Three little words that  mean so much.jpg

Three little words that  mean so much

By JUNE LOVER [email protected]

After 35 years in the TV and film industry, June Lover retired to the Algarve in 2006.  Having owned a holiday property here for 12 years she now lives in the hills above Almancil.

If you think for one moment I mean “I love you”, think again. Valentine’s Day has been and gone thank goodness, so we can put those little words back in their box where they belong.

No, I’m talking about little Portuguese words that crop up all over the place, and cover a multitude of sins. Let me introduce to you Há, Já and Até. I call these my Three Blind Mice because they scuttle all over the place and trip me up wherever I go.

I would desperately love to take my carving knife to their tails, but they won’t stand still long enough.

We’ll start with Até, which basically means ‘until’. But its Portuguese usage spreads far beyond our own convention, and until you get the hang of it, it can be a bit confusing.

You’ll have seen the signs in the shop windows – Desconto até 50%. It’s obvious what it means, and we all rush in hoping for a bargain. But it’s a funny way of saying ‘up to 50% off’ don’t you think? ‘Discount until 50%’. 

As you know, Algarve-speak has a nasty habit of cutting off the beginnings and endings of words. For years, I bid my cheery farewells with a “Tamanyang!”, not having the faintest clue what it meant. But everyone else said it, so I did too.

It seemed to work OK and always raised a smile. It wasn’t until I lived here permanently, and started to pay more attention to the language, that I discovered this is a truncated version of até amanhã. Literally translated, this means ‘until tomorrow’, in other words, “see you tomorrow”. Similarly, “Talog”. Once again an abbreviation – até logo meaning ‘until later’, or in Brit-speak “see you later”.

Next up is Há. Looks like an exclamation doesn’t it? But given that the ‘aitch’ is silent, I have a real problem with this little rodent.

When pronounced, it could mean anything from ‘the’, ‘at’, ‘at the’, ‘to the’, I dunno! But nothing could be further from the truth. Há means ‘there is’ or ‘there are’. ‘Há Caracóis’ it says on the board outside my local eaterie. What’s that supposed to mean?

Literally translated it means ‘there are snails’. But it’s a jolly funny way of advertising to the outside world that your establishment has snails on the menu! By the way, if you’re thinking of lovely juicy escargots, think again. They’re more like winkles and positively disgusting.

Last but not least is Já. This can mean already, yet or now. But beware. Já is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and a good deal of forethought is required before you put this little mouse to work.

There are many different ways of using já. It’s up to you to choose. Will it be the right choice? Is there a right choice?

Once again it’s down to usage. Já não could mean ‘not now’ or ‘not yet’, but agora não also means ‘not now’, and ainda não also means ‘not yet’. So which one do I use? 

“Já não quero um café,” you say to the waiter just as he’s about to put a cup of frothy coffee in front of you, “queria uma cerveja”.

 “I no longer want a coffee, I would like a beer.” On the basis that the customer is always right, you’re allowed to do this although I don’t suppose the waiter is too pleased. However, it was the waiter who told me this by way of demonstrating that já, when used with não, also means ‘no longer’, so he only has himself to blame. I told you it was sneaky.

Volto já basically means ‘back in a minute’ which is something of an anomaly as you read the sign on the shop door and wait impatiently outside the chic boutique for the assistant to return from her two-hour lunch break. So where does the ‘already, yet, or now’ feature in this já? Nowhere.

Apparently it’s an expression. To be fair, every language has its expressions, not least of all our own, but unless you’re au fait with them you don’t stand a chance. 

Já abriu is another enigma. According to the huge posters for the new private hospital near Faro, it means ‘now open’. A convenient English translation leaves you in no doubt about this.

But I’m puzzled because ‘open’ is usually indicated by a sign saying Aberto, as demonstrated on every shop door in the town, even when it’s closed! Very frustrating. Therefore, I expected to see já aberto.

But no. Abriu is the past tense of the word open, so the sign actually means, ‘already it opened’. No doubt there’s a perfectly good explanation for this, but I’m in danger of losing the will to live if I pursue it any further.

Suffice to say, I would never have thought of translating such a simple word as ‘open’ with so many complications, and it merely confirms my belief that 50 per cent of the Portuguese retail trade pretends to be open when it’s not. It also confirms my belief that I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about when I use já.

Já vou, or vou já can both mean “I’m coming!”, even though vou means ‘I go’. Another of life’s little mysteries. But putting já together with até expands its horizons further. Até já can mean anything from “see you soon”, or even “’bye!” And like volto já, it can also mean “back in a minute”. Already, yet, or now?  Fergeddit! You can see why I want to relieve these wretched little mice of their tails.

Much to my horror, há and já have their other uses, too, and occasionally go together as if joined by an invisible umbilical cord. Is there no end to their versatility? These are to do with periods of time.

“Ten years ago” becomes há dez anos, because it transpires that há also means ‘ago’. It’s a busy little word. “I have lived here for ten years” becomes já moro aqui há dez anos – (already I lived here ten years ago) which is really weird, but há, in this instance, changes its hat and replaces the word ‘for’, so you have to have your wits about you before you embark on anything that involves more than a two word conversation about the weather. Where’s the sense in that?

The simple answer is there isn’t any. But you need to know about há, because it crops up in the most unexpected places.

“No problem” is a much-used phrase, in fact my friendly local restaurateur seems to have no other response up his sleeve. “Table for two?” “No problem!” he booms in his thick Glaswegian brogue.

“A bottle of Monte Velho, please.” “No problem!” “Can we see the menu?” “No problem!” I’m sure if I said “Drop dead!” his reply would be “No problem!”

Whilst his aim is to please, it does get a bit tedious. He’ll grow out of it eventually. You’d think this irritating little phrase would translate quite simply into não problema, but in fact há sneaks its way in, making it não há problema – “there is no problem”.

“Not a problem” on the other hand becomes não é um problema. You can see my problem. It’s há!

And then there’s ainda. Not on the list, but another tricky one. Ainda can also mean ‘yet’, or it can mean ‘still’ (not the motionless variety), and therefore ainda não could mean “not yet”.

So which one do I use? Ainda não or já não? Decisions, decisions.

Ainda bem, on the other hand, turns out to be an expression which conveys goodness or happiness, like ‘great news!’, ‘that’s fantastic!’. Given that little words can mean so much, how am I to know which one to use?

In English, the ‘yet’ nearly always comes at the end of the sentence. “I haven’t bought anything yet.” But in Portuguese it comes at the beginning of the sentence. Ainda não comprei nada – “yet I haven’t bought nothing”. How’s about that for grammar? Don’t you just love it? 

This back-to-front speak is really doing my head in, and my three sightless vermin are driving me to distraction. Little words, which for years I took for granted, have now become little gremlins. Is there no end to my misery? Will I ever be able to falar português? 

Há uma luz ao fim do túnel? Ainda não! Feliz Páscoa!