A border language, Portunhol is both a means of hybridization of cultures and identities, as well as of social and economic integration. Its ancient heritage and its avant-garde potential make portunhol a faithful reflection of our place in the world. In time and space.
Portunhol can be defined as an informal mix of linguistic elements from both Portuguese and Spanish. A composition that provides a broad and malleable communicative environment, rather than a unified framework, with clear and definitive rules. A living and constantly changing language, its speakers alternate lexical registers and syntactic rules depending on the social context experienced and the content to be transmitted or debated.
Strictly speaking, one should not speak of a singular and standardized “portunhol”, but rather a plurality of “portunholes”, diverse, regional, contextual and circumstantial. Pronunciation, expressions, metaphors, and other figures of speech can change considerably depending on the national, ethnic, and regional origin of the interlocutors, their relative knowledge of the two original languages, and the frequency of their hybrid speaking practice.
A common code
A language is a system of linguistic signs that makes it possible to represent reality and codify –or decode– the informative data of this same reality. Its main purpose is the exchange of information, through graphic or vocal signals, between individuals of the same human group in a determined social and historical context. In other words, there is no way to describe the world around us and communicate its characteristics, in an understandable way, without the use of a common linguistic code.
Language, however, is not limited to transmitting information in a neutral, automatic or impersonal way. A language contains and reflects the worldview, expectations and fears of the people who use it. Metaphorical expressions such as “things are black” to demonstrate pessimism or “this is something Indian” to describe something disorderly, for example, offer symbolic evidence of cultural and psychological origin of the Eurocentric and racist bases of the social discourse that governs the Brazilian colonial mind .
Furthermore, every language adapts and evolves depending on the natural, social, cultural and political environment in which it arises and develops. Language has a history and an origin that attest to the morphological and syntactic transformations it experienced. Spanish and Portuguese, for example, shared common roots for thousands of years before bifurcating, a few centuries ago, into two different but still very close lineages.
Languages and borders
There are, today, something like 7,000 languages spoken in the world: only 230 in Europe, against more than 2,000 in Africa, also more than 2,000 in Asia and more than 1,300 in Oceania. In the Americas more than a thousand languages are spoken; there were 1,700 in the 1950s. Here, we are talking about all the languages spoken, not necessarily written or recognized as official languages.
In the Americas, the absolute majority of these languages belong to indigenous peoples, against five European languages (Spanish, English, Portuguese, French and Dutch) and a dozen Creoles.
The 440 million inhabitants of South America are divided, in almost equal parts, between Portuguese (in Brazil) and Spanish (in other countries). This does not mean that the areas of influence and use of each of the two languages are delimited following administrative boundaries and their outline on school maps.
On the contrary: when it comes to cultural practices, such as language, borders are not only more porous than one imagines, but demonstrate all their potential to convey subjectivities, imaginaries and worldviews. A social, cultural and economic ecosystem that could only favor the mixing of spoken languages and the consolidation of the daily practice of Portunhol.
Remember that Brazil’s land borders are almost 17,000 km long, connecting it to all South American countries – except Ecuador and Chile. Of the 5,565 municipalities that make up the Brazilian territory, 588 (more than 10%) are bordering and 33 are classified as twin cities. In other words, they are municipalities crossed by one or more border lines, where strong human mobility, exchanges and integrative dynamics can generally be observed.
In terms of population, this cross-border space totals more than 2 million people – on the Brazilian side alone. If we add this amount to the population on the other side of the borders, together with the mercantile, tourist, migratory and student flows, perhaps the group of Portuguese speakers in the region is closer to three million.
The language that approximates
From a properly linguistic perspective, Portunhol can constitute an “interlingua” (an intermediate stage in the process of learning a new language), a dialect (as is the case of the Riverense variant resulting from the former Luso-Brazilian presence in Uruguayan territory) or, still, a simple “contact language” designed to remedy the lack of mastery of the same language by both interlocutors.
Portunhol, in this sense, is neither unique nor unprecedented in the world linguistic landscape. The contact between different languages, their mutual influence and the emergence of a configuration that enables the interunderstanding of peoples who share the same social space seems to have been recurrent in the distant and close past of Humanity and continues to be so today. Swahili or Maltese, for example, provide a historical illustration of the formation of new languages from different origins. North American Spanglish and Yanito, its European equivalent spoken in Gibraltar, are contemporary competitors of our regional portunhol.
The big difference, however, is that unlike the examples mentioned above, Portunhol originates in two “brother” languages, coming from the same linguistic branch and sharing a long common past. As a matter of fact, if Spanglish can be considered as a new and original language, the linguistic form of Portunhol has actually existed for a long time and can still be seen in the current and lively Galician style.
In other words, at the same time that it expresses the present reality of our region and points to its social, cultural and economic future, Portunhol does not fail to reiterate the common linguistic roots of the South American populations. Thus, the Portuguese language not only brings the peoples of the region together, but also brings them together -again- around a linguistic archetype that is surprising for its ability to reinvent itself.
It is to be hoped that as the economic, social and cultural integration of our region advances, portunhol will strengthen. And vice versa.
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