Portuguese for idiots

Portuguese for idiots

‘Feliz Ano Novo’ and ‘bem-vindo’ to 2020! The third decade of the 21st century promises to bring many changes but, continuing Brexit uncertainties apart, one fact remains a constant: foreign residents in the Algarve find it very difficult to pick up the Portuguese language, not to mention attune their ears to local dialects. Let me take a light-hearted dip into the linguistic jungle beyond the basic ‘bom dia’ and ‘obrigado’ (‘obrigada’ if you, the speaker, are female) while also pointing out many of the potential pitfalls as well as similarities.

First of all, a couple of tips for newbies based purely on personal experience: having recently relocated from the Costa del Sol does not help! Although there are many similarities between Spanish and Portuguese, pronunciation varies greatly, the noisy neighbours are, historically speaking (no pun intended), unpopular here (so even if you are understood, people will pretend not to) and, to boot, basic Latin as spoken during Roman times is the direct ancestor of today’s language. In fact, as I was becoming more fluent, I suddenly found that I understood Italian cable television programmes while Spanish remained gobbledegook.

Secondly, try reading a daily news or sports paper, such as Correio da Manhã or Record – the writing is not too demanding and you will be surprised as to how much you do actually understand just by making sense of sentences using words similar to those in English. TV is also beneficial; all foreign films and series carry Portuguese subtitles which help you understand.

Lastly, don’t be afraid of being a ‘silly cockroach’ (‘barata tonta’) and opening your mouth for fear of ‘letting water in’ (‘estás a meter água’), even after ‘many years of turning chickens’ (‘muitos anos a virar frangos’). I still make any number of mistakes, but the important thing is to persist, even if everyone you try to converse with replies in English.

A good starting point is to identify the well over 100 cognates, or words that are identical or very similar in both languages. Capital, banana, animal, hospital and hotel are just a few examples, while there is little difference with others such as the self-explanatory ‘impossível’, ‘acidente’, ‘aeroporto’, ‘ar’, ‘aventura’, ‘carro’, ‘erro’, ‘família’, ‘fruta’, ‘grupo’, ‘momento’, ‘problema’ or ‘turista’.

Then there are a whole raft of words ending with “-ary” in English that correspond to Portuguese ones with the “-ário” equivalent. These include ‘visionário’, ‘aniversário’, ‘comentário’, ‘dicionário’, ‘extraordinário’, ‘necessário’, ‘ordinário’, ‘veterinário’, ‘vocabulário’, or ‘contrário’, none of which require a whole lot of imagination to understand. However, now that you already have command of 300-plus words and start wondering why no-one has ever told you how easy Portuguese really is – this guy ‘has a lot of cans’ (‘tem muita lata’), why doesn’t he ‘go bother Camões’? (‘vai chatear Camões’) – let me bring you back down to earth by introducing you to just a random selection of the many pitfalls awaiting the intrepid want-to-be linguist.

Briefly returning to similar words, beware of coast (which is never far away in the Algarve) – ‘costa’ and ‘costas’ – that little ‘s’ at the end suddenly turns that stretch of land bordering the sea into your very own back (I know some good chiropractors).

Then there is the lingerie department … when considering the purchase of some lacy underwear, make sure you ask the shop assistant for a pair of ‘cuecas’ (Editor’s note: emphasis on the ‘U’, please!) as suggesting a ‘queca’ (silent ‘U’, meaning ‘quicky’) will land you in trouble.

A ‘gaivota’ is not a member of the liberally inclined electorate but a seagull, and fish does not translate into ‘fixe’, a frequently used expression meaning ‘cool’ as in ‘great’. People from the south of England should have no trouble asking for a knife (‘faca’) in a restaurant, but northerners might end up with a seal (‘foca’)!

Frivolities apart, and before you ‘swallow frogs’ (‘engolir sapos’) and put the above into practice, let me finish up by pointing out some last anomalies. Most nouns using two words, such as washing machine, driving licence or mobile phone, are reversed in Portuguese, thus becoming ‘máquina de lavar’, ‘carta de condução’ and ‘telemóvel’. Also, as opposed to previously outlined above, not all similar-sounding words actually mean the same thing. For example, ‘cão’ is not a ‘cow’ (‘vaca’) but a dog.

Furthermore, some words are almost identical while having wildly different meanings. You need a very practised ear and tongue in order to differentiate between ‘sede’ (thirst), ‘sede’ (head office), ‘cedo’ (early) and ‘seda’ (silk). I am still flummoxed by the subtle variation in pronunciation as to grandmother and grandfather (‘avó’ and ‘avô’), although I realise that ‘saúde’ concerns both my ‘health’ and saying ‘cheers’, while having nothing to do with ‘saudades’ – a uniquely Portuguese sentiment most accurately translated by a mixture of the German words ‘Heimweh’ and ‘Weltschmerz’. But ‘chega’, enough of that!

You will probably never be able to engage in a deep and involved discussion about the present government’s pseudo socio-economic policies – ‘too much water in the beard’ (‘dar água pela barba’) – but every bit helps and is certainly appreciated by the locals.

A case in point: when the normally ebullient Sara, who served me my first ‘caneca’ this morning, appeared a bit down in the mouth, I piped up with ‘did you wake up with your feet outside?’ (‘acordaste com os pés de fora?’). Not only did she tell me to ‘go comb monkeys!’ (‘vai pentear macacos!’) with a broad smile on her face, but the lady minding the shop across the road from the café also ‘started breaking all the dishes’ (‘partir a loiça toda’).

Thank you for ‘burning your eyelashes’ (‘queimar as pestanas’). Get out there and ‘boa sorte’!

Words and phrases used in this article in order of their appearance:

Feliz Ano Novo – happy New Year
Bem-vindo – welcome
Bom dia – good morning
Obrigado/obrigada – thank you
Barata tonta – clumsy, silly (idiom)
Estás a meter água – to make a fool of yourself (idiom)
Muitos anos a virar frangos – someone who has a lot of experience (idiom)
Ter muita lata – show a lot of nerve (idiom)
Chatear o Camões – go bore someone else (idiom)
Costa – coast
Costas – back (body)
Cuecas – briefs, underpants
Gaivota – seagull
Fixe – cool
Faca – knife
Foca – seal
Engolir sapos – do something you don’t want to (idiom)
Máquina de lavar – washing machine
Carta de condução – driving licence
Telemóvel – mobile telephone
Cão – dog
Vaca – cow
Sede – thirsty
Sede – head office
Cedo – early
Seda – silk
Avó/avô – grandmother, grandfather
Saúde – health, cheers
Chega – enough
Dar água pela barba – something that requires a lot of work (idiom)
Caneca – pint (glass)
Acordar com os pés de fora – wake up in a bad mood (idiom)
Vai pentear macacos – get lost (idiom)
Partir a loiça toda – to be amazed, impressed (idiom)
Queimar as pestanas – to read a lot (idiom)
Boa sorte – good luck

By Skip Bandele
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Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 20 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.