Posted in English

O Acordo Ortográfico (no, not that one)

If you’ve been learning Portuguese for a while now, you’ve probably heard of the Acordo Ortográfico 1990 (AO) which was an agreement between the Portuguese speaking countries to standardise spellings, because it was confusing to have different words spelled different ways depending on the author’s nationality. It was a bit like the US and UK, except the difference is even wider. Standardising the spelling has helped somewhat in reducing the linguistic confusion but as you can imagine, it wasn’t hugely popular. Brazil is a bigger country and seems to have dominated the negotiations and had its spellings accepted as default in most cases. Portuguese people liked this as much as if Boris Johnson passed a law saying brits all had to write “color” and “aluminum”.

Aaaaanyway, that’s all well and good, the accord have been on force for quite a whole now so you probably won’t see the old spellings much since the law has succeeded in suppressing them in most printed and online materials. So most learners can just ignore them while being aware that they might occasionally come across a luddite still spelling “reaccionário com dois cês” or whatever.

But did you know that that wasn’t the only time in history the Portuguese have rearranged their written language? In fact, I think this is the fourth time! There was a move in 1971-73 to suppress unnecessary diacritical marks that were responsible for most of the differences between Brazil and the rest. Before that, there was a process in the early forties, resulting in a new orthographical agreement in 1945. That makes me laugh. The rest of the world is at war, but Portugal and Brasil have time and energy to expend agreeing the way to spell words.

But the granddaddy of them all was A Reforma Ortográfica de 1911, which was a pretty thorough revision of all aspects of the written language. I’ve got a book published in the lawless time of 1902 and… Well, I daren’t actually read the thing, but just leafing through it is a bit of a strange experience because although it’s largely familiar, quite a lot of the words just look like they’re refugees from some other language. Here’s the title page and a random chapter heading, for example.

Right from the start, what really surprises me is the name of the author: Camillo Castello Branco had double Ls in both his names back then, which he certainly doesn’t now. The AO has actually changed someone’s name! I mean… Your name is your name! If someone told me I had to start spelling my name differently I’d tell them to shove their extra letters up their bum. I asked around about this and was told that while people are alive they will usually keep their original names, regardless whatever linguistic regime-change that takes place around them. Still though, changing someone’s name after they’ve died? What?

But the weirdness doesn’t end there. “Principaes” for “principais”, “ella” and “elle” for the two subject pronouns, “ahi”, “sáem”, “corôa”, and half a dozen others. Even the nationality doesn’t escape – it’s written as “portuguez”. Modern printings of this same book would have standardised all these words of course.

English orthography is a right old mess of course, but we like it that way. OK, I joked about standardising the spelling with America, but that’s nothing: imagine a more thorough change that would standardise all spellings, or even make it into a phonetic language as various idiots have suggested over the years. Now imagine that change being imposed on all subsequent reprintings of Shakespeare, say, or Chaucer, or Dickens. How would you even understand the historical evolution in a language if you erase the past like that? How would you understand the Shakespeare had invented hundreds of new words if the plays had been printed in such a way that the spellings of those words had altered radically to something he wouldn’t even have recognised.

I dunno, Portugal, I see why you did it but I’m not sure I approve.


Just a data nerd

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