By Elizabeth Nash in Madrid
Friday, 2 May 2008
Portugal may have to recognise the inevitable by bowing to the economic and cultural predominance of Brazil, its former colony. The once proud imperial power is considering reforming its language to accommodate recent linguistic developments in the South American economic powerhouse, with which it shares a language.
However the proposed reform of the Portuguese language in favour of Brazilian usage has sparked a heated polemic among the Portuguese, with the distinguished poet Vasco Graça Moura leading the rearguard action. "There is no need for us to take a back seat to Brazil," he protests.
A more relaxed view of the proposed changes is taken by José Saramago, Portugal's only Nobel literature laureate, who recently infuriated compatriots by suggesting that Portugal become part of Spain. "We must get over this idea that we own the language," the 85-year-old said. "The language is owned by those who speak it, for better or for worse."
The proposal to be put before parliament on 15 May would standardise Portuguese around the world and change the spellings of hundreds of words in favour of the Brazilian versions. The measure is largely a response to commercial interests. But for the once proud imperial power, whose language is spoken by 230 million people worldwide, it is a blow to national pride comparable to Britons adopting American spellings and writing, say, "traveler" instead of "traveller".
The Portuguese modifications would match spellings to the way words are pronounced by removing silent consonants. Thus optimo (great) would become otimo, and accao (action) would become acao. The word humido (humid) would become umido. This might create problems when the new words already exist with a different meaning – for example facto (fact) would become fato: but in Portugal a fato is a suit.
Advocates say benefits include easier internet searches in Portuguese, and a uniform language for international contracts. Portugal's publishing industry, especially the lucrative school textbooks sector, stands to benefit enormously. And Portuguese officials hope the measure would advance an old ambition of getting Portuguese adopted as an official language at the UN.
Jose Socrates's Socialist government wants Portugal's politicians to ratify the spelling agreement with the world's seven other Portuguese-speaking countries: Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Principe. The letters k, w and y would be included in the Portuguese alphabet for the first time, to accommodate words like kilometro (kilometre) and kwanza, the Angolan currency.
The changes would affect some 2,000 words out of a Portuguese vocabulary of 110,000 words. But three quarters of the modifications would have to be adopted by Portugal, the mother country.
"The Portuguese don't like their language being changed any more than we would like ours," said the British writer Peter Sage, a longtime resident in Lisbon. "Portugal has lost its colonies, its power and its wealth, but at least it could pride itself on its linguistic influence in the Portuguese-speaking world."
But he said many people in Portugal were having to come to terms with the shifting of economic power in the Portuguese-speaking world. Today Brazil, which gained its independence from Portugal in 1822, is home to 190 million Portuguese speakers and is one of the world's big economic players. Portugal has a population of just 10.6 million.