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Brazil considers linguistic barricade

By Andrew Downie, The Christian Science Monitor, Wednesday 6 September 2000

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - In Brazil's shopping malls, the massive consumerist shrines formerly known here as centros comerciais, windows that used to advertise a Promoção now trumpet Sale. Descontos has become 50 percent off, and the upcoming collections that were once billed as primavera/verão are now touted as spring/summer.

A hairdressing salon calls itself Exuberant; a watch store is named Overtime; a restaurant goes by the name New Garden. In Brazil, the largest Portuguese-speaking nation in the world, English is taking over. And Deputy Aldo Rebelo says Basta!

It is time to fight this disrespect of our language, says Mr. Rebelo, the author of a new bill designed to promote and defend the Lusitanian language.

People feel humiliated and offended by having to pronounce words in a language that is not theirs. But they are obliged to, because shop owners or other people want to exhibit a false knowledge, Rebelo says. This is the public domain; people need to buy things, to go into shopping centers, but people cannot communicate fluently because of the abuse of foreign expressions in our language.

Rebelo's tongue-lashing against linguistic invasion is a reaction to globalization's march. He is not alone in the defense of mother tongues. Poland recently passed a law to enforce language purity by banning foreign words from everyday transactions unless Polish translations are provided alongside. A Polish language council will catch violators, who could face stiff fines. Poland's campaign has been compared to the notorious French effort to stamp out franglais.

With 178 million native speakers worldwide, Portuguese ranks seventh among most-spoken native languages after Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, English, Arabic and Bengali.

Rebelo's bill, which unanimously passed the first committee stage last month, rejects the increasing influx of English expressions and requires that Brazil's native tongue be used in business, formal, and social situations. While those strictures are laughed off by many as unenforceable - one envisions language police monitoring cafe chatter and the like - Rebelo's bill thunders that those not respecting Portuguese are damaging Brazil's cultural patrimony.


PORTUGUESE ONLY, PLEASE: Reporter Andrew Downie sympathizes with the Brazilian effort to curb the use of English. He sees it as a form of linguistic elitism. Upper-class Brazilians watch Mad About You and Seinfeld in English and see the use of English as chic and natural. But when I interview the average Brazilian, they have no idea what these English terms, like personal banking or day after, mean.

The linguistic outlaws would face as yet undecided punishment - perhaps classes in Portuguese, Rebelo has suggested.

One goal of the bill is linguistic purity among government officials, Rebelo says, citing the offenses of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who recently used the English expression fast track in a speech.

The bill would particularly affect the worlds of finance and commerce, where throwing up a sign in English is seen as a trendy way of grabbing potential customers' attention. According to a recent study, 93 of the 252 stores in São Paulo's Morumbi shopping center featured English words in their names.

That would change under Rebelo's law. The owners of Laundromat would have to wash their hands of the name. Hot dogs would be off the menu, and personal trainers would have to find a new way to describe their services. The Banco do Brasil's Personal Banking would need to translate itself, and the Rock in Rio music festival would have to dance to a different tune.

Children's clothing store Kid Smart would lose its exotic appeal in a country where most people do not speak English.

Although Rebelo recognizes that in today's fast-paced and shrinking world, words like e-mail, mouse and delete have entered Portuguese almost overnight, he says the rush to use English words ignores the fact that in many cases perfectly good Portuguese ones already exist.

We can say entrega a domiçilio because everyone knows what it means, so why use the word 'delivery'? Rebelo asks, highlighting one recent fad.

Restaurants use 'valet parking,' but why not use maniobrista? This law will prohibit these abuses.

Linguistic experts agree and point to the richness of Portuguese. Used as an official language in seven countries outside of Portugal, Portuguese boasts 24 vowel sounds, compared with five in English, and includes more than 350,000 words derived primarily from Latin, Arabic, and Iberian tribal languages.

Antonio Olinto, an author and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, says that, although it is impossible to legislate how people talk, the proposal has value because it has created a debate about the use of foreign words in Brazil. While stopping the trend is impossible, he says, Brazil can counter the linguistic invasion by adapting its language, just as it did with the word football (soccer), which over time became futebol.

Globalization exists, and I don't think there is any way of escaping it, says Mr. Olinto. But in time, words will be adapted into Portuguese, and things will get better.

Rebelo acknowledges that the desire to speak English may eventually ebb, but he called on Brazilians meanwhile to use their mother tongue whenever possible.

The legislator advises those tempted to utter or write foreign words to consult the style book of O Estado de São Paulo, one of the nation's biggest newspapers, which offers the following wordy wisdom:

  1. You have a language, Portuguese, that is just as good and as functional as any other.
  2. It is your language.

But it's the cash register, not linguistic pride, that inspires lingerie store manager Silvana Cannone when she's looking for just the right word.

We cut the letters out ourselves, and 'Sale' is shorter than Promoção, so it's easier, she explains.

Nowadays, everyone knows what 'sale' means. And besides, it sounds more chic.