I’ve just written a brief text in Portuguese about this which will probably end up being a blog post soon but I thought I’d expand on it in English in the meantime because it’s interesting!
So apparently there’s this joke that gets made a lot in Portuguese cafés. If you ask for a coffee by saying “queria um abatenado” (an abatenado is a kind of coffee) the waiter might reply “Queria? Já não quer?” if they are a bit of a smartarse. Why?
In English we don’t usually say “I want a cup of tea” because it sounds too blunt, so we go for something gentler like “I would like a cup of tea” instead. In the same way, the Portuguese have a fondness for tweaking the tense to sound more polite. They do this by saying “I was wanting a coffee”. And so, if you are a bored waiter you might decide to interpret this in the most literal way possible and reply with “Oh, you were wanting one, we’re you? So you don’t want one any more?” I know, hilarious, right?
I quite like it actually since it is both amusing and instructive for us learners but I think some people find it irritatingly pedantic, especially when it is repeated often. A recent article on Timeout Lisboa has taken waiters to task for this and for another literalism – namely when they reply to a request for a glass of water (“um copo de aqua”) by replying that they don’t have any glasses made of water, only glasses made of glass but if you want, they can give you a glass with water in (“um copo com água”). Marco Neves, in his blog, Certas Palavras, takes up the baton and gives a few other examples of nonstandard uses of verb tenses as well as some of his pet peeves. It’s a good read if you are at intermediate level or above.
Of course, as with most things, as soon as you noticed some weird feature of Portuguese, you realise English has exactly the same weirdness. I’ve already mentioned “I would like” as a politer version of “I want” but here are some other examples of verb tenses being used in weird ways in everyday English that are completely fine but would be confusing if you took them at face value.
Present tense for future events: I hope I don’t catch covid because I’m visiting my parents at the weekend.
Conditional tense for past events: When he was depressed he would spend his evenings drinking Drambuie and watching repeats of Peep Show with his cat.
Future perfect tense for things you assume to be true: Ah, Hamish, you’ll have had your tea
Present tense for historic events (the so called “historic present” or “narrative present” which was briefly both trendy and controversial a few years ago and basically dominates podcasting): “The Romans invade the Iberian Peninsula in the third century and are met with fierce resistance, not least from the Lusitanian tribes, led by Viriatus”
Studying another language has given me a new appreciation of my own.