stain on the language’s international standing.
Before going any further, it is important to point out that the apathetic Anglophone attitude to orthography is the anomaly. While a few spelling systems are stable – Czech since the 15th century, Spanish since the 19th, and Russian since the revolution – incessant revision is more the norm. In 1972, Indonesia adopted a wholesale reform that saw tjoetjoe transform into the much more Malaysian looking chuchu. The Nederlandse Taalunie updated its Green Book of Dutch spellings in 1995, and then again ten years later. As recently as 2004, the Académie française changed mû to mu and diesel to diésel along with 2,000 other words. In 2005, the German speaking world saw radfahren become Rad fahren, and welcomed in the beautifully triplicate Flussschifffahrt. The same year, Norway backpedalled on an earlier reform and returned to more traditional spelling.
In the elaborate halls of a former convent in the pastel coloured city of Lisbon on 16th December 1990, after years of negotiation, six men and one woman solemnly assembled. They put their names to an international treaty promising to end the insupportable indignity of pinguim coexisting with pingüim, and some people writing janeiro with a capital ‘J’. The signatories of O Acordo Ortográfico da Língua Portuguesa – The Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement – represented the then seven Portuguese speaking nations of the world; Angola, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé e Príncipe in Africa (a combined 50 million speakers), Portugal (around 10 million speakers), and Brazil (a monumental 200 million speakers). The presence of observers from galego speaking Galicia in northwestern Spain satisfied those who considered their language a dialect of Portuguese, the absence of their signatures on the treaty satisfied those who did not. Timor-Leste, the eighth member of the Lusosphere, added its signature in 2004, two years after uncoupling from Indonesia and becoming the 21st century’s first independent nation. The treaty eschews silent letters, sheds hyphens, rationalises the use of capitals, and belatedly grants K, W, and Y legitimate places in the alphabet. Attempting to reflect the numerical realities of the Portuguese speaking world, it also shifts the centre of linguistic gravity firmly westwards. While around 1.6% of words are affected in the Portuguese spoken east of the Atlantic, only 0.5% change in the Brazilian standard. Breathing space is also given to genuine regional pronunciation differences; aspecto and aspeto both find room at the table, as does the much subtler difference between génio and gênio. Logical and accommodating though the agreement was designed to be, it unleashed an unfortunate aftermath.
After much dragging of feet and two controversial amendments, the treaty was finally written into the statute books in Brazil and Portugal in 2009. Brazil’s three year transition period passed predictably smoothly, but the European six year changeover has been mired in ever increasing opposition. This Portuguese unease has been mirrored in virtually every non Latin American territory where the language is spoken – including Equatorial Guinea, which waded into the fray in 2007 by adopting Portuguese as one of its official languages. Genuine confusion accounts for some of the aversion, notably in the teaching and publishing professions, and intransigence can also be blamed, with traditionalists clinging to every lost diaeresis. Animosity directed at an increasingly unpopular political class hasn’t helped, and national pride is definitely in the mix too. Imagine telling a Mancunian or Liverpudlian they have to spell it ‘favor’ from now on. Angola, representing 24 million speakers, shows no sign of falling into line, and the Common Lexicon – a prerequisite of the treaty – is yet to materialise. Such disarray, naysayers warn, is damaging the language’s international prestige. Their sentiments precisely echo the good intentions that set the whole process in motion in the first place. The final irony in this cautionary tale is that Lisbon and Brasília have taken highly divergent approaches to the reforms. The architects of the treaty, in trying to unite the two strains of Portuguese, have unwittingly split it into four. It is no longer enough to know if your Portuguese is Brazilian or the other kind, you must also ask if it is pre or post reform.