August 1, 2012 | Portuguese

Portuguese Does Not Seem to Like Ambiguity

Pronouns show up more often and in more explicit forms than in other Romance languages.

My Upper West Side neighborhood is not, to the best of my knowledge, filled with Portuguese and Brazilian institutions. Running errands today, though, I swung by this building someone had told me about: the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, at 70th Street and Central Park West. 

Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

Synagogue Plaque

Synagogue Plaque

I know nothing about it and there was no one to ask, but its website says: “Welcome to Congregation Shearith Israel, America’s first Jewish congregation, founded in 1654 by 23 Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. Today, Jews of all backgrounds make up our welcoming, traditional community.”

I continued roaming around doing errands. En route from place to place, I did Pimsleur as usual.

Since I had actually finished the 90th of 90 available Pimsleur Portuguese half-hour lessons yesterday, I decided to start again, beginning with lesson 6 of the first level. I am guessing to some people that that would sound mindnumbingly dull, but I see it as an opportunity to get it right—or righter anyway. I am focusing on the details of pronunciation and some of the idioms that were harder to process and thus retain during the first go-through.

A couple of days ago I started doing a little Italian Pimsleur again, to see if I could save my Italian before it was submerged. That set my Portuguese back a bit today, I noticed. Sigh. If only brains were infinitely expanding.

While roaming, I passed Choco Bolo, a relatively new little café on the Upper West Side. It is Portuguese-owned, though I have not actually heard Portuguese in it the few times I’ve been there.

Choco Bolo, Portuguese-Owned and Pastry-Filled

Choco Bolo, Portuguese-Owned and Pastry-Filled

Its name means “chocolate cake.” According to Choco Bolo’s website, “Our company began when a Portuguese entrepreneur and currently [sic] New Yorker, Adriano Callé Lucas, exchanged NYC corporate life for the world of chocolate and coffee.”

I enjoy stories like that.

On a grammatical note: one thing I am confused about in Portuguese is the treatment of possessives. Take, for example, the translation of “his car” or “her car,” first in several related languages.

  • Spanish: su coche = his or her car
  • Italian: la sua macchina = his or her car (Italian requires the definite article, la, in this phrase)
  • French: sa voiture = his or her car

For Portuguese, I have come across what seems to me to be a logical equivalent, o seu carro, which includes the definite article, as in Italian (though I’m not positive the article is required in all versions of Portuguese).

However, in my Pimsleur lessons and also in my grammar books I have more often come across phrases like this:

  • o carro dele = “his car” or, more literally, “the car of him”
  • o carro dela = “her car” or, more literally, “the car of her”

As far as I understand to date, seu in o seu carro can mean “his,” “her,” or “your,” so the dele (a contraction of de, meaning “of,” and ele, meaning “him”) or dela (“of her”) clarifies when you are talking in third person (as opposed to second) and also identifies gender.

I have been cautioned to use the dele/dela construction whenever there is any chance of someone’s misunderstanding my meaning. But dele and dela have popped up often in sentences where I have thought the meaning of seu or its feminine equivalent, sua, would have been entirely clear from context had one of them been used instead. (Sua has the same his/her/your meanings as seu, by the way; it is feminine only because it has to match the gender of the noun it modifies.) 

Never in any other Romance language have I observed this type of concern about or attention to the inherent ambiguity of the third-person singular gender-neutral possessive pronoun. In other languages people have just used them and shrugged.

In addition, pronoun subjects seem to be included all over the place in my various sources of Portuguese instruction, even when the verb ending leaves no chance of misunderstanding. By comparison, Italian seems extremely inclined to leave them out. Spanish, too. Am I correct in thinking Portuguese pronoun scrupulosity is unusual?

As a final aside: the iconoclast French language keeps the subject pronouns in entirely, perhaps because so many of the verb forms sound the same, even when they are spelled differently, that the pronouns are truly necessary for clarity. Or maybe French speakers just like them. One of the mistakes I make in French when I have been studying, say, Italian, is to accidentally start lopping pronouns off in French, too. It’s just so fabulously efficient. (But wrong.)

To be frank, all these pronouns made me dizzy by the end of this entry, and I am operating from a position of particular ignorance about Portuguese, so I think it is not unlikely there is a mistake in here somewhere. If so, I am sorry. I am grateful whenever my mistakes are pointed out.

Comments (4)

Ken • Posted on Wed, August 22, 2012 - 8:42 am EST

Interesting post.  I hadn’t thought about it that much, but yeah, I do believe that subject pronouns are used quite often in (Brazilian) Portuguese. I’m trying to think of when they’re not, and all I can think of is when there’s absolutely no doubt as to whom the pronoun refers.  Something like, “Você vai?”  “Vou!” But then again I can also hear people saying, “Eu vou!”  So you may be right.  All I can say for sure is that no one would give you an odd look if you used the pronoun.

Wow, I’ve been of no help here. :)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, August 22, 2012 - 12:47 pm EST

Regarding your last sentence: no, not true. Muito obrigada!

Luciana • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 9:34 am EST

Regarding seu/sua, dele/dela, the thing is that in spoken Brazilian Portuguese we use seu/sua as your, so we would have to use dele/dele for the third person not to make a confusion. In written Brazilian Portuguese seu/sua is the correct form for the third person.
I’m Brazilian, my husband is Spanish. When we met he didn’t know Portuguese and he translated these pronouns directly from Spanish. Result: I couldn’t understand whom he was talking about! It was pretty confusing until he got used to say seu/sua for the second person and dele/dela for the third person.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 10:06 am EST

Luciana, interesting about your husband and you and possessive pronouns! :) Spanish does seem a little bit less concerned with pronoun ambiguity than Portuguese, since you can use “su” for “his,” “her,” and formal “your” in speech AND in writing.

I seem to recall years ago when I first studied Spanish that the way “su” was thrown around to mean so many things was bewildering to me. Back then, I probably would have found Portuguese a lot clearer and more logical on this point.

It’s just that over the years I have gotten used to the Spanish approach! It takes some unlearning…

Post a Comment