Posted in English

Two Become One

CpR1xmZXgAE54XYSo the other day, my wife was reading the Observer to maintain our impeccable middle-class credentials, when she showed me a full-page graphic in which the headline “Why two languages are better than one” is written in several different languages, including Portuguese.

“Do you see a problem?” she asked, and I’m happy to say that, yes, it jumped out at me straight away. It turned out to be quite educational. Stay awhile and read the next few paragraphs and I will lift the lid on the whole sorry affair.

To further burnish those impeccable middle-class credentials I mentioned, I decided to take a picture of the page and tweet about it in a slightly smarmy way.  I also mentioned it to a couple of other people – a Portuguese friend on Hellotalk and an online tutor. To my surprise, both of them thought the sentence was absolutely fine and error-free. Well, what was I to do? How could I break the news to Mrs L that she had been outvoted? I asked a different tutor and she initially joined the “No, it’s fine” crowd, but then after thinking about it agreed that it was a mistake. Two all. Mrs Lusk then started pinging it out to people she was at school with – people in their forties who went to school before the Acordo Ortográfico when it all got a bit slack. At last the balance of opinion shifted decisively in favour of it being a mistake and her faith in humanity was restored.

So what was the problem? Well, my Portuguese is pretty feeble, but let me have a stab at describing what I think is going on and why it wasn’t obvious whether or not there was an error. Basically, the problem is the mismatch between

são + melhor

in the middle there. “São” is third person plural but “melhor” is singular. There are two languages so it looks like it ought to be “melhores”.

That’s as far as I had got when I was smarmily tweeting at the Observer, but I’m not even sure “sao melhores” is right either. What does the adjective describe? Not the languages themselves surely? That would be like hearing the sentence

Why two languages are better than one

and parsing it as

Why two languages are both better than this other language

That makes a sort of sense but what we’re really interested in is not the languages themselves but a person’s ability to speak the two languages. There’s a word missing:

Why speaking two languages is better than speaking one

Now it makes more sense because here “speaking” is a gerund – a present participle used as a noun. If you add the gerund back in it’s obvious what we’re actually talking about here. The adjective and the verb now refer to “speaking” so they can go back to being singular again and we can make another version of the sentence.

OK, here goes – I’m really putting my neck on the line here. If I muck this up after this much build-up I’m going to look a right tit:

Porque falar duas línguas é melhor do que falar uma

If this were Brazilian portuguese we would use a portuguese gerund (“falando”) but European Portuguese seems to prefer infinitivos (“falar”) in these kinds of situation. Apart from that… I think this is better, but if it’s not you can have a good laugh at me in the comments box below this post.

This kind of thing isn’t just a portuguese problem of course. We’ve all heard English-speakers mangling sentences because they haven’t really thought about what the words mean. Me, I always get muddled up with collective nouns. Do you say “a small group of bankers are destroying the economy” because there are multiple bankers, or “a small group of bankers is destroying the country” because there’s only one group. So it doesn’t really surprise me that there are sentences like this that can trip up perfectly intelligent portuguese people. I’ll just note it down as an interesting artefact I’ve come across on the road to fluency.


Just a data nerd

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