October 22, 2012 | Portuguese

More Fun with Portuguese Grammar

And maybe a little bemusement.

I am still making my way through my Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar books (both the practical guide and the accompanying workbook) by John Whitlam. 

John Whitlam's Portuguese Grammar Books

John Whitlam’s Portuguese Grammar Books

I find them responsible. They are not always fun, but there is good information in them. For example:

  1. I did get a kick out of this sentence offered to illustrate the idiom estar sem (literally, “to be without”): Ela estava sem sutiã. That means, “She had no bra on.” The things grammar book writers think of!
  2. I keep encountering examples where informal Brazilian Portugese seems more complicated and confusing than formal Brazilian Portuguese. For instance, Whitlam translates “I’ve just arrived” as Eu acabei de chegar for speech and informal writing. For more formal contexts, he says one should use the present tense, which I guess for this sentence would result in: Eu acabo de chegar. The latter, formal option just seems so much more logical to me. There have been multiple such cases where my brain understands the formal versions much more easily than the informal. In a Western language, I don’t remember ever seeing level of formality affect word choice and grammar to this extent!
  3. Here’s a sentence that caught my attention: Deu zebra no jogo de ontem. Whitlam translates that as, “There was an upset in yesterday’s game.” The zebra looked funny, so I went to to check the etymology of “zebra” in English. Was our English “zebra” originally a Portuguese word? Possibly! collects multiple explanations of origin from different sources. One of the ones offered for “zebra” is as follows: “Origin: 1590-1600…< Portuguese zebrazebro the Iberian wild ass (Spanish cebra), perhaps < Latin equiferus (Pliny) kind of wild horse, equivalent to equi- (combining form of equus horse) + ferus wild.” Words travel funny routes, originating as animal nominatives and graduating to disrupters of sporting events.
  4. This sentence stymied me grammatically: O banco é perto da igreja. (The bank is near the church.) I would have thought that verb would be está or fica.
  5. What happens to proper nouns in foreign languages often surprises me. Of course it is natural for common nouns such as “bed” or “napkin” in English to be something entirely different in Portuguese, but I do still have trouble shaking this sense that a name is a name and should be immutable. With place names more than people’s names, I guess. So when I saw that Berlin is Berlim in Portuguese, it looked really funny to me. Like a mistake. Ah, what to do with my persistent parochialism?
  6. Here’s a sentence I liked from the book: Ela optou por Exatas, enquanto a irmã estuda Letras. (She went for sciences, while her sister is studying literature.) I was amazed that “sciences” translated as Exatas (subjects of study get capitalized in Portuguese, I guess, which makes this particular word extra conspicuous). I gather that this term is short for Ciências Exatas. It is funny to see that particular adjectival component take over—and it puts even more pressure on the scientists, no?
  7. This note shocked me: “Remember that, in informal spoken language, the verb estar and all its conjugated forms are pronounced without the initial es-, so está and estou are pronounced /ta/ and /to/ respectively.” I didn’t know that! How very odd. Would I be a social outcast if I left the es in? It seems like a waste of perfectly good letters.
  8. More funniness: the book told me that one way I could on the phone translate “This is Ellen speaking” is like this: Quem fala é a Ellen. That translates literally as “Who speaks is the Ellen”! I would kind of like to try that one out in English and see how it goes.

Comments (6)

josé luiz serafini • Posted on Wed, October 24, 2012 - 7:19 am EST

1. That grammarian might even had said “ela estava sem roupa nenhuma”, ou “sem nada”...

2. Yes, informal Portuguese is a bit too “relaxado” (careless) in Brazil, but we don’t realize to such an extent as you point out, with the detachment and sympathetic perceptiveness of a foreigner. But in Portugal people are more “rational” and logical in that respect.

3. Let me tell you the whole story about that zebra. The zoo in Rio was administered by a baron (that was around 1880, and Brazil was the last empire in Latin America) who, to raise funds for the institution, devised a lottery with the names of 25 animals. That was “jogo do bicho”, which eventually turned into big business and became illegal (which it still is, but no less popular). Then came the state lottery, based on soccer teams. The zebra became the symbol for “azar” (which is “bad luck”, not “le hasard” or chance),because it was the last “bicho”(animal) and the most exotic in that “jogo” (game).  So “deu zebra"means that the match had an unexpected or improbable outcome, or that things didn"t turn out very well or as expected, or that “azar” made its appearance…

4. As for number 4, I’ll pass that one…

5. The “case” for spelling Berlim is simple: no word in Portuguese ends in N… But consider these others: London = Londres, Lisbon = Lisboa, Moscow = Moscou or Moscovo in Portugal,  Geneva = Genebra… But this one is “curioser”: BOMBAY comes from the Portuguese BOA BAÍA (=good bay)
but turned into BOMBAIM…

6. Yes, exatas is short for ciências exatas.

7. ESTAR in all its forms generally drops the first syllable in common speech. But I’ve noticed most Americans don’t feel comfortable with that, and prefer to keep it, which is OK…

8.“Alô, quem fala?” - “É Ellen.”, or “Sou eu, Ellen”.  But in Portugal they ask,funnily, “Quem está lá?”...

josé luiz serafini • Posted on Wed, October 24, 2012 - 11:53 am EST

Ellen, a correction. There ARE a few, very few words ending in N in Portuguese, all of foreign origin,  mostly from Latin, such as “hifen” (hyphen).

Ken • Posted on Wed, October 24, 2012 - 12:36 pm EST

José, thanks for the ‘zebra’ explanation.  Very interesting.

As for #8, besides, “Quem fala,” I also would commonly hear, “Quem tá falando?” But I’d expect the response to be, “É a Ellen.”  Funny about that phrasing in Portugal.  I’d at least expect, “Quem está aí?”

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, October 26, 2012 - 8:03 pm EST

José Luiz, obrigada pela explicação detalhada! The zebra thing is very funny.

Ana Wal • Posted on Fri, November 16, 2012 - 2:51 pm EST

what a interesting and amusing conversation around the contents of the said book. I look forward to studying with it.

Monica V • Posted on Sun, January 27, 2013 - 7:28 pm EST

Thanks so much for this blog! It always teaches me something new. Keep up the good work!


Monica V, English teacher

Post a Comment