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.


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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.

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Interesting post! This is really helpful for me. I like it! Thanks for sharing!
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