According to a BBC News story:

Portugal’s parliament has voted to introduce contentious changes to the Portuguese language in order to spell hundreds of words the Brazilian way.

The agreement standardises numerous spellings and adds three letters – k, w and y – to the alphabet…

The agreement will standardise spelling by removing silent consonants in order for words to be spelt more phonetically, turning, for example “optimo” (great) into “otimo”.

Needless to say, petitions of protest are being signed by laudatores temporis acti, but this is a nice example of national pride being set aside in the interests of international understanding and good sense (Brazil has over 180,000,000 speakers, versus Portugal’s 10,000,000). Thanks to peacay for the heads-up!


  1. michael farris says

    The problem is that AFAIK the spelling is the smallest difference between Brazil and Portugal.
    The phonology, morphology and syntax are all pretty divergent (with no signs that I know of that Portugal is moving toward Brazilian usage).
    And the Brazilian situation is fairly diglossic, if standard written Brazilian were closer to the way people actually speak it would pretty much have to be declared a separate language.

  2. “General Grant still dead”
    The treaty was signed in 1990; this is just the implementing law.

  3. I fail to see how “international understanding and good sense” are necessarily well-served by the Portuguese giving up the traditional uses of their language, and, quite frankly, I applaud those Portuguese who are resisting this insult to their “national pride”, made in the name of some spurious notion of ‘peace, harmony and understanding’… nonsense, pfft, nonsense; more bluntly, in the interests of commerce and profit, the great gods of the age.

  4. michael farris says

    I also tend to the think that going through this kind of effort to keep Brazil on the lusophone train might reinforce the dysfunctional nature of Brazilian society (small elite, big underclass).
    By all accounts, Brazil is a _lot_ more diglossic than Portugal and statistic on literacy (and reading) are a lot worse. I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t used to keep the underclass big and politically powerless. If Brazil were to cut itself free linguistically there would be less justification for the diglossia.
    That said, all in all I prefer written Iberian Portuguese and hope they don’t start modifying the written syntax to correspond to Brazilian usage.

  5. As I see it, the agreement was set as a means to maintain the language strong (by making it internationally unified) to be able to resist more to the influence of external languages (particularly English). I see some sense in that. But the changes seem too aesthetic and no use to the people.
    I think, however, that the languages of both countries (and probably the other lusophone contries, like Angola) are long too different to be artifitially unified by the orthography. In a time where there’s movements to research and even use in schools the language as spoken by the people, such a revision of the orthography seems utterly nonsensical.

  6. My understanding is that the Portuguese get Brazilian soaps on TV and that most of the incomprehensibility problems are with Brazilians understanding the Portuguese, not the other way around.
    Huh, just checked out the literacy figures for Brazil as a whole and for the various regions; it’s better than I thought. The Northeast region (populous and poor) has it listed as 88.7%, which is bad for a western country, but not that far away from that of the Southern region, at 94%. Certainly, in a country that size, that’s still a *lot* of illiterate people.

  7. And the literacy figures for Portugal are here; turns out that the southern region of Brazil beats Portugal’s 93% in this.

  8. The spelling change has not occurred just because Brazilian Portuguese is spoken by more people. It is also the case that, much like American English as opposed to British English, the spelling in Brazilian Portuguese more closely resembles the spoken word.
    Granted, having a orthographic system match the spoken word is not always desirable, but I think that is more the reason behind moving towards Brazilian Portuguese orthography as opposed to European Portuguese.
    Portuguese spelling reform has taken place in the past as well. If I remember correctly, Fernando Pessoa complained about the loss of etymological links to the past in one of his short prose/poetry pieces.

  9. michael farris says

    I don’t mean such much literacy rates (as in can read) but habits (a large majority Brazilians choose to read very little).
    two interesting sample comments (from Brazilians):
    “Written portuguese is quite different from the spoken language, and so feels strange and unpleasant. I read two books a month but most are in english. I only read one portuguese-language book every year, on average, and always find that the cognitive load it imposes on me is much higher.”
    “most Brazilians don’t understand a simple text written in Brazilian Portuguese standard ”

  10. In his book The Once and Future King, TH White says, through Merlyn that “The destiny of man is to unite, not to divide; if you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.” Portugal’s leaders have made the right choice if what is to unite the Portuguese language and Lusophone people.
    By the way, I was told by a phonetician who specializes in Portuguese that Portugal has more phonetic variance than Brazil.

  11. Now if only English could get the same treatment…

  12. To Michael:
    The diglossia is not related to the spelling but to the grammar. Brazilian Portuguese’s spelling system is quite phonetic and is easy to read, but it is the spoken grammar which has diverged widely from the written grammar that makes for the diglossia.
    Obviously, spelling reform will not rectify that particular situation.

  13. Eh, this talk of diglossia makes me laugh.
    I’m learning Brazilian Portuguese now. I am exposed to a certain amount of colloquial Brazilian Portuguese through expatriates (who obviously, by virtue of the fact they can afford plane tickets, are not typical people, but still…)
    Where I live English as it is spoken on the street is also far from standard but nobody even seems to notice (except in a my-aren’t-young-people-terrible sort of way).
    I don’t sense any greater divergence between our street English what I hear from people speaking vs what I read in Portuguese grammar books. Yet we don’t make a big fuss out of it. I wonder why.

  14. “what I hear” is a actually a typo, but it’s pretty typical of the local lingo too…

  15. How interesting that spelling should be a matter for treaties, and that congressmen get to spend their time legislating it. Surely there will be laws, penalties, and a nice new bureaucracy to implement and police the issue. If we get lucky Saramago will delight us with a fantastic tale of an entire world in which language was frozen by fiat.

  16. marie-lucie says

    “Portugal has more phonetic variance than Brazil”: this is what one expects in the country of origin, where the language has been spoken for centuries at a time when communications between regions were slow and many regional dialects had time to develop. Similarly there is more phonetic variance in England than in North America.

  17. If the World change the “Declation of the Rights of Man” by Brazilian Etical points of view??
    Next spet for Humanity!

  18. If the World change the “Declation of the Rights of Man” by Brazilian Etical points of view??
    Next spet for Humanity!

  19. Andrew Dunbar says

    Nau if ounlee Inglish kʊd get ðə seim treetmənt…

  20. Arthur Crown says

    I’ve had an idea! The USA could set aside its national pride, too, and start spelling things the English way. That would make good sense and promote international understanding. Was that what you were thinking?
    Oh, but no. Wait, now I remember: there are only sixty million people in the UK and two zillion in the US So it must be the other way round, you want us to spell our things the ‘Merican way, is that it? Ok, no problem.
    One thing, though. I live in Norway, where children start seriously learning English at school in about the second grade. They go out of their way to teach Britith English. And what about India, Pakistan, Australasia, the former British colonies in Africa? Do they all have to switch to ‘Merican to promote peace and understanding?

  21. michael farris says

    Arthur, is the hostile tone intentional? Certainly nobody’s suggested that the UK and US adopt a single spelling (I think that would be pretty stupid).
    This is another reason I think the Portuguese decision is misguided. The level of spelling difference between Portugal and Brasil just isn’t big enough to warrant governmental micro-management. I think Brazil and Portugal should stick with their own spellings.
    And writing from the spelling confusion capital of Europe (if not the world) which Norwegian spelling do they use where you live?

  22. The behavior of the Scandinavian countries is actually quite odd. American English sees much greater use and would be more useful for them and easier to learn for their children, whose exposure to English outside of school is more to American English. On the other hand, I can see no good reason for them to persist in using Using British English. It isn’t even a matter of national pride. I suspect that the conservatism of English teachers and other such vested interests is at work.

  23. caffeind says

    It could also be a matter of European solidarity. Anyway they have plenty of exposure to US media and Internet and likely have no problem with American English.
    So if spoken Brazilian is so different, is there a good online reference to learn about it?

  24. “It is also the case that, much like American English as opposed to British English, the spelling in Brazilian Portuguese more closely resembles the spoken word.”
    I don’t know about Brazilian Portuguese, but I don’t think that American English spelling is really significantly closer to the spoken word than British English spelling. In fact, the differences are largely cosmetic. American spelling is MARGINALLY simpler, that’s about all.

  25. To add to my previous comment, if American and British spelling are likened to vehicles, they are both horse-drawn carriages. The only difference is that the American carriage has lost a couple of brass knobs and streamlined the colour design a little.

  26. Arthur Crown says

    I must say I had no idea so many people were searching for one international language, maybe you should all start learning Esparanto. Personally, I think diversity is good, and to legeslate conformity is absurd: I never had any difficulty understanding Americans who write ‘socks’ s o x, or whatever it is.
    The hostile tone is intentional, Michael (‘an unintentionally hostile tone’, is there such a thing?). Probably it’s because I have just been reading a very odd book, My Dog Tulip, by J.R. Ackerley, which is about a Londoner and his dog in London. There is a lot of description about dogs shitting in the strret in this book. I have a NY Review of Books’ edition, where the word ‘pavement’ has been ruthlessly changed by some moron to ‘sidewalk’ all the way through, as if Americans could cope with all the dog shit, but should be protected from, eek, ‘the pavement’.
    I’ve got to go, but whoever it was should know that Norway in not a part of Europe, or the European Union.

  27. A. Crown says

    No, it’s not a case of British English. I meant to write ‘legislate’, obviously, not ‘legeslate’.

  28. And you also meant to write “Norway is a part of Europe,” assuming you know any geography.

  29. mollymooly says

    The powers that be in Brussels are trying to make “Europe” synonymous with “European Union”, much as “America” has become synonymous with “United States of America”. Thus, statements like “Britain belongs in Europe” do not imply a debate about artificial plate tectonics.

  30. A. Crown says

    Correct, Herr Hat. Norway is a part of the European continent, but not of the European Union. Well spotted.
    Norway has three languages: nynorsk, bøkmål and samisk for four-and-a-half-million people (the US would have something like 200 languages at that rate). We have no spelling confusion, as you put it, any more than different American accents cause hearing confusion. But that’s nothing: a fourteen year-old Norwegian is learning their fourth or fifth language at school, and you people can’t deal with some very minor spelling differences in English. Don’t you think your energy would be better spent teaching American children a second language?
    Do they still speak Portugese in Angola? Are they going to start speaking Brazillian, too?

  31. michael farris says

    “you people can’t deal with some very minor spelling differences in English”
    Who on this comment thread has written anyting of the kind?
    On the question of the thread, some support the idea of importing Brazilian standards into Portugal (like our host) and some don’t (like me). But you’re the only one being hostile.
    My comment about Norway was certainly meant in good humor. I’m rather fond of the complicated, but mostly very well-functioning, mess (I mean that in the best possible way) that is Norwegian language policy.
    Leaving aside Sami (a very different kettle of fish) they have two official written standards and a couple of unofficial standards (and no official spoken standard) for four million people who all speak mutually intelligible dialects in the context of a modern hyper-literate culture. That is so cool.

  32. Anatol Stefanowitsch has a hilarious survey of the inadequacies of international media coverage of this change over here, for those who speak German.

  33. Arthur Crown says

    Miichael Farris wrote,
    “Who on this comment thread has written anything of the kind?”
    1. Now if only English could get the same treatment…
    Also, by inference:
    2. American English sees much greater use and would be more useful.
    3. I can see no good reason for them to persist in using Using British English.
    4. It could also be a matter of European solidarity.
    But Michael, now I see from the Aeneid thread that you are cool, so I will stop being cross. You probably know that Farris is the biggest selling bottled water in Norway.

  34. michael farris says

    On the water. I haven’t been there but a friend came back with a bottle. Unfortunately I can’t think of any ways to cash in on it.
    I think the first comment was facetious (we get a lot of that here and it can take new arrivals a while to separate the faux provocation from the genuine conspiracy theories).
    And I honestly would question a British only policy in Norwegian English education. I think British makes sense there as the foundation, but I would hope/assume that American forms are addressed eventually.
    Here in Poland there were competing factions and constituencies for British and American standards both among teachers and students. But the fruits of US foreign policy since about 2003 and the UK and Ireland opening their labor market to Polish people have shot that all to hell and now British reins as _the_ standard. This constrains some of what I do in some ways but it’s perfectly understandable from the local viewpoint.

  35. John Emerson says

    Let me second the endorsement of Norway’s wonderfully insane language policy. Especially considering that there are Danish and Swedish standards too, where Germany, France, or England would have a single standard for all of them and probably the Faroes and Iceland too. .
    ESL teaching internationally often privileges the British standard for no special reason other than bureaucratic inertia (and in many cases, a British Imperial past, or within the EU, an employment preference for EU nationals).
    James Joyce couldn’t teach in Italy because his diploma was Irish. In Hong Kong I met a guy who couldn’t teach English because he had a cockney accent.

  36. michael farris says

    I had an Irish colleague who had taught in Germany. He said once in class he jokingly referred to his Irish accent (which was not that strong – his diction was crystal clear) and the next thing he knows half the class has complained to the administration that they’ve paid for real English and not dialect and what are is Herr Direktor going to do about it?!
    He didn’t lose his job, but never tried to make a joke in class again (though he would have gotten along better in Poland by doing everything he learned not to do in Germany).

  37. Arfur Crown says

    American forms are addressed, at least here, as someone said, by popular culture: films, hip-hop and tv. But I was amazed when I first started living in Germany and now Norway that people speaking fluent English cannot tell the difference between a US and a British accent.
    The nynorsk/bokmål thing is slightly tricky when you first come here, but you soon get used to it. I think it’s fair to say that some Norwegians resent it (national tv news alternates its broadcasts in nynorsk & bokmål dialects, some time is ‘wasted’ learning the other form at school, etc.) Much harder for me is the variation in accents, because I’m quite deaf, and Danish, which is written almost as bokmål but pronounced slurred, as if you were a drunk Norwegian.
    Didn’t know that about Joyce, The cockney accent would be a big advantage for any Chinese moving to London, but I don’t suppose many of them are.

  38. John Emerson says

    But wait — is there any other kind of Norwegian?

  39. The grand international contest between American and British English is, in the linguistic scheme of things, extraordinarily parochial and trivial. Of course, it’s not so trivial if seen as a cultural struggle between a former superpower and the current superpower, but linguistically it’s small potatoes, and kind of boring, actually.
    The biggest casualty of all this is, of course, the non-British, non-American speakers of English. I don’t believe Australian or Indian accents are particularly welcome in English teaching anywhere in the world. I can’t imagine why, although student incomprehension may play a part 🙂
    The British-American contest is found not only in English teaching, but also in journalism and, I think, in international business. I understand that, depending on whether a country has a British or American background (e.g., former British colony), there is a strong preference in hiring British or American journalists.
    One matter that intrigues me is whether the Internet is changing things. As more and more ordinary people from both sides cross-post on forums and blogs (such as this one), I suspect that British spellings and usages are becoming more familiar to Americans, and vice versa. I saw on a forum the other day where an American poster said “I haven’t heard the word ‘row’ before, but I assume it means ‘argument'”. Thus another expression finds its way across the Atlantic — although probably in the wrong pronunciation!

  40. There is an article about Brazilian and Portuguese spelling at http://www.spellingsociety.org/journals/j28/portuguese.php
    Efforts to harmonise spelling between the two countries have a long history.
    Unfortunately the above article is written in simplified English spelling, which is very hard to read!

  41. marie-lucie says

    English is also spoken in vast regions of Canada, a country in North America where pronunciation and spelling tend to hesitate between British and US usages. Living in Canada, I was surprised to learn that “row” with the meaning “heated argument” was unknown in the US. Here it is commonly used, in sentences such as “My neighbours were having quite a row last night – I could hear every word, and let me tell you …”

  42. “Unknown” is too strong for “row” in the US. Begin short, it does decent service for tabloid headline writers here, whose target demo is almost a parody of an average American. But not commonly used in the way you quote, no.

  43. michael farris says

    I’d say row is known in written form (cause it’s short and handy in headlines) but it’s restricted to governmental contexts and not anything anybody would say (and if they tried, they’d mostly likely pronounce it as in rowboat).
    It’s not like moggie or graft (very different UK meaning) that I think hardly anyone in the US would understand outside of context (and the latter would likely cause confusion even in context).
    The situation between US and British speakers in Poland was a little odd since neither side felt any need to give any ground (unlike, say an American in the UK who I would hope would defer to local usage over time).
    I was surprised at how many … bumps that kind of conversation can have. I think I know more about British usage than most Americans but I was surprised at how often I’d have to ask someone to repeat things (it did decrease over time but has never gone away).
    I was also surprised (given how much American English is heard in the UK) how many American colloquialisms weren’t generally understood – a couple off the top of my head include hissy fit and pokey (the adjective meaning slow or lacking in energy).

  44. Just curious: What is the UK meaning of “graft” that Americans wouldn’t understand?

  45. michael farris says

    IIRC something like ‘hard work’ (maybe connotations of it being unrewarding too?).

  46. Ah, the same meaning as ‘yakka’.

  47. A. Crown says

    One thing I meant to say about Norway and anarchism. There is an official academy ready to welcome new words into the language (not), but people are becoming more skeptical about their pronouncements. Last year a decision was made that bacon should henceforth be spelled ‘baiken’, thereby making it conform to local pronunciation and eliminating the dreaded roman letter ‘c’. This caused much amusement (I think they withdrew it in the end).

  48. IIRC, many of the spelling differences between UK and US English are traceable to Webster, who was deliberately trying to make the two languages appear more different than they were for nationalistic reasons – compare the splitting of Serbo-Croat into Serbian and Croatian after the Yugoslav civil wars.
    Worth considering: are there really many more American English speakers than British English, given that British English is the dominant form in most of the Commonwealth, including India and Pakistan?

  49. Indian English is closer to British English, but isn’t it really, like Australian, a separate dialect?
    prepone, capsicum, please revert, would-be, timepass, opticals, to say nothing of words from Indian languages.

  50. Arthur Crown says

    They (the Australian and Indians) use British spelling, though. So do the Pakistanis, South Africans and, apparently (I didn’t know this), Canadians (sometimes).

  51. Yes, I wrote about the labyrinth that is Canadian spelling here.

  52. Arfur Crown says

    Thanks. It’s interesting that both the Australians and Canadians thought there was a nationalistic reason for NOT using US spelling — that was Noah Webster’s justification for creating it

  53. “Capsicum” is also used in Australia. I presume you’re referring to hot peppers.

  54. I think the most striking thing for Americans is the use of “capsicum” to refer to a non-hot bell pepper, particularly a green pepper.

  55. I don’t think most Americans are even familiar with the word capsicum. It’s all “peppers.”

  56. laudatores temporis acti
    Which, if my battered Latin-English handbook can be trusted, translates roughly to “chunterers”.

  57. Arthur Crown says

    According to Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names, Capsicum is peppers both hot and sweet, and it must be the sweet ones too because it comes from Gr. kapto, to bite. I don’t bite into a hot pepper, I nibble or suck it.

  58. Other way around: capsicum bites you.
    The genus Capsicum includes fruits with enormous variation in hotness, down to almost none. This is the result of selective breeding both ways.
    But in some dialects of English, capsicum is the larger non-hot one and chilli is the hot one. As LH says, in American, these are all “peppers,” possibly qualified “sweet / bell / green” and “hot.”
    Boston being a college and high-tech town, it’s not uncommon to overhear young Indian couples in the produce aisle buying “capsicums.” And it even slips onto restaurant menus from time to time; here‘s one in NYC.

  59. Arthur Crown says

    A pretty good Indian menu, except at the bottom I get a Google ad in Norwegian for a vacuum compost toilet, which is kind of off-putting.
    Yes, of course, it bites you. And if I look up to bite in my (Pocket Oxford) Latin dictionary I get a second meaning, it says:
    (as pepper, etc.) uro. So apparently peppers bit both Greeks and Romans.

  60. marie-lucie says

    Hot peppers are further subdivided depending on colour, size and hotness. There are chili peppers, banana peppers, jalapeno (with tilde) peppers, and more. Sweet peppers also come in green, yellow, orange and red versions (the colours apparently denoting degrees of ripeness, but the texture of yellow/orange peppers seems to be much softer than that of green/red ones). “Capsicum” is a word I had seen, but not in supermarkets.

  61. Pepper, that is piper, bit the Greeks and Romans, but capsicum could not, because it is a New World genus and to them unknown, as likewise to the palaeotropicals that are so fond of it in their food today.
    Always remember: jalapeño with tilde, habanero without.

  62. “Capsicum” is quite normal usage for large sweet peppers in New Zealand, and has been since my childhood in the 1970s (when they were a most uncommon vegetable). It’s probably still more common than “pepper”, which is usually only used in the compound “chilli pepper”. Anyway, “capsicum” is not unique to Indian English.

  63. David Marjanović says

    Capital letters for genus names.

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