More people speak Portuguese than French, German, Italian or Japanese

By Larry Rohter, from The New York Times
Published: October 23, 2006

More people speak Portuguese as their native language than French, German, Italian or Japanese. So it can rankle the 230 million Portuguese speakers that the rest of the world often views their mother tongue as a minor language and that their novelists, poets and songwriters tend to be overlooked.

Visitors study a timeline display. The museum, which opened in São Paulo in March, has quickly become the most visited one in Brazil.

An effort is being made here in the largest city in the world’s largest Portuguese-speaking country to remedy that situation. The Museum of the Portuguese Language, with multimedia displays and interactive technology, recently opened here, dedicated to the proposition that Portuguese speakers and their language can benefit from a bit of self-affirmation and self-advertisement.

“We hope this museum is the first step to showing ourselves, our culture and its importance to the world,” said Antônio Carlos Sartini, the museum director. “A strategy to promote the Portuguese language has always been lacking, but from now on, maybe things can take another path.”

The museum, which opened in March, has already become the most widely visited in Brazil, drawing schoolchildren and scholars as well as tourists from Brazil and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa.

In the interests of linguistic harmony and unity, it sidesteps a basic issue: whether dominion over the language ultimately rests with the country where it was born or this rambunctious, overgrown former colony where it is most widely spoken.

George Bernard Shaw once described the United States and Great Britain as “two countries divided by a common language.” Much the same could be said about Brazil, with its 185 million people, and Portugal, with barely 11 million.

The issue is not just the contrast between the mellifluous, musical accent of Brazil — “Portuguese with sugar,” in the words of the 19th-century realist Eça de Queiroz — and the clipped, almost guttural sound in Portugal. There are also marked differences in usage that have traditionally led to misunderstandings and provided fodder for jokes.

In Portugal, for example, a word for a line (the waiting kind) is to Brazilians a derogatory slang term for a homosexual. A Portuguese word for a man’s suit of clothes means a fact or piece of information in Brazil.

Some purists in Portugal object to the slangy, colorfully casual version of the language that is spoken here and increasingly spread abroad through Brazilian telenovelas, or soap operas. They regard such informality as unworthy of the language of Camões, the 16th-century poet whose seafaring epic “Os Lusíadas” is often compared to the masterpieces of Homer and Dante.

“That’s certainly not my reading,” Maria Isabel Pires de Lima, Portugal’s culture minister, said, though, when she visited the museum in August with José Sócrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa, her country’s prime minister. “Language is a living instrument, always moving, evolving and changing, so I don’t see this phenomenon as pejorative. On the contrary, telenovelas are an important tool in creating more awareness of the Portuguese language and culture.”

In 1996, Brazil and Portugal joined with five African nations — Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe — to found the Community of Portuguese-Language Countries. Portuguese was recently designated an official language of the Organization of African Unity as a result of the community’s efforts. Leaders think that more can be done and hope that Brazil can lead the way.

“One of our objectives is to disseminate Portuguese so that it has greater visibility in international organizations,” José Tadeu Soares, deputy director general of the group, said in a telephone interview from its headquarters in Lisbon. “But aside from Brazil and Portugal, the other countries have only been independent for 25 or 30 years and don’t have the resources to project themselves on the world stage the way Brazil can.”

Though the group recently granted observer status to China, where the language still has official standing in Macao, Portuguese is fading there and in places like Goa, Damão and Diu in India, three other former colonial outposts. But when East Timor obtained its independence from Indonesia in 2002 and joined the community, that inspired an outpouring of sympathy and support from Portuguese-speaking countries.

“For the Timorese, Portuguese is a way of asserting their identity vis-à-vis Indonesia, and, for that matter, even Australia,” Luiz Fernando Valente, director of the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, said in a telephone interview from Providence, R.I.

But, he added, the aspiration of some Portuguese-speakers to see their language gain official status at the United Nations is probably beyond reach. “Portuguese is a global language, spoken on every continent,” he said, “but it is not an international language, used in diplomacy and business the way that French is, and I don’t know if that problem is solvable.”

Mr. Sartini, the museum director, said the museum planned to send roving exhibitions abroad, to disseminate Portuguese language and culture. Ideally, he said, such displays would visit not only Portuguese-speaking countries but also those, like the United States, with Portuguese-speaking minorities.

The largest and oldest United States enclave is around Providence, R.I., and Fall River and New Bedford, in southeastern Massachusetts. There are others, in the Central Valley of California, around Fresno, for example, as well as in southern Florida and Newark.

At a literary festival near here in August, though, the Anglo-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali was quoted in the local press as saying that only three languages are assured of surviving to the end of this century: English, Chinese and Spanish. Even José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate who lives mostly in Spain, has fretted publicly over the possibility of Portuguese being overwhelmed by English and Spanish.

Spanish-speakers have sometimes jokingly dismissed Portuguese as simply “Spanish, badly spoken.” But because of Brazil’s huge size and dynamic economy, cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago, in neighboring countries, are now awash in fliers and billboards offering Portuguese language courses.

“For 850 years, our neighbors next door have been saying that there is no future for Portuguese,” said Mr. Soares, of the community, referring to Spain. “But here we are, still. The dynamic for the language may come from Brazil, but there is no doubt in my mind that Portuguese as a language will remain viable.”

Copyright 2006 © The New York Times Company