World Portuguese Language Day: new discoveries

Four centuries after the Portuguese discoveries, we rediscover Portuguese. On Unesco’s initiative it has been established that the World Portuguese Language Day will take place every year on May  5th. More than 260 thousand people use Portuguese daily as their mother tongue, in addition to many others who, after discovering it, fell in love with it. The Portuguese language has always had its own identity, is recognized at every social level, and is constantly evolving, but this initiative provides it with additional value in terms of notability as a global language and a vehicle of international communication. 

In this inaugural celebration, the president of the Portuguese Republic, Marcello Rebelo de Souza, highlighted the strength of the language spoken in five continents; praised the brilliance of authors such as Camões, Saramago, Mia Couto, Jorge Amado, Hélder Proença, Rubem Fonseca, and all those who, by using it, continuously enrich it. The president has defined the Portuguese language as “a language of the future, alive, different in unity, that changes over time and space, although remains the same in essence”.

The Director-General of the Unesco, Audrey Azoulay, has expressed her thoughts stating that Portuguese is a creative language, of music, literature and cinema, and at the same time it is a language of science, innovation, pedagogy and solidarity. “A language of seas and oceans”, she has defined it. Yes, it is a language of seas and oceans thanks to the Portuguese exploration in the 15th century that dawned the Age of Discoveries, allowing the Portuguese to leave important traits in many different cultures.


The landing of Pedro Alvares Cabral in Brazil in 1500 by José Rosael -1900. Public domain

Navigating around Africa and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese arrived in Brazil in 1500. This route contributed to the spreading of the Portuguese language in five continents (excluding Antarctica) and making it become the official language in nine countries in the world: Portugal, Brazil, Angola, São Tomé and Principe, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor and Macau. We find traces of the Portuguese language also in India, France, Spain, Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay and Japan, among others, making it the 6th most spoken mother tongue around the world. Now, it reiterates its importance as a working language in international organizations such as the European Union, the Organization of American States and the Mercosul.


The National Library of Rio de Janeiro, one of many legacies left by the Portuguese in Brazil. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“The Portuguese language is built daily by people from all continents, in a never-ending enrichment of its multiculturalism”, said the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Gutteres, emphasizing that the date is a “fair recognition of the Portuguese language’s global relevance”. In Portugal, to celebrate the first World Portuguese Language Day and the 30th anniversary of the International Association for Portuguese Language Communication, the CTT (Post office and Telegraphs) have issued a set of stamps with a print run of 100 thousand copies.

In Brazil, the celebration occurs along with the Capital’s 60th anniversary with the release of the book “Sonhar Brasília”, a collection of texts written by authors from the countries belonging to CPLP–Community of the Portuguese-speaking countries, created in 1996. The work, composed by unpublished and illustrated texts, is the first common publication among the Portuguese-speaking countries which highlights the cultural and linguistic diversity of each of them. Meanwhile, the celebrations have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the launch of the print edition has been postponed to the second half of 2020. A free digital version will soon be available in UNESCO’s digital library.


Pedro II ruled Brazil between 1831 and 1889, when monarchy was abolished. He was the second and last Emperor of Brazil and died in 1891 in exile in France. When preparing the body, Gaston of Orleans (Count of Eu), married with the Emperor’s daughter princess Izabel, found among  Pedro’s personal objects a package containing soil from Brazil and next to it a message: “It is soil from my country, I wish for it to be placed inside my coffin in case I die away from my homeland.” Following his will, the package was placed next to him in the coffin. His remains returned to Brazil in 1921. The Emperor’s body is kept in the Cathedral of São Pedro de Alcântara in Petrópolis, city founded by him in the State of Rio de Janeiro. Pedro II is recognized as “the perpetual defender of Brazil”. In his final words, he expressed a wish: “May God grant me these last wishes—peace and prosperity for Brazil”

Differences that bring together

The Portuguese spoken in each of these countries has variants of pronunciation, vocabulary and even grammar. In the spoken language, the difference between Brazilian and European accent is rather pronounced, which is not so evident in the written language, mainly after the orthographic agreement of 1990, ratified by Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and São Tomé and Principe, which established common guidelines and unified words, even if these did not compromise the understanding of the language before the agreement.


Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo –  Public domain

 It is worth to say that if we wait for an “ônibus” in Brazil or an “autocarro” in Portugal (in English, bus) or if we take a “trem” in Brazil or a “comboio” in Portugal (train in English) we’ll certainly embark in a trip where differences brings us together not only through the spoken communication, but also in reaching agreements in commerce, tourism and literature. Although, Portuguese people often complain that “Brazilians frequently kills grammar”, the Portuguese spoken in Brazil has acquired its space in the world and what matters most is that the language evolved according the historical and cultural differences of each country.

The evolution has led to enrichment of the language that today has two official spellings, the Brazilian Portuguese and the European Portuguese, and other variants. The Brazilian structure use more open vowels that allow for easier comprehension, accepts changes easily and therefore has a tendency of being more creative. In Brazil, for instance, we can “congratulate” (dar os parabéns ou parabenizar somebody), while in Portugal only the first form is recognized and used. In fact, Brazilian Portuguese has built its own less conservative identity.

Similarities and differences: the traps of translation

In translation, the identity of each variation must be preserved according to each country. Formalities must be carried out according to local customs in order to ensure acceptance, credibility, reliability, integrity and understanding of the whole translated document. To ensure this, not only the difference in meaning of similar words is important, but also localization considering cultural differences.

Translators know how a poorly placed word can sometimes cause tragicomic damages. The differences don’t just apply to words like “sorvete” in Brazil and “gelado” in Portugal (“ice cream” in English) or “xícara” in Brazil and “chávena” in Portugal (cup in English); all in all, tea or coffee will be drunk in one or the other without many problems. The differences, however, can be more memorable when, for instance, “durex” in Brazil means simply a “fita adesiva” (adhesive tape), but in Portugal it refers to “camisinha” or “condom”. The differences can be even more  remarkable if we notice that “alfacinha” (a small lettuce in English), which means a small vegetable in Brazil, in Portugal instead can refer, even if informally, to people born in Lisbon, officially called Lisboeta.

In respect to Brazilian or European Portuguese or even other languages that share the same origin, such as Italian, this traps exist. The “similarities” between words can become memorable and dangerous “differences”. The translator’s job is to allow these differences to be understood, and communication becomes a passport for integration. It’s good to remember that what sounds “esquisito” is not necessarily “weird” as for us Brazilian, but it can also be “sophisticated” or “exquisite” for English people. So, Brazil and Portugal are not the best places to compliment the cook saying that his food is “exquisite”. It’s better to keep it simple and just say that the food is “delicioso” (in Portuguese) or “delicious” (in English), avoiding being misunderstood and making sure  it’s immediately understood by both.

What now, José?

What now, José? If the Portuguese language is becoming more and more important due to economic relations, in my view it’s the literature that shows its higher value. I recognize the greatness of Portuguese-speaking authors, from Camões, Saramago. Mia Couto and many others, but here I will stand for my own side. “No tempo do eu menino”, as said by the poet Manuel Bandeira when referring to when he was just a boy, my father opened widely to me the doors to the world of books. As soon as I was born (you see, he was a bit exaggerated), he started to buy me small story books, and I still remember my treasure: hundreds of little books. So very early on, he gave me his greatest legacy, the taste of reading.

carlos-drummond- poet-portuguese-language

Tribute to Carlos Drummond – the bronze statue sitting on a bench in Copacabana, the neighborhood where the poet lived and where he liked to sit by sundown. listening to the sound of the sea. Photo by Carlos Varela- Flickr

 First, I entered the magical world of those small books and without realizing after years I delved into the “Reino das Águas Claras” (in free translation  “Kingdom of Clear Waters”). When I was very young I started to live the fantasy, which accompanied me over time and even when I grew up it didn’t take me any effort to “follow” Emilia, Monteiro Lobato’s naughty doll, on TV, and to have fun with “that terrible taste of frog in my mouth”. From book to book, I’ve built my way: I had the same cruel doubt faced by Cecília Meireles, and lost myself in reflections about “wear gloves and not put the ring or put the ring and not wear gloves” and I flew with Paper Wings, led by Marcelo Xavier to get “the king’s party, going through the time like I was going through a door”.

These authors are the tip of the iceberg of Brazilian literature. Diving in those “clear waters” of the Sítio do Picapau Amarelo (in free translation Yellow Woodpecker Farm) is also the same as diving in the works of Machado de Assis, José de Alencar, Graciliano Ramos, Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Amado, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo and Rubem Braga, among many others. Even stumbling on that “stone in the middle of the road“, left by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, was decisive to me because I was able to experience that stumbling sometimes can lead us forward more quickly, and in this way I found Ruth Rocha, Ana Maria Machado, Luís Fernando Veríssimo, Ariano Suassuna, Carlos Eduardo Novaes and Millôr Fenandes. And, how not to love “Velha Contrabandista” (the Old lady smuggler) by Stanislaw Ponte Preta”, “Abobrinha” (the Pumpkin) by Drummond or “Eloquência Singular” (Singular Eloquence) by Fernando Sabino?

I will not be the one here to say what the Portuguese language represents. I call into question Clarice Lispector,  a Ukrainian naturalized Brazilian, writer, journalist and translator, who passed away in 1977. During an interview she said: “This is a declaration of love. I love the Portuguese language. It’s not easy. It’s not malleable. […] The Portuguese language is a real challenge for the writer. Especially for those who write extracting from things and people the first layer of superficiality. Sometimes it reacts to a more complicated thought. Sometimes it gets scared with the unpredictability of a phrase. I like to manage it – as I liked to handle a horse and take it by the reins, sometimes slowly, sometimes galloping.” For sure I could not have closed May without validating this statement.

Carlos Drummond de Andrade

What now, José?
The party is over,
the lights are off,
the people is gone,
the night is colder,
what now, José?
what now,  you?
you, who are nameless,
who makes fun of others,
you, who writes verses,
who loves, protests?
What now, José?

You have no woman,
you are speechless ,
have no love,
can no longer drink,
can no longer smoke,
let alone spit,
the night is colder,
the day hasn’t come,
the tram hasn’t come,
laughter hasn’t come,
not even utopia has come
and everything is over
everything fled
everything is rotten
what now, José?

What now, José?
your sweet word,
your feverish instant,
your gluttony and fasting,
your library,
your vein of gold,
your glass suit,
your incoherence,
your hate — what now?

With keys in your hand
you want to open the door,
there is no door;
you want to die in the sea,
but the sea has dried,
you want to go to Minas,
Minas isn’t there.
José, what now?

If you screamed,
if you groaned,
if you played
the Viennese waltz,
if you slept,
if you got tired,
if you died…
But you don’t die,
you are tough, José!

Alone in the dark
like wild animals,
without theogony,
without a bare wall
to lie on,
without a black horse
that flees galloping,
you march on, José!
José, where to?

        What is your native language and which language would you like to learn the most?

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