Book sheds light on the African heritage of Brazilian Portuguese

Book sheds light on the African heritage of Brazilian Portuguese

[RESUMO] A new book by ethnolinguist Yeda Pessoa de Castro underscores the author’s importance in studying the influences of African languages ​​on Portuguese spoken in Brazil, and offers a contribution to combating language racism, deeply rooted in Brazilian society.

“We speak Africanized Portuguese.” The publication of Camões com Dendê (Topbooks) by Bahian ethnolinguist Yeda Pessoa de Castro, 84, would be a cultural event of major proportions anytime. It is even greater at this moment of radical historical reappraisal of the legacy that centuries of black slavery have left in Brazilian society.

Castro, the main Brazilian authority on African languages, with a doctoral thesis defended in 1976 at the National University of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), underlines how much his academic career at the time was pioneering in the openly Eurocentric scenario of the Brazilian university.

“The CNPq refused me a doctoral scholarship, they said I had to study African languages ​​in London,” she recalled in May this year while presenting the book at the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo.

From so much “against the grain of history”, as he likes to say, the story, which is known to be anything but linear, has caught up with him. Combating the racism that is deeply rooted in Brazilian society is and will long be a war on multiple fronts. In the field of language, antiracist thinking owes Castro an unpayable debt.

She is the first Brazilian intellectual to understand that studying African influence in Brazilian Portuguese requires study… Africa, you see. The road ahead which, if all goes well, will one day see Brazil meet Brazil is so long that the end cannot be seen from here.

At the same event in May, the ethnolinguist recalled that in 2022 “there will not be a single Brazilian university that has African or indigenous languages ​​in its curriculum”.

Interestingly, the author of Falares Africanos na Bahia: um Vocabulário Afrobrasileiro (2001) and A Língua MinaJeje no Brasil: um Falar Africano em Ouro Preto of the 18th Century (2002) followed in her heterodox career choice an old Advice and despised for decades from Nina Rodrigues (18621906), a Maranhão polymath whose posthumous book Os Africanos no Brasil has the merits of pioneering work and the taint of the racial prejudices of its day.

“Apart from the absurd scientific beliefs of a time, that precursor warning from Nina Rodrigues […]noting that ‘knowledge of African languages ​​is essential for determining the peoples who speak them'”, writes the author of Camões com Dendê, a title suggested to her by the great Africanist Alberto da Costa e Silva became.

The book is a brick, a wide career swing with its 576 pages divided into two equal parts.

The first half takes up analytically, updates and expands the contributions previously made by the author in seven chapters. The second half is a solid “AfroBrazilian vocabulary” with around 3,500 entries “with 1,322 of Bantu origin, 1,299 of West Africa, Yoruba and EweFon, 34 of imprecise origin, 853 of Brazilian formation, including decals, hybrids and regionalisms from nonAfrican ones.” Languages”.

In terms of novelty, the highlight is in the fifth chapter, “Language and religiosity, the binomial of resistance”. In this study of the language of the Terreiros, the author looks for linguistic features more resistant to the influence of time because they are ritual, for the features of the “greatest center of resistance and cultural defense of black Africans brought to America in of slavery”.

Overall, it’s undoubtedly an instant classic, a work that expands our fledgling understanding of the multiracial language we speak—and, for the most part, write—in Brazil. A language that, much more than Portuguese, softened by a few picturesque words of African and indigenous origin, is structurally different from the language spoken by the former colonizer.

So excellent that Castro does not hesitate to rebel against the subtitle of his own book, O Português do Brasil e os falas afrobrasileiros. The problem for them lies in that hyphen, with which the Orthographic Convention obliges us to separate ‘Afro’ from ‘Brazilian’, as if a separation were possible in a country where ‘what ‘Afro’ is in different ways Intensity permeates all strata of society.” She claims to use the hyphen “unintentionally” and with a sense of “deep revolt.”

“Camões com Dendê” claims that the change in Portuguese in contact with the languages ​​of the more than 4 million enslaved Africans brought here “was felt in all its components, lexical, semantic, prosodic, syntactic and in a fast and deep in the spoken language, which gave Brazilian Portuguese a character of its own, differing from Portuguese from Portugal mainly in the vowelism compared to the consonantism of current Portuguese pronunciation.The seventh chapter details the technical aspects of this change.

Castro dislikes academics and strives for clarity whenever possible, making the book accessible to nonlinguists as well. That doesn’t make it readable. In the absence of a prior frame of reference, following the density of discussions requires an almost insatiable curiosity, and perhaps not many laypeople are interested in the meticulous genealogical trees of African languages ​​and maps of their geographical distribution on the continent that make up the first chapter. .

The nonspecialist reader is recommended to skip the parts that he finds dry and to look for the many oases of comprehensibility. Without forgetting that it is precisely the depth of the research and the rigor of the theoretical debate that allow the author, in the bibliographical overview of the sixth chapter, which is more than worth reading, to point out the points on which she believes that traditional Brazilian academic studies have failed and continue to fail in evaluating our linguistic heritage. African and why.

Castro is a vehement critic of what he calls “Yorubacentrism,” born with the aforementioned Nina Rodrigues, who concentrated her field studies in Salvador, and reinforced by foreign scholars such as Roger Bastide and Pierre Verger.

As the ethnolinguist demonstrates, Yoruba (which she prefers to write with y, now part of the official Brazilian alphabet), also called Nagô, a West African language, is a relatively new entry in Brazil compared to Kikongo, Kimbundu (with an even k ), and Umbundu , languages ​​of the Bantu group that came to us mainly from Angola and were predominant in colonial Brazil.

“It is estimated that 75% of the more than four million people from subSaharan Africa were transplanted to Brazil for slave labour […] brought from the Bantuspeaking world,” he writes.

Treated with relative contempt by the Brazilian academic tradition, also because they were unwritten, these languages ​​formed the soil on which, according to another thesis of the author, ancient Portuguese and the languages ​​of the slaves could mix and “understand” without a Creole language a hypothesis defended by other authors like the one born in Cape Verde.

According to Castro, this was due to a “casual but striking resemblance in the structure of the Bantu language substrate to 17thcentury and archaizing Portuguese”. It’s a thesis that “Camões com Dendê” defends with grace, not a truth set in stone.

As the author states, “the discussion about the differences that separated Brazilian Portuguese from Portuguese Portuguese is still open”. After this book, however, it becomes more difficult to argue that the departure was due solely to internal factors in Camões’ language—that is, entirely white.

“If the voices of the four million or more enslaved black African people brought to Brazil for over four consecutive centuries had not been drowned out by the neglect and academic prejudice of our history,” he says, “there would be no doubt that the most immediate consequence this trade was the 17th century change of Portuguese language and caravels in the former South American colony”.