Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Guest Post: Brazilian Diglossia

Brazilian Diglossia is not a scary a new disease sweeping through South America, nor is it the name of one of the football teams popular in Brazil. Brazilian Diglossia is a theory regarding Brazil’s national language that is exceptionally important for any individual considering learning Portuguese. Brazilian Portuguese (BP) is diglossic, meaning that two dialects of the language are used by the same community. Within this theory, the two forms of Brazilian Portuguese are labelled as High (H-variant) and Low (L-variant). Which sounds tremendously boring to read about, it actually is, I know because I had to research it for this blog. Keep reading, this difference is critical if you want to actually learn Brazilian Portuguese, and I’ll try to keep it interesting.

The L-variant is also called Brazilian Vernacular. The Brazilian Vernacular is the spoken language that Brazilians use in everyday life. It is the language that is learned at home as a child, and the only language that some Brazilians truly master. This is the version of Portuguese that you will find in telenovelas, song lyrics, essentially any form of communication that is not considered formal. What’s interesting is that this form of the language differs so much from the H-Variant of the language that many Brazilians would have a hard time understanding someone speaking the H-variant.

The H-variant is the formal version of the language, it is also considered to be much closer to modern European Portuguese. H-variant is what is taught in school, used in most literary works, utilised during government proceedings, and at times used as a way to exclude different social stratifications. Some like to say it is the ‘prestige’ form of BP. What is interesting about this is that no one actually uses it in Brazil. This form of the language isn’t even used by the upper-classes as it’s seen as a sign of arrogance.

An understanding of this separation between most writing and common speech is integral to finding success when Brazilian Portuguese is essential for you. If you are only able to speak European Portuguese or the H-variant of BP, you may be able to understand the common L-variant but find that your listeners are unable to understand you. A colleague of mine who is Brazilian spent some time in Portugal ran into an interesting problem while trying to buy a sandwich. She was looking for ham on the menu but it was nowhere to found. When asking for it in line they couldn’t understand what she was saying, and kept replying “Fiambre” “Fiambre!” She had no idea what Fiambre meant! As it turned out, this is how “ham” is pronounced in the H-Variant of the language. Other more troubling examples exist but they are not appropriate for this blog.

Ultimately, if you want to spend time in Brazil, you need to learn the Brazilian form of the language. This will help you avoid translation problems like the one above and many more. It will also allow you to enjoy a more thorough cultural immersion by actually conversing with all Brazilians, allowing you to develop deeper relationships with locals. So, catch yourself a case of Brazilian Diglossia and learn the language the right way.

This article is a guest post by Mike Lee, an American expat, originally from the DC metropolitan area now working for BRIC Language Systems, a language school that offers Mandarin, Brazilian Portuguese, and Spanish language lessons for professionals.


Anonymous said...

" What’s interesting is that this form of the language differs so much from the H-Variant of the language that many Brazilians would have a hard time understanding someone speaking the H-variant. "

"If you are only able to speak European Portuguese or the H-variant of BP, you may be able to understand the common L-variant but find that your listeners are unable to understand you."


There are different words for one thing. People who speak European Portuguese may well not understand Brazilian Portuguese too.
Most Brazilians do not understand European Portuguese not because is formal or is a H- variant, but because of the accent, which is not so clear, and  there is a tendency to suppress syllables, and is  spoken in a faster way. These factors make painful and boring European variety to be heard and understood by Brazilians. Brazilians are not used to such variant. Few things from Portugal are seen in Brazil, and European Portuguese is not heard in any way by Brazilians in Brazil.

The text seems inaccurate and wrong in some points.

Discovering São Paulo said...

Thanks for your comments. Interesting point! Let's see what Mike has to say about that.

Mike Lee said...


I appreciate your opinion and comment, and I do agree with some points but disagree in others. My viewpoints have been gained through trips to Brazil and working with Brazilians.

Whether Brazilian Portuguese is diglossic or not is definitely a controversial subject.I have been to Portugal few times, and I noticed that Portuguese people are very exposed to the Portuguese spoken in Brazil. Thanks to Brazilian movies, soap operas, music, and the many Brazilian immigrants that moved to Portugal in the recent years, the Portuguese people do understand BP, even the colloquial expressions. But the contrary doesn't always apply. I agree with you when you said Brazilians are barely exposed to European Portuguese. On top of that, there are phonetic differences, some variations in grammar and vocabulary, which gets the EP closer to the H-variant. The so-called well-educated people in Portugal tend to use more the formal variety of Portuguese than Brazilians, in my opinion.

Quoting linguist Mario Perini, “There are two languages in Brazil. The one we write (and which is called ”Portuguese”), and another one that we speak (which is so despised that there is not a name to call it). The latter is the mother tongue of Brazilians, the former has to be learned in school, and a majority of population does not manage to master it appropriately. [...] Personally, I do not object to us writing Portuguese, but I think it is important to make clear that Portuguese is (at least in Brazil) only a written language. Our mother tongue is not Portuguese, but Brazilian Vernacular. This is not a slogan, nor a political statement, it is simply recognition of a fact. [...] There are linguistic teams working hard in order to give us the full description of the structure of the Vernacular. So, there are hopes, that within some years, we will have appropriate grammars of our mother tongue, the language that has been ignored, denied and despised for such a long time.”

MarckP said...

Mike, I tend to side with Anonymous above.
I agree with you and the linguist that there are two languages the written and the spoken, but this is true everywhere.
I am wrong?
See the sentence a voce could be said in in English, but should not be written.
I also agree with you that the spoken Portuguese in Portugal follows closely the rules of written Portuguese than Brazilian Portuguese...
Ei você aí
Me dá o dinheiro aí

This would not be written or spoken in Portugal. A sentence would never start with a pronoun.

Nevertheless, great posting.

MarckP said...

"See the sentence a voce" should read "See, the sentence above".
"follows closely the rules..." should read " follows more closely the rules..."

And I, I should read before I post... :-)

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