Englishes, Portugueses, and Chineses

In the comments to the A Reworking of Chinese Language Classification post, Goyta made several comments. First of all he noted that the differences between Brazilian and Portuguese Portuguese are considerable, especially when a Brazilian hears a less educated, working class or rural Portuguese. He also said that when P Portuguese are interviewed on Brazilian TV, Brazilians wish they had subtitles. Wanting to have subtitles when you see a video of someone speaking is actually a symptom that you are dealing with another language. He said the differences are particularly severe when it comes to IT. He said he cannot understand 99% of what is written in a P Portuguese IT magazine, whereas with a regular publication, he can get 99% of it.
IIt does appear that the differences between P Portuguese and Br Portuguese are pretty significant, more significant than the differences between US and British English.
On other hand, I find Hibernian English spoken in Ireland to be nearly incomprehensible, though it is said to be just a dialect of English. It’s clearly been influenced extensively by the Irish language. Scots, the regional English spoken in Scotland and exemplified by the movie Trainspotting , is actually a completely separate language from English. That movie actually needed subtitles. On the other hand, there is a Scottish English dialect that is not Scots that is pretty intelligible.
We can always understand British English no matter who is writing it. Same with understanding spoken Australian and New Zealand (Kiwi) English. British English is often written a bit differently in slang expressions, but we pick them up. The formal writing is totally understandable.
There have been huge fights on Wikipedia between Br English and US English speakers with complaints from the Brits of bullying by the Americans. There was an attempt to fork the English Wiki into Br and US versions but it failed. Wikipedia demands that you have an ISO code in order to get a Wikipedia and ISO codes only come from SIL, who publishes Ethnologue. I petitioned for a few new languages a couple of years ago and they all got shot down.
There is an ongoing war between P Portuguese and Br Portuguese on the Portuguese Wikipedia with complaints from the P Portuguese of bullying on the part of the Brazilians. Gotya noted that he, a Brazilian, could not read Portuguese IT materials. This is unfortunate. All written British is intelligible to us. We can read anything written in the UK, though most of our reading material here is from the US. I can read The Economist and The New Standard and The Spectator with no problems at all.
As a Californian, I speak completely normally, of course, and have no accent whatsoever! Haha. We can understand the Midwest accent perfectly, though it can be different. It sounds “flat”. They also insert rhotic consonants before some consonants at the end of a word and the raising of the preceding vowel – “wash” becomes “worsh”.
The Oklahoma accent is different and sometimes it can be hard to understand. I heard some people speaking Oklahoman in the doctor’s office the other day for a minute or so I thought they were speaking a foreign language! Of course they were mumbling too. Then I asked them where they were from and they said Oklahoma. At that point, I had caught onto their accent and could understand them perfectly.
I do not know why the Texan accent is said to be hard to understand. We understand it perfectly, but it sounds funny. We make a lot of jokes about it. George Bush has a strong Texan accent. There is also an Arkansas accent (Arkies) that is different but understandable. This is also the source of jokes. In this part of California there are many Whites who still speak Arkie and Okie. They are the descendants of those who came out here from the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. Steinbeck wrote a book about this called The Grapes of Wrath .
Other than that, there are no accents in the West.
There is some sort of a Kentucky-Tennessee accent, but I am not sure if they differ. This is also a source of jokes. It’s sort of a general Appalachian accent, and it’s the source of jokes about inbred hillbillies and whatnot.
The Southern accent is well-known but usually understandable. My brother went to live in Alabama though and he said that the workers in the factory he worked at were often completely unintelligible. The Blacks were worse than the Whites, and they had separate accents. He has imitated their incomprehensible accent to me and it’s pretty hilarious.
I have heard poor Blacks from Memphis on the Cops show who were completely unintelligible to me. People with more money and status tended to be more comprehensible. I sometimes have a hard time understanding a Mississippi or Alabama accent, but it’s no problem. Our Southern politicians all have thick Southern accents.
Cajun English from Louisiana is often unintelligible to us, but the people with more money and status are quite intelligible.
There is also a Black accent from the coast of South Carolina called Gullah that is hard to understand. The Blacks from around there speak something like it and you can pick it out if you are sharp. It has a pretty, lilting sound to it. It’s different from the standard Southern accent and is sort of charming.
Moving up the coast, there is a Virginia accent that is softer, pleasant and charming.
There is the famous New York accent, which to us laid back Californians sounds horribly rude, obnoxious, loud and belligerent. Some forms of it also sound ignorant – these tend to be associated with working class Whites in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
One thing they do is to glide and lengthen rhotic consonants – “New York” becomes New Yawwk” “Brooklyn” becomes “Bwwoklyn”.
A similar accent seems to be spoken in New Jersey, but it may be different. One again, it involves lenition of rhotic consonants, in this case turning them into dipthongs with nlong vowels. “New Jersey” becomes “New Joiisey”. This is also a source of jokes.
There is a Boston accent which is completely understandable. Ted Kennedy speaks that. It involves the lenition of hard consonants into glides and the end of a word – “car” becomes “caw”.
I believe there is a sort of a slow drawl from Vermont and New Hampshire too. Those people, especially the older men, are known for not talking much. Men of few words.
Some Blacks around here still talk with thick Black accents that sound Southern even though they were born in the Central Valley.
There is also an “Ebonics” English (for lack of a better word) that is spoken here by sort of ghettoish or semi-ghettoish Blacks. It is frankly, almost completely unintelligible. They seem like they are talking with their mouths full, mumbling and speaking extremely fast, running all of the sounds together.
Everyone who talks like this can also speak Standard English thank God, and they can quickly move in and out of that Ebonics talk when you talk to them. It’s sort of a language for them to talk so that we can’t understand them, I think. To us, it sounds sloppy, low class and ghetto, but it reportedly a full-fledged language.
The Blacks in the Caribbean do not speak English! That makes me feel good because I can hardly understand a word they say. Each island has its own form of Creole English which is a completely separate language.
I think that Indian English (Chichi derogatorily) and West African English need to be split into separate languages because they are often incomprehensible to us. This is a case of regional Englishes evolving on their own. Further, West African English often differs a lot in its written form.
Indian English is often so mangled in its written form that it is incomprehensible, but more educated writers are comprehensible. The tendency to drop articles is very annoying and makes written Indian English sound ignorant to us. Don’t mess with our damned useless articles!
Reading about the Chinese languages, there are efforts underway to get speakers to speak proper Putonghua, whatever that means. Speakers from different parts of China still speak Putonghua with an accent that can be heavy at times.
Here in the US, we do not have this problem. Even our politicians still speak in heavy regional accents, and no one cares. We can always understand them. There is no national effort to get everyone to speak proper English that involves wiping out regional accents, though I understand that in the corporate world, they are offering classes to help people get rid of Southern accents, which are stereotyped as sounding backwards, ignorant and racist. I think this is sad. Our regional accents are what makes this country great.
Goyta also notes that Brazilians are starting to speak Spanish and the neighboring Spanish speaking countries are starting to speak Portuguese. When I was dealing with them 5-10 years ago, most Brazilians did not speak much Spanish (They acted like it was extremely low on their list of priorities) and Spanish speakers had zero interest in learning Portuguese (In fact, they regarded the suggestion as offensive and preposterous!)
Goyta notes that with regional integration, more Portuguese are speaking Spanish and more Spanish speakers from nearby countries are learning Portuguese. Spanish is becoming a prerequisite to getting a good job in Brazil. This is good as it’s good to see Latin Americans getting together.
It is also true that in China there has been a big fight over Chinese language classification. The unificationist – fascist types, associated with the Communist government (and actually with the Nationalist government before also – this is really a Chinese elite project) insist that there is only one Chinese language.
This goes along with racism of Northern Chinese against Southern Chinese and to some extent vice versa. This racism is most evident in the Cantonese vs Mandarin war in China.
Cantonese speakers say that they speak the real Chinese and that Northern Chinese speak a bastardized tongue derived from the old Manchu language. Cantonese speakers also resent that a Northern Chinese was turned into the national tongue and imposed on them against their will. They also say that Northern Chinese are really from the South and that the real NE Asians are the Mongolians, Koreans, Manchu, Japanese, etc. Genetic studies show that this is not the case.
Northern Chinese say that Southern Chinese are not real Chinese and their blood is “contaminated” with Tai types like the Tai, Zhuang, Vietnamese, etc. There is probably something to this.
Although Putonghua is the only official language in China and there is a war going on against the regional Chineses, enforcement has been held off against Cantonese. And Cantonese  areas are still where you will hear the least Putonghua and the most regional Chinese in all spheres of life. Cantonese is also allowed on the radio and TV, whereas regional Chineses had previously banned from the media.
The Putonghua-only campaign has been too successful and regional Chineses are being wiped out. There is now a regionalism movement arising in China to promote and retain regional Chineses.
I think that the Putonghua campaign has been good, but that China should promote bilingualism. The Putonghua campaign has not yet been successful. As of 2001, only 53% of Chinese could speak Putonghua, but it has probably risen a lot since then as the government is really pushing this hard.
China clearly needs a language that they can all speak. For its entire history, many Chinese have not been able to speak to each other, including folks from one village to the next if you go to the southeast and the central coast. Provinces like Fujian, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Henan and Hunan are notoriously multilingual.
Most of these places have a lot of very high mountains, and transportation was typically very poor. Even today, you can scarcely get around by vehicle and you sometimes have to walk from one place to the next, sometimes for dozens of miles! Bottom line is they were very isolated from each other.
These places also retained a tradition of being hideouts for “hillbilly” types where there was a lot of unemployment and many folks turned to crime. Also criminals fled to the mountains where they could hide. Upshot was that due to all of this, and people seen as backwards, lazy, stupid and thieving, people from the rest of China had no interest in going to these places anyway.
When people left these parts of China to go to big cities, they were stereotyped in a way similar to how ghetto Blacks and Browns are in the US. This made them want to stay in their mountains.

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6 thoughts on “Englishes, Portugueses, and Chineses”

  1. Thank you for quoting me, Robert, but I have two corrections. First, it would be an exaggeration to say that I can’t understand 99% of a computer/information technology magazine from Portugal, but I do stumble on many terms that I have to look up or deduce, and a less patient or informed Brazilian reader would have a hard time catching the meaning of some things.
    Some examples (by order, English – Brazilian – European Portuguese):
    file – arquivo – ficheiro
    mouse – mouse – rato (or ratão)
    screen – tela – ecran
    digital – digital – numérico
    to save – salvar – guardar
    to access – acessar – aceder
    to click – clicar – fazer clique
    to press (a key) – apertar – premer
    link – link – enlace
    hard disk – disco rígido (or “HD”, from the English initials, but pronounced with the Portuguese letter names: “agá dê”) – disco duro
    When combined, these can be hard:
    “Press the F2 key to save the file or Del to delete it”
    Brazil: “Aperte a tecla F2 para salvar o arquivo ou Del para deletá-lo”
    Portugal: “Prima a tecla F2 para guardar o ficheiro ou Del para apagá-lo”
    Almost nobody in Brazil has any idea of what a “ficheiro” (“file”) is!
    Note that their computer terminology is more vernacular. In Brazil we often adopt the original English term without further thought, as seen above with “mouse” and “link” (even though in Portugal they often resort to French: “ecran” or “numérico”). The neologism verb “deletar” (from “delete”) is now standard in Brazil and nobody uses “apagar” (“to erase”) for a computer file (although it is widely employed for other uses). Same for “escanear” (“to scan”, instead of the more vernacular “digitalizar”). I have even seen some grotesque hybrid verbs such as “printar” or “encodar”, though they are fortunately rarely used!
    Also, when I said we often wish we had subtitles for understanding the Portuguese, I was referring to such things as movies or songs. Interviews are usually no problem, because more often than not the person will be an educated one. Portuguese Literature Nobel prizewinner José Saramago has been interviewed dozens of times for Brazilian TV and we never had any problem understanding him (however, he is well aware of the differences and difficulties and may have toned down a bit on purpose). Same for former Portuguese Premier Mário Soares, who used to be a regular visitor to Brazil both during and after office.
    However, I have also seen newsflashes taken on the street in Portugal by Brazilian TV reporters, where common people were interviewed. Sometimes the person spoke intelligibly to us and his or her speech was left unedited, but in some more difficult cases the reporter made a voice-over for the final edit, as when interviewing foreign-language speakers.

  2. Dear Robert
    When Quebec movies are shown in France, they come with subtitles. I remember that, when an American airliner exploded above Lockerbie in Scotland, Canadain TV used subtitles every time a local was interviewed. I find it nearly impossible to understand Jamaicans
    As to Brazilian and European Portuguese, I think that it is absurd to call them two languages. There is a Portuguese prgram on a local radio station. I often listen to it and I can understand everything. On the other hand, I have a hard time with many of the Portuguese immigrants, especially those from the Açores.
    There are some spelling differences between European and Brazilian Port., but they are really minor. A new spelling treaty between all 8 Lusitanian countries will insure a single official spelling. A big difference is that the Europeans still spell silents c’s and p’s as in acto and excepto, whereas we write ato and exceto.
    There are also minor lexical and grammatical differences. For instance, “You are singing” = você está cantando (Br), tu estás a cantar (P). ” A present for you” = um presente para você (Br), um presente para si (P).
    As to lexical differences, well, I never had trouble reading anything written by a Portuguese. In London UK, I was once asked by a street person for a fag = cigaret. Did you know that? In Britain, a tube is the subway and a subway is a pedestrian tunnel. An Englishman doesn’t get mad, he gets cross. He doesn’t phone you, he rings you. An Englisman bonks his wife. The list can be long. I don’t see that there is more reason to consider Brazilian and European Portuguese to be 2 different languages than there is to consider British and North American English to be 2 distinct languages.
    Regards. James

  3. James, what about “fui esperar o autocarro e tive que ficar no rabo da bicha até que uma rapariga chegou atrás de mim”? 😉
    In Portugal (where they would say such a thing), it just means: “I went to wait for the bus and had to stay at the end of the queue, until a young woman came behind me.”
    In Brazil, it would mean: “I went to wait for the car and had to stay inside a f*ggot’s *sshole until a wh*re came behind me.”
    Same phrase, such a slight, subtle difference… 🙂

    1. Please do not act as if you’re the master of the unexistent entity called “Brazilian Portuguese”. Being from Florianópolis, I had absolutely no problem understanding any of your “unintelligible words from Portugal”. As a matter of fact, I happen to use most of them instead of your “typical brazilian words”.
      And another thing, the word ‘rapariga’ is the feminine to ‘rapaz’, and absolutely does not mean whore; now that Northeasterners are basically invading my city en masse, I found out that to them rapariga means wh0re, something that to us here makes absolutely no sense and would never be guessed. Now you’re telling me that you don’t understand the terms “premer”, “apagar”, “rato”, “ecrã”, “guardar o ficheiro”? Unless you’re uneducated, which I don’t think you are, since you speak perfect English, I have to call bullsh*t on that.
      Sorry, but you sound like one of those annoying Brazilian nationalists that try to distantiate themselves from Portugal and like to blame all of Brazil’s problems on them, instead wishfully thinking that there is more in common with the amerindians, for some unknown reason.

  4. I subtitle for anything from Britain or Ireland. I play around with subtitles and the switch language option on foreign films. Last show I watched had a poem at the end, something in the English language gave it extra depth and this was removed in the subtitles. I’ve heard Brazilian Portuguese was closer to what the Portuguese court or nobles spoke and P Portuguese was more for commoners, is this true?

    1. The Portuguese Royalty set up shop in Brazil during Napoleonic Wars. Other former colonies of Portugal understand European Portuguese better than Brazilian Portuguese. Brazil likely received Portuguese from Royals as earlier settlers spoke Tupi or Tupi-Portuguese blend.

      Was this just a romantic Brazilian fantasy or is Brazilian Portuguese more for Lords and Ladies? Basically, what’s the Portuguese equivalent of Castilian Spanish?

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