Portuguese Diglossia – Part 2

In accordance with the article on diglossia within the Portuguese language the other day, here’s the second part.


This theory also posits that the matter of diglossia in Brazil is further complicated by forces of political and cultural bias, though those are not clearly named. Language has been made, apparently, into a tool of social exclusion or social choice.

Mário A. Perini, a famous Brazilian linguist, has said:

“There are two languages in Brazil. The one we write (and which is called “Portuguese”), and another one that we speak (which is so despised that there is not a name to call it). The latter is the mother tongue of Brazilians, the former has to be learned in school, and a majority of population does not manage to master it appropriately…. Personally, I do not object to us writing Portuguese, but I think it is important to make clear that Portuguese is (at least in Brazil) only a written language. Our mother tongue is not Portuguese, but Brazilian Vernacular. This is not a slogan, nor a political statement, it is simply recognition of a fact…. There are linguistic teams working hard in order to give the full description of the structure of the Vernacular. So, there are hopes, that within some years, we will have appropriate grammars of our mother tongue, the language that has been ignored, denied and despised for such a long time.”

According to Milton M. Azevedo (Brazilian linguist):

“The relationship between Vernacular Brazilian Portuguese and the formal prescriptive variety fulfills the basic conditions of Ferguson’s definition [of diglossia]…[…] Considering the difficulty encountered by vernacular speakers to acquire the standard, an understanding of those relationships appears to have broad educational significance. The teaching of Portuguese has traditionally meant imparting a prescriptive formal standard based on a literary register (Cunha 1985: 24) that is often at variance with the language with which students are familiar. As in a diglossic situation, vernacular speakers must learn to read and write in a dialect they neither speak nor fully understand, a circumstance that may have a bearing on the high dropout rate in elementary schools…”

According to Bagno (1999) the two variants coexist and intermingle quite seamlessly, but their status is not clear-cut. Brazilian Vernacular is still frowned upon by most grammarians and language teachers, with only remarkably few linguists championing its cause. Some of this minority, of which Bagno is an example, appeal to their readers by their ideas that grammarians would be detractors of the termed Brazilian Vernacular, by naming it a “corrupt” form of the “pure” standard, an attitude which they classify as “linguistic prejudice”. Their arguments include the postulate that the Vernacular form simplifies some of the intricacies of standard Portuguese (verbal conjugation, pronoun handling, plural forms, etc.).

Bagno accuses the prejudice against the vernacular in what he terms the “8 Myths”:

  1. There is a striking uniformity in Brazilian Portuguese
  2. Nearly all Brazilians speak very poor Portuguese while in Portugal people speak it very well
  3. Portuguese is extremely difficult
  4. People that have had poor education can’t speak anything correctly
  5. In the state of Maranhão people speak a better Portuguese than elsewhere in Brazil
  6. We should speak as closely as possible to the written language
  7. The knowledge of grammar is essential to the correct and proper use of a language
  8. To master Standard Portuguese is the path to social promotion

In opposition to the “myths”, Bagno counters that:

  1. The uniformity of Brazilian Portuguese is just about what linguistics predicts for such a large country whose population has not generally been literate for centuries and which has experienced considerable foreign influence, that is, this uniformity is more apparent than real.
  2. Brazilians speak Standard Portuguese poorly because, in fact, they speak a language that is sufficiently different from SP so that the latter sounds almost “foreign” to them. In terms of comparison, it is easier for many Brazilians to understand someone from a Spanish-speaking South American country than someone from Portugal because the spoken varieties of Portuguese on either side of the Atlantic have diverged to point of nearly being mutually unintelligible.
  3. No language is difficult for those who speak it. Difficulty appears when two conditions are met: the standard language diverges from the vernacular and a speaker of the vernacular tries to learn the standard version. This divergence is the precise reason why spelling and grammar reforms happen every now and then.
  4. People with less education can speak the vernacular or often several varieties of the vernacular, and they speak it well. They might, however, have trouble in speaking SP, but this is due to lack of experience rather than to any inherent deficiency in their linguistic mastery.
  5. The people of Maranhão are not generally better than fellow Brazilians from other states in speaking SP, especially because that state is one of the poorest and has one of the lowest literacy rates.
  6. It is the written language that must reflect the spoken and not vice versa: it is not the tail that wags the dog.
  7. The knowledge of grammar is intuitive for those who speak their native languages. Problems arise when they begin to study the grammar of a foreign language.
  8. Rich and influential people themselves often do not follow the grammatical rules of SP. SP is mostly a jewel for powerless middle-class careers (journalists, teachers, writers, actors, etc.).

Whether Bagno’s points are valid or not is still open to debate (especially the solutions he recommends for the problems he identifies). Whereas some agree that he has captured the feelings of the Brazilians towards their own linguistic situation well, his book (Linguistic Prejudice: What it Is, How To Do) has been heavily criticized by some linguists and grammarians, due to his daring and unorthodox claims, sometimes even regarded as based on biased or unproven claims. – Source

Portuguese Diglossia – Part 1

According to some contemporary Brazilian linguists, Brazilian Portuguese may be a highly diglossic language. This theory claims that there is an L-variant (L for Low, termed “Brazilian Vernacular”), which would be the mother tongue of all Brazilians, and an H-variant (H for High, standard Brazilian Portuguese) acquired through schooling. L-variant represents a simplified form of the language (in terms of grammar, but not of phonetics) that could have evolved from 16th century Portuguese, influenced by Amerindian (mostly Tupi) and African languages, while H-variant would be based on 19th century European Portuguese (and very similar to Standard European Portuguese, with only minor differences in spelling and grammar usage). Mário A. Perini, a Brazilian linguist, even compares the depth of the differences between L- and H- variants of Brazilian Portuguese with those between Standard Spanish and Standard Portuguese. However, his proposal is not widely accepted by either grammarians or academics. Milton M. Azevedo wrote a chapter on diglossia in his monography: Portuguese language (A linguistic introduction), published by prestigious Cambridge University Press, in 2005.


From this point of view, the L-variant is the spoken form of Brazilian Portuguese, which should be avoided only in very formal speech (court interrogation, political debate) while the H-variant is the written form of Brazilian Portuguese, avoided only in informal writing (such as songs lyrics, love letters, intimate friends correspondence). Even language professors many times use the L-variant while explaining students the structure and usage of the H-variant; in essays, nevertheless, all students are expected to use H-variant.

While the L-variant may used in songs, movies, soap operas, sitcoms and other television shows, although, at times, the H-variant is used in historic films or soap operas to make the language used sound more ‘elegant’ and/or ‘archaic’. There is a claim that the H-variant used to be preferred when dubbing foreign films and series into Brazilian Portuguese, but nowadays the L-variant is preferred, although this seems to lack evidence. Movie subtitles normally use a mixture of L- and H-variants, but remain closer to the H-variant.

Most literary works are written in the H-variant. There would have been attempts at writing in the L-variant (such as the masterpiece Macunaíma, written by Brazilian modernist Mário de Andrade and Grande Sertão: Veredas, by João Guimarães Rosa), but, presently, the L-variant is claimed to be used only in dialogue. Still, many contemporary writers like using the H-variant even in informal dialogue. This is also true of translated books, which never use the L-variant, only the H one. Children’s books seem to be more L-friendly, but, again, if they are translated from another language (The Little Prince, for instance) they will use the H-variant only.