Do you speak my language?

Happy New Year and “um Bom Ano Novo”!

Exactly two years ago – doesn’t time fly? – I wrote a well-received piece, entitled ‘Portuguese for Idiots’, on these pages prompting me to attempt another tongue-in-cheek safari into the intriguing flora and fauna of the linguistic jungle.

Let us begin with some local ‘delicacies’. Given the time of year, “inverno”, or winter, you really don’t have to be embarrassed about admitting to being “constipado” as suffering from a cold – during ‘normal’ times, anyway – is quite normal, as is having a bit of a “tosse”, or cough!

The older ones amongst us might benefit from covering our “careca” (no, not fondness for a pint, “caneca”, but baldness) with a “gorro”, or woolly hat, as well as keeping out the cold with some “meias” (not halves) and “luvas” – or socks and gloves. The latter should not be confused with “uvas”, although grapes and their popular liquid end-product can also contribute to a feeling of inner warmth.

Whilst on the subject of similar-sounding words, “luta” and “luto” can also be easily confused – you really don’t want to be looking for a ‘fight’ when actually ‘grieving’ (respectively).

Other examples of instances which could cause a perfectly ordinary situation to take an entirely undesirable or comical turn are shopping for a suit, or “fato”, but asking for a “pato” (duck) – the shop assistant might get a bit “farto” (no, he or she is not suffering from flatulence, just getting fed up!) – whereas a slight mispronunciation in a restaurant will see you end up with an apple (“maçã”) on your plate – “prato”, not “prata” (silver) – as opposed to a much lusted-after pasta (“massa”).

Furthermore, you do not want to go looking for “cocó” or “pau” instead of “coco” and “pão” in the supermarket unless your dog has been naughty, and you are after ‘poo’ on a ‘stick’ rather than ‘coconut’ and ‘bread’.

Even after many years in the Algarve, some of these close relations will still confuse you, as will the door signs “puxe” and “empurre” – ‘pull’ and ‘push’ – which perform the opposite physical action from those indicated.

English also has any number of idiosyncrasies which will leave any non-native speaker forever flummoxed.

You can be ‘drunk as a skunk’, ‘sober as a judge’, ‘sick as a parrot’, ‘eat like a horse’ or ‘healthy as an ox’ unless you’re knackered. Something can be no good or bollocks, unless it’s the dog’s bollocks, in which case it’s the absolute best – but more of idioms a little later.

German and English are supposed to be closely related, both stemming from West Germanic. In practice, almost identical words such as ‘Bier’, ‘Haus’, ‘Schule’, ‘Glass’, ‘Grass’, ‘Keller’ or ‘Bruder’, to name just a few, seem to bear this theory out until you get down to the nitty gritty when there are numerous exceptions to almost all the very fiendish grammar rules as well as every noun from turnip to ring binder enjoying a separate gender.

But let us return closer to home. Geographically, Spain is Portugal’s most immediate neighbour but, although also Latin-based and spoken by over 430 million people in 21 countries worldwide, Spanish is almost incomprehensible to the untrained ear.

Speed of delivery, pronunciation and variations between Castilian, Catalan and Basque dialects give it an entirely different sound from Portuguese.

Moving along, more understandable are the communication difficulties between ‘us’ and the French, politics apart. The main romance language with Latin as its root was strongly influenced by the invading German-speaking Franks during the fifth century, imposing their own pronunciation and word patterns to such an extent that today’s spoken version is very different to its Spanish and Italian cousins – the Germans have a lot to answer for! Which brings me back to the origin of Portuguese, which has evolved from ‘vulgar’ Latin spoken by Legionnaires during the days of Roman occupation, and thus modern Italian is more closely related to today’s Portuguese than any other language. Although I have never learnt Italian, I found myself easily following Italian daytime soap operas on television as soon as I had become fluent here. Mind you, having said that, what resemblance does “Bella giornata oggi, vero?” bear to “lindo dia hoje, nao é?” (lovely day today, isn’t it?)? Double Dutch, if you ask me!

To finish up, some more choice idioms as promised earlier. In Spain, for example, you would feel like ‘a cockroach at a chicken dance’ or ‘an octopus in a garage’ rather than a ‘fish out of water’. Remaining on the Iberian Peninsula, should you prove unable ‘to see three people on a donkey’, you would be ‘blind as a bat’, whereas to avoid ‘feeding cake to the donkey’ in Portugal signifies not ‘casting pearls before swine’.

But hold your German ‘ears stiff’ or your English ‘chin up’ because, looking back, it’s ‘all Hebrew’ to the French, ‘Chinese’ to the Spanish (and Portuguese!), ‘Spanish’ to the Germans and ‘all Greek’ to me … and I never mentioned the ‘c’-word!

By Skip Bandele
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Skip Bandele escaped to the Algarve almost 25 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.