Feliz Ano Novo, fellow slaves to the grammar. May 2023 bring us all the linguistic wins we so richly deserve!
We were in France for the new year. France is a country to the south of us where they speak a language that’s a bit like portuguese but not as good. We’ve only been here a couple of days to see in the new year and it has been lovely, but we’re waiting for the Eurostar to take us home. The announcer has just told us that owing to the bad weather, the platform is slippery and “please take special care of it”, which I just find delightful, imagining myself tucking the platform into bed, giving it some camomile tea and a foot massage and tiptoeing out of the room. Aww, so cute!
As usual, it’s hard work, communicating in French. I used to be reasonably fluent so long as the conversation didn’t get too heavy. Now, every time I open my mouth, portuguese verbs elbow their way to the front of my tongue, shoving French conjugations out of the way. Sometimes I can get pretty far into crazy mishmashes of the two and it leaves me feeling a bit awkward. My daughter is better but she is a bit self-conscious too. She does a great job in what she plans to say but doesn’t like to speak spontaneously. We have a competition of who can go longest without “getting Englished” – in other words, making the person we’re speaking to just start speaking to us in our own language because it’s easier.
There’s no reason to be self-conscious though. Speaking someone else’s language is absolutely a compliment to them. It shows you’ve made an effort, and it’s basically always appreciated, whereas just launching into English is arrogant and douchey, so just go for it, and if it doesn’t work out, well, no worries, try again. What’s the worst that can happen? Well, short of picking the wrong words and accidentally buying twitter or divulging your location to the Romanian police, the worst most people can imagine is being laughed at. Is that really likely though? Would you ever laugh at someone from overseas speaking your language? And even if someone laughs, is it going to be malicious laughter? Again, it seems unlikely. Sometimes you might just trigger someone’s delighted reaction at an odd combination of words, like the French train announcer who’s concerned about the wellbeing of the platform, but that’s ok. Keep a sense of humour about it, and you’re all good.
Hello! Well, I have been quiet for a few days after a long, long time of consistent language learning and consistent banging-on-about-it on here. We went to France and I had to squeeze my brain into French mode and its taken me a while to get back into the right frame of mind to get back to work on Portuguese. I’m actually still jointly reading the French translation of Six of Crows with my daughter so I’m going to be twin-track for a few weeks to come, but at least I’m starting the ball rolling again.
I’ve also just finished listening to this course about languistics, presented by John McWhorter who is an author and the host of the Lexicon Valley podcast as well as being an accomplished academic in his own right. He really brought the subject alive. I’ve been interested in the development of language for ages and enjoyed seeing how some of my pet theories, derived from learning Portuguese, French and Scots Gaelic, lined up with current ideas formed by people who actually know what they’re talking about. Portuguese is mentioned a few times, both in its relation to other romance languages and in its role as a source languages for creoles and pidgins in areas where Portugal’s empire spread its influence. Of course, knowing about linguistics doesn’t make you better at speaking another language but I feel like it adds an extra dimension to the experience and I’d definitely recommend it if it’s not something you’ve already tried. It’s on Audible’s free list, meaning if you’re a member you can just listen without spending precious, precious credits.
Well, I’m back on blighty, as you’ll know if you’ve been following my series of updates from Coimbra and Porto. We’re off to France in a week or so for a proper holiday, so now I’ve got a week to brush up on the language they speak there which is called… What? “Frenge”, I think. Something like that. I used to be pretty good at it but obviously the language-learning part of my brain only has so much room and a lot of it has been filled up with Portuguese so it’s pretty hard to make myself understood these days.
Like Portugal, France has a lot of wildfires in summer and there are some near(ish) to where we’re staying, so we’ll just have to hope the place will still be standing when we get there.
Ontem, eu e a minha filha passámos o dia sentados no sofá constipados* com os narizes entupidos, a tossir e a ver televisão. Entre várias outras coisas, vimos um filme chamado Opération Portugal. É um filme francês no qual um polícia árabe (o nome do ator é D’Jal) finge ser português para se infiltrar numa família portuguesa que (segundo a Interpol) está envolvida na importação de drogas para França.
Em primeiro lugar o que mais me marcou foi o número de piadas baseadas em xixi. O bófia mija numa roda dum camião logo no início do filme e depois mija mais quatro vezes em várias lugares durante a primeira meia hora. Os franceses gostam assim tanto de rir de urina?
Antes de entrar na missão, o polícia tem de aprender as bases da língua e da cultura portuguesa para passar por português. Aprende a dizer “obrigado” e “bacalhau” e como dizer o nome do país com o sotaque certo. Afinal, é um católogo de estereótipos nacionais. Coitado do francês: na primeira semana, é forçado a assistir a um jogo de futebol entre a seleção portuguesa e a francesa e tem de esconder as lágrimas e a fingir entusiasmo quando os portugueses ganham.
*=I will never get used to this meaning having a blocked nose instead of a blocked bum.
Just to show it’s not just me though, I can testify that my daughter, who has just started A Level French, and is a big fan of the Walking Dead video game series, has been getting just as much out of the French version of the Walking Dead graphic novel series as I got out of the Portuguese ones. She’s only a couple of volumes deep but she’s already better able to unravel complicated sentences, recognise new vocabulary that has come up before, and read out loud. I’ve been nagging her for ages to try the Astérix books but they’re not something that appeals to her and I’m glad she’s found her way to a series that suits her.
Acabei de passar uma hora com a minha filha, a ler uma banda desenhada francesa (uma tradução do The Walking Dead). Foi muito divertido mas o meu cérebro está sobreaquecido* por causa de todo o esforço. Às vezes, lamento a decisão dos nossos antepassados de construirem uma torre até ao céu. Por resultado da sua vaidade, aqui estamos nós a falar várias línguas. A vida seria mais fácil se falássemos todos o mesmo idioma**, principalmente se fosse inglês.
*Although this is definitely what I wanted to say, it’s not a very common phrase and Desanipt, who corrected it (thanks Desanipt!) suggested “está em papa” or “está a deitar fumo” instead
**One of those annoying words that looks like it ought to be feminine but isn’t.
The choice of The Walking Dead was influenced by my saying I’d enjoyed reading it in Portuguese, and found it a good way of learning to read early on, because the pictures give you context and nudge you along towards understanding. I’ve talked about that in the graphic novel section of the blog if you’re interested. They’ve translated quite a lot of them into European Portuguese.
I watched a YouTube video yesterday about the French language, which turns out to vê useful for Portuguese too. She was taking about the use of the phrase bien fait. It literally means “well done” but although it is sometimes used to mean that as part of a larger sentence, when it’s used in its own, it doesn’t carry the same significance as it would of an English person said “Well done”. In other words, if you see a French person makes a heroic effort, saves a kitten from drowning, say, getting soaked in the process, bien fait is not the phrase you need.
The reason is that they use it to mean “serves you right” or “you got what you deserved”, so our heroic kitten-rescuer in the previous paragraph would think you were mocking her or saying she deserved to suffer through dampness because of being so reckless as to try and save a kitten.
So this morning I was reading Winepunk (a sci-fi short story compilation based on an alternative history of the Monarquia do Norte in the early twentieth century) and I came across this passage
“Among them, the engineer sees scores of war-wounded, still in uniform. [Bem Feita] for signing up in the hope of an ephemeral moment of glory”
It’s pretty obvious from. The context that “bem feita” here means the same thing as bien fait: “It serves them right”. He thinks the war wounded deserved to be injured for signing up to the army in pursuit of glory.
Acabo de passar uma semana em França. Adorei mas havia um problema: Ainda que falasse francês muito bem quando era novo, muitos séculos vieram e passaram desde aquela época. Os meus livros vetustos empoeiraram e o meu cérebro enfraqueceu e endoideceu. Ainda por cima, tinha passado anos a ler, falar, escrever e ouvir em português. Por isso, cada vez que falava, palavras portuguesas a cairam da minha boca. juntamente com as francesas. O resultado: uma espécie de “Françugês”.
“Bonjour SENHORA” eu disse. “Je voudrais UM bouteille d’eau E UM café POR FA… hum, DESCUL… pardon… S’il vous plait”
Mas o que mais me interessou foi o efeito de quando regressei à minha terra: receei estar igualmente confuso quando voltasse a falar português mas não houve nenhum problema: nem sequer estava enferrujado: era como se fosse uma semana a praticar português. Ao que parece, os circuitos linguísticos do meu cérebro receberam um treino em francês que aumentou a minha competência em português!
Well, I think this is the longest gap between blog posts for quite some time now. I have been wibbling about doing other things, busy with work and actually took a whole week off portuguese to brush up on my french for a family holiday. It was sort of a strange experience. On the one hand, I was surprised by the experience of accessing the francophone bits of my brain. I’ve forgotten a lot in the 34 years since my O’Level of course, but I used to be pretty good at it back in the day, and the language has pretty deep roots in my head, such that I’ve always been able to hold my own in conversations I’ve had as an adult. But to continue the deep roots metaphor, the whole plant has been buried under a thick mulch of portuguese vocabulary. I had to read a couple of comic books to reawaken it, and even then I’d find portuguese would just tumble out of my mouth at every excuse. I consistently said “et” like the portuguese “e” and standards like “merci”, “pardon” and “oui” would all just give way to their portuguese equivalents even if I was a few sentences deep into a conversation. Words that are similar between the two like “fácil” and “facile” got a bit blurry too.
What was weirder still, though, was that the day after I got back, I had a portuguese lesson after having not spoken, read, heard, or written a word of portuguese for about 8 or 9 days. Normally if I have a delay like that I find I’m really rusty and can’t get a word out, but it actually flowed pretty well, and I can only conclude that whatever mental equipment I use for producing portuguese was getting a good workout from producing the bizarre Françuguês I was bellowing at the longsuffering garçons of Nantes.