September 14, 2012 | Portuguese
An unusual feature of Portuguese grammar.
Yesterday I decided I would visit a few consulates of different Portuguese-speaking countries and see what I could learn. The problem is, now that I no longer drink coffee, I tend to go to sleep and wake up earlier.
Where It Was Too Early to Go
So instead of arriving at the Brazilian consulate in the early afternoon, which is what I would have done in the past, I showed up at 9-something. The problem: they open at 10:00.
So I went to the Portuguese consulate instead. Same story. It had not crossed my mind that consulates wouldn’t open by 9:00. Is that normal?
Being an early(ish) bird is not always as convenient as I thought it would be when I first cut caffeine. I had a lot to do yesterday and didn’t want to loiter. The wind was knocked out of my language-learning sails by this unexpected timing hurdle.
I started to consider the rudeness of showing up at consulates unannounced and expecting someone to talk to me. From an etiquette point of view, it’s true that it’s not a great thing to do. (It’s just that you sometimes get the best conversations when you don’t have appointments for them.)
Deferring my consulate plans for another day, I returned home and studied grammar instead. Portuguese has some odd features. One involves the infinitive.
590 Fifth Avenue, Home to the Portuguese Consulate, Where I Also Couldn’t Go
While Portuguese has infinitives like many other languages—falar is “to speak,” comer is “to eat,” ouvir is “to hear”—they have another version of the infinitive that looks and acts different.
You would say Eu vou te ajudar for “I am going to help you.” (Right?) That’s standard stuff, where ajudar is a regular run-of-the-mill infinitive for “to help.”
However: as John Whitlam notes in Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar, “Unlike many other languages, where the infinitive cannot by definition have a subject of its own that is different from that of the main verb, Portuguese has a so-called ‘personal infinitive,’ which makes the infinitive an extremely versatile and much-used feature of the language.”
If that is enigmatic to you, join the club! I was pretty happy with my existing infinitive situation and did not feel in any way impoverished by its simplicity.
Here’s an example Whitlam offers for the personal infinitive. É perigoso as crianças brincarem nos trilhos. (It’s dangerous for the children to play on the tracks.)
The regular old infinitive of “to play” is actually brincar. But in this construction you stick on the em ending, making brincarem the third-person plural personal infinitive form (say that five times fast) to go with crianças (children).
When I first started noticing verb forms like brincarem, I thought maybe they were just unusual third-person indicative forms. But the third-person present-tense conjugation would actually be brincam. So no.
I find this personal-infinitive construction rather unintuitive. Things do tend to feel unintuitive when you are not used to doing them.
According to a Wikipedia entry entitled “Infinitive,” the personal infinitive, inflecting for person and number, is also found in Galician and Sardinian, two languages I know nothing about. “These are the only Indo-European languages,” the entry says, “that allow infinitives to take person and number endings.”
I searched online for more information about the personal infinitive and came across the website of someone named Rafa. He appears to be quite fond of the personal infinitive. “It’s so easy to use,” he raves, “and it will make a huge difference in the way you express yourself in Portuguese!”
He also notes, “The Portuguese Personal Infinitive is a form that you can use to avoid the use of the subjunctive in a large number of cases. So how cool is that?” He offers the following example:
É possivel eles irem ao cinema hoje. (It is possible that they will go to the movies today.)
Irem is the personal infinitive there. Rafa points out that if you instead added a que (that) after é possivel—which would be a very natural way to structure such a concept in Western languages I have studied—the verb form for ir (to go) would then need to be changed to subjunctive.
The thing is, I don’t mind using subjunctive. You still have to learn it anyway! And actually, the Portuguese personal infinitive feels like a whole other additional tense I have to learn. (I know, I know, it’s not a tense.)
I am pretty sure that this personal infinitive thing is a difficult concept for Portuguese language teachers to convey to their students—unless maybe those students already speak Galician or Sardinian.
But my Portuguese infinitive encounters have definitely expanded my notion of what an infinitive can be. How parochial my thinking on the subject was until now!