Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Perils of Portuguese

Where is the Eclair? To fly to the Azores, I had to leave from Boston, so she is in Massachusetts, where I hope the friend who has her keys will open the windows on sunny days to rid her of mildew.

Here in the Azores, the little bit of Portuguese I learned in Brazil is useless. One book advises that Portuguese pronunciation is extremely difficult, and until you have mastered it there is no point in building a vocabulary. It is typical of the perversity of Portuguese that one of the most difficult words to pronounce is also one of the most common, the word for bread: pão. (A lot of words, by the way, are more recognizable, at least in print, if you stick in an "n" when you see that tilde over a vowel, hence, pan, pane, pain.) The sound of that nasalized diphthong comes from deep inside the head. One book advised holding your nose while you say it. I can´t very well hold my nose when I ask in the grocery store "Onde é o pão?" In Brazil, this problem was complicated by the fact that if you mispronounced pão as pao, without the tilde ("pow" in English), you were asking for something completely different. Pao means a stick of wood and has the same slang meaning as it does in English (woody, or hard-on). In Bahia, the bread came in either rolls or small loaves, and I once compounded my error by mispronouncing pão and using my hands to indicate that instead of rolls I wanted a nice nine-inch loaf.

At least I have trained myself not to give people the O.K. sign by making a circle of thumb and forefinger. In Brazil, that is the equivalent of the raised middle finger. People tend to be surprised at a party when they ask you, say, if you liked the salgadinhos ("salty little things," appetizers), and you give them the finger.

I'm not sure if this holds true in the Azores, but I now give the thumbs up wherever I go, just in case. I find it is more universal. Also, lucky for me in light of my Portuguese speech impediment, the bread in the Azores comes in big round loaves.

1 comment:

erieblue said...

Well, I just spent some time laughting out loud at your language misadventures.