Language Immersions II

The longer I live in Portugal the more I love this country and culture with all its quirks, trials and tribulations. You definitely need a sense of humour to live here, or you miss out on half the culture. Portugal is about celebrating life, colours, relationships, and family. It is also about the vibrant essence of life so deeply ingrained in the language, thereby manifesting the many layers and complexity of the culture and history.

It has helped me tremendously knowing Spanish and Italian, so it is faster to associate the local words, but sometimes I find my brain short-circuiting and end up laughing my head off because whatever the word was I was looking for in Portuguese, it sounds exactly the same in Spanish or Italian but the syntax is different and the results hilarious. I love speaking it, but struggle with the pronunciation, because it all sounds as if you are constantly shooing cats out of the house. An H is added where it doesn’t exist i.e. at the beginning of a name, there are aspirated consonants, and a shhhhhh sound everywhere. If you are Spanish and are used to these sh sounds, or even Swabian (south German) some of it will sound familiar, but what drives me nuts is that what you see is definitely not what you pronounce! Which is what alienated me from French in the first place.

Much as I joke about speaking fluent Portuñol, I strive to absorb more Portuguese as I go along, but some days Portuñol is just more convenient. The linguist in me is always curious what the word in Portuguese is or the opposite, what the equivalent of a particular Portuguese word might be in any other language I know. Here is why I almost choked on my dinner with the other day:

Toothbrush – Zahnbürste in German, cepillo de dientes in Spanish, spazzolino in Italian, all of which adhere to the concept of a brush. But the Portuguese had to be different and in this country you brush your teeth with an escova de dentes, which literally translates into a tooth broom. Go big or go toothless?!

Electric toothbrush – as you will have assumed correctly, in Portuguese this translates into an electric tooth broom or an escova electrica. I had visions of a little Roomba doing the rumba inside my mouth when I read this.

(Paper) shredder – is not as funny as an escova de dentes, quite the opposite. I stumbled on this by accident because I was looking for something completely different and was very entertained in the electronics shop by the names of the products. I wondered what the hell destruidoras were and imagined electronic wrecking balls. Destroyers of evidence, yes, but somehow the word conjures up giant orcs that will stare down at you until you surrender your document for the ultimate destruction.

Are you looking for a box or the cashier? It is all the same in Portuguese to the uninitiated or inexperienced, with both the box and cashier being a caixa, not to be confused with a house which is a casa.

A cão in Portugal does not give you milk. When DHL arrived the other day the delivery person wanted to confirm if i had ordered comida de cão. I frowned and was about to reply that I do not own a cow nor do I want one, and therefore definitely did not order food for one! But then I remembered that a cão in Portugal barks… no, not a barking cow, but a dog. Thankfully it was the cat food!

That’s another thing about Portuguese, certain words are nasal and it all sounds like meowing. Between the word for no – não, bread – pão, or cão it all amounts of a lot of eow… so listening to anyone speaking on the phone vehemently saying no repeatedly can sound like a very upset cat… não! não! não!

All in all, it is a beautiful language that is worth the laughter and mistakes.

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