Friday, July 01, 2005

Argentina vs. Brazil

Brazilian and Argentine Speakers at a Debt-for-Education Swap Seminar

Last night I returned from a two-day work trip to São Paolo. It was my second visit to
Brazil after a meeting in Brasilia about a month ago.

My busy schedule and fatigue due-to-illness left me with no time to sight-see. Nevertheless, I gained some more insight into a culture that fascinates me.

Argentine Spanish vs. Brazilian Portuguese

Unlike the pork-chopped peninsular Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, particularly if spoken or sung by the right person, is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.

I am able to read and understand about 95% of the Portuguese text I come across. Understanding Portuguese when spoken is another story. I comprehend about 50-70% of the Brazilian variety. I barely absorb any of the Peninsular brand.

I put my poor Portuguese skills to the test earlier this week. On Tuesday I was participating in a seminar on Debt-for-Education Swaps held by the Brazilian Ministry of Education at Bovespa (the Brazilian Stock Exchange). Before arriving, I wasn’t sure if simultaneous translation services were going to be provided.

I thought back to my meeting in Brasilia a month ago. Everything was going smoothly. The other participants in the meeting were kind enough to speak either in Spanish or Portuñol - an improvised hybrid of Portuguese and Spanish.

However, the last speaker spoke in a very congested, hasty Portuñol. I managed to capture about half of what he was saying. It was simply too awkward to stop him every time I didn’t understand something.

This time around in São Paolo, I was bit more worried about the language barrier. There would be around 100 people in attendance. I was to present on a panel of five ‘experts’ on the somewhat technical issue of debt-for-education swaps (a subject I will discuss in another post). Thankfully, arrangements had been made to provide personal translation devices to those in attendance.

I then noticed something peculiar.

I have long thought that Spanish is a much easier language to understand than Portuguese. But I also knew that my position on the matter was quite biased. My evidence had been based on the chafing sandpaper sounds I’ve heard (and mocked) in the streets and shops of Toronto’s bustling Acorean and Portuguese neighbourhoods. I have repeatedly pestered my Portuguese friends that their language is simply a drunken Spanish dialect.

However, this time I had some objective proof. Firstly, the Argentines in attendance had a harder time understanding the Brazilians’ Portuguese than the Brazilians’ had understanding their Spanish. Secondly, the other Argentines on the panels simply conducted their presentations in Spanish (even if they knew enough Portuguese to muster up some Portuñol). They knew that practically none of the Brazilians in the audience would require the translation devices.

I later overheard several conversations between Brazilians and Argentines. I realized that even though we were in Brazil, it was the Brazilians who were making the effort to speak Portuñol as their southern neighbours spoke in their native tongue. A part of me thought – ‘Wow, this is quite arrogant (even for Argentines). Why is it that Brazilians are the ones going to greater lengths to communicate when we are the visitors in their country?’

I knew that Spanish was easier to understand for Portuguese speakers than the other way around. Yet it was still strange to experience this type of receptiveness to another nation’s language - especially, when it’s a neighbour that you’ve long considered a rival.

Argentine Fútbol vs. Brazilian Futebol

The beginning of Argentina vs. Brazil in Buenos Aires (on this occassion Argentina played an incredible game and won 3-1).

As I waited for my return flight to Buenos Aires at the São Paolo airport I had the misfortune of witnessing the devastating 4-1 loss of our national side to the Brazilians in the Confederation Cup final.

What made the blow-out that much more unbearable was that only a month earlier I had attended a World Cup qualifying match in which Argentina handed Brazil a 3-1 bruising.

That victory had brought Argentina and Brazil even in their historic head-to-head record (33 victories apiece, and 22 draws). It also injected the country with a strong dose of pride.

Wednesday’s spectacular display put on by Adriano, Ronaldinho, Kaká, and company not only put Brazil ahead in this bitter rivalry, but also embarrassed an Argentine squad that appeared over-confident from their previous victory.

Brazil’s performance revealed that although the head-to-head record is a close one, when it comes to big games, they are in a class of their own. They have been crowned World Cup champs five times. Argentina has only claimed the honour twice.

Perhaps the hardest part to swallow about the defeat, is that the verde-amarelos celebrated the Confederation Cup (a relatively unimportant tournament) as if it were a World Cup final. Having humiliated Argentina may have had something to do with their jubilation.

While I have yet to visit any beaches, carnaval or Rio, I am already convinced that the most beautiful thing about Brazil is the way in which their eleven best footballers can soundly defeat any opponent, with unparalleled creativity, style, and sportsmanship. They do all of this under 180 million microscopes and still manage to maintain enormous smiles on their faces.


Blogger eduardo said...

Sometimes I wonder if it's best to just speak Spanish in Brasil or try to speak Portuguese no matter how bad I mangle the pronunciation (even though it's getting better). I have been told that for Portuguese speakers, it is much easier to understand spoken Spanish than vice-versa.

Even in Buenos Aires, I wondered whether if it was better to use Argentine slang and pronuncation - i.e. "Calle" even though I may seem like a poseur or just speak how I am used to and risk not having them understand.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Juanson said...

Excellent Post, D'filmus.

How would you compare Argentine and Brazilian women?

12:58 PM  
Blogger Vikrum said...


I enjoyed reading your most recent post. In fact, "Altered Argentina" is one of my favorite blogs, and I think it's a shame that you don’t write more articles. I like how you write very original posts instead of just highlighting news.

First: A response to your linguistic article:

I think I can answer some of your questions about Spanish versus Brazilian Portuguese. Before I write any more, I suggest reading John Lipski's "Latin American Spanish." In this fascinating book, the author, a linguist, examines the syntax, morphological structures, and slang of Spanish in every Spanish-speaking country in the Americas.

You should check out the chapters on Paraguayan and Argentine Spanish: In his chapter on Argentine Spanish, Lipski delves into something he calls "fronterizo" – which, like Portunhol, is a hybrid of Spanish and Portuguese. The only difference between Portunhol and fronterizo is that fronterizo is effectively a dialect while Portunhol is the way that Spanish-speakers try to speak Portuguese.

If you want to hear genuine fronterizo, head to the Argentina-Brazil border. When I visited Iguaçú Falls, I had the chance to listen to this dialect on both sides of the border.

On a different note, I agree with you that it is much easier for Brazilians to understand Spanish than it is for Spanish-speaking Latinos to understand Brazilians. This is mainly due to grammatical reasons. The reasons for this are morphological and phonological – not political. Let me give some reasons:

1. Portuguese uses contractions that Spanish does not use. For example, if you want to say "from the city" in Spanish, you would say, "de la cuidad." In Portuguese you would say, "da cidade." "Da" is a contraction of "de" + "a" (in Portuguese "o" and "a" are the singular definite articles – as compared with "el" and "la" in Spanish).

There are many other contractions. For example, "em" (in, on) + "a" contracts to "na." Thus to say "in the rain," a Spanish speaker would say, "en la lluvia," while a Portuguese speaker would say, "na chuva." If you want to say in Spanish, "The gift is from her," you would say, "El regalo es de ella." In Portuguese, you again contract, making it "O presente é dela."

What is my point? when a Spanish speaker hears Portuguese's contractions, she often has difficulties in understanding. In contrast, Spanish sounds un-contracted, elongated, and intelligible to the Portuguese speaker.

2. Portuguese has a more complex system of possessive pronouns. This, again, makes it easier for a Portuguese speaker to understand Spanish. In Spanish, "my" is "mi" (singular) or "mis" (plural). Thus, "my family" is "mi familia" in Spanish. In Portuguese, one has to use "meu" to modify a masculine noun and "minha" to modify a feminine noun.

Additionally, in Portuguese, you (almost always) have to use the definite article with the possessive adjective. Thus, "my family" becomes "a minha familia." In regards to a masculine noun, "my card" becomes "o meu cartao." This system also makes the Portuguese speaker more inclined to understand Spanish - since Spanish is relatively simpler in this regard.

3. There are big differences in the ways in which Spanish speakers and Portuguese speakers use direct object pronouns. Actually, I could write for pages and pages, but I will try to keep this simple.

In Spanish, if you wanted to say, "I killed him," (pardon the macabre phrase for the sake of argument) there would be only one way: "Lo maté." In Portuguese (proper Portuguese) you could say "Eu o matei" or "Matei-o." Actually, this is the style you will find in Portugal, Goa, and in books.

But the vast majority of Brazilians do not use direct and indirect pronouns they way they are "supposed" to be used. They use subject pronouns as direct and indirect object pronouns. And they often add"para" - effectively making the direct object a part of a prepositional phrase. So a Brazilian could (and most likely would) say "matei ele."

This is inconceivable in Spanish, in which the only way to say the phrase is "lo maté." A Spanish speaker would never say, "Yo maté él."

But the Brazilian has a lot of options. He can say, "Eu o matei," "Matei-o," or "matei ele." The Spanish speaker can only say “lo maté.”

In Brazil, most people choose to use the subject pronouns as object pronouns, and this confuses Spanish speakers, who cannot ever use subject pronouns as object pronouns. A Spanish speaker cannot say "Yo amo tú" ("Te amo" is the only correct way using the verb "amar"). But a Brazilian can say either, "Eu te amo," "Eu amo-te," or "Amo você" (most common).

Thus, Brazilians have the option of either using proper direct object pronouns subject pronouns as direct object pronouns. In contrast, Spanish speakers CANNOT ever use subject pronouns as object pronouns – they have to use the proper direct object pronouns (lo, la, etc.).

4. There are big differences in the way in which Brazilians and Spanish speakers use indirect object pronouns and this also works in favor of the Brazilian understanding Spanish:

In Spanish, the third-person indirect object pronouns are "le" (singular) and "les" (plural). Portuguese formally has "lhe" and "lhes." In Spanish, if you want to say, "I will tell him that…" you would say, "Le voy (a él) a decir que…" You could also say, "Voy a decirle (a él) que…" You could also use the formal future tense instead of the simple future tense.

In Brazilian Portuguese, a speaker has the option of using "lhe" but she can also use "para + [subject pronoun]" or "[verb] + [subject pronoun acting as an object pronoun]". To say, "I will tell him that," a Brazilian could say, "Vou falar para ele que," "Vou falar ele que," "Lhe vou falar que," or "Vou falar-lhe que." In fact, in Portugal you can even put the "lhe" inside the verb itself and say, "Falar-lhe-ei" (although these bizarre forms are dying).

I am sure all of this is very confusing. And I don't know if I am explaining these grammatical differences well.

But here is my point: Portuguese allows more options than Spanish and this is yet another reason that makes it easier for Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish.

5. Portuguese speakers usually use "ter" as an auxiliary verb to form the compound tenses. But Portuguese speakers also have the option of using "haver" to form the compound tenses. In Spanish, speakers can only use "haber" to form the compound tenses.

Thus, if you want to say, "She has said that…" in Portuguese, you would say, "ela tem falado que…" or "ela há falado que…"

In Spanish, you can only say, "ella ha hablado que..." You CANNOT say, "ella tiene hablado que…"

Again, this is another instance of Portuguese having more grammatical options than Spanish – which works in favor of the Portuguese speaker understanding Spanish. Since "haver" exists in Portuguese, Spanish just sounds like old-fashioned, high-falutin', Portuguese!

In short, I think that the differences in Portuguese and Spanish grammar explains most of this.

I also think accent is another factor, but I do not have all day to write! Spanish does not have as many nasalized sounds as Portuguese and this makes it harder for Spanish speakers to speak and understand spoken Portuguese.

One last comment: With all of that said, a Spanish speaker has to essentially "unlearn Spanish" and speak incorrect Spanish to correctly speak Portuguese. While a Spanish speaker's instinct would be to say, "Le dije a Diego que su blog es excelente," a Brazilian would say, "Falei (para) Diego que o seu blog é excelente."

A sidenote: Since there is a lot of mutual intelligibility between Portuguese and Spanish, a lot of Brazilians do not learn proper Spanish (does the name Nadson ring a bell?). Additionally, a lot of Spanish speakers do not take the time to learn the nuances of Portuguese.

What is interesting is comparing my Latin American observations with my India observations. Just as Portuguese speakers learning Spanish will say things like, "Deberías llamar para ela," instead of the correct, "Deberías llamarle," Punjabis, Gujaratis, Maharashtrians, etc. speaking Hindi often mix up the languages. I would give examples, but I think I have been sufficiently confusing in this blog comment. In any case, I'm not sure how many Hindi speakers are reading your blog.

Second: A response to your soccer article:

I disagree with your comment about "unparalled sportsmanship." Here is one counterexample:

In August of 2004, Brazil played Haiti in a friendship match. Lula, in his desire to reach out to the rest of the developing world, arranged for Brazil’s top stars (e.g. Roberto Carlos, Ronaldhino, el al.) to field a team that would play Haiti's team in an exhibition. This match was heralded as "humanitarian gesture" to "alleviate tensions" in Haiti.

The Brazilian team was under presidential orders to keep the game friendly, and not destroy the Haitians (as they would have if it were a real game). But the players could not keep to Lula's order and they routed Haiti 6-0. While you may argue that Brazil was "keeping it friendly" by only scoring 6 goals, I think that they should have been friendlier - especially since the exhibition meant nothing in terms of athletics - it was a game to promote good relations between the poorest country in the Americas and the country that aims to be a voice for the Third World.

6:11 AM  
Blogger Diego said...


Tough dilemma - I too have been confronted with this decision (particularly in Spain, where essentially all Latin Americans and their dialects are discriminated against).

I think that it is important that you stay true to your accent (ie. if you grew up speaking with a Bolivian accent, wherever you are, you should always speak in the same manner).

While you may receive curious, confused, and perhaps antagonistic reactions I think it is important to show people that there is no one-right-way to speak a language. This is easier said than done, of course. And for practicality sake, you may have to make some exceptions.


I haven't been in Brazil long enough to make such a controversial decision. However, given my first impressions and inherent diversity of Brazil's population, I have a feeling that I will end up giving their garotinhas the most-beautiful-women-in-the-world title. What's your call?


Wow. Terrific response. You taught me several things about the Brazilian language that I knew very little about.

While I readily accept the grammatical arguments you put forward, I still maintain that the greatest difference between Spanish and Portuguese (particularly, for an hispanohablante) is the way in which they are spoken.

As I mentioned in the post, I am able to understand essentially everything I read in Portuguese. Yet it is the harsh, congested, and sometimes rapid way that Portuguese is transmitted that confuses Spanish-speakers like myself.

The question then becomes: If the similarities between written Spanish and Portuguese are so great, then why such a divergence between their phonetics?

As for the 6-0 routing of Brazil over Haiti. I believe that the mere fact that these millionaire superstars traveled to Haiti for a humanitarian match, and then actually put on a show, makes them model athletes.

I can understand why Lula told his players to not get carried away, but the fact that his warning became public knowledge is beyond me.

In the end, I think Haitians cared more about witnessing Brazil's stars perform, than actually thinking their team stood a chance:

"Brazil's President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was in town and had earlier asked his players not to score too many goals - this being a goodwill mission, he did not want to damage Haitian morale. Clearly, the Brazilian players did not listen. But the party went on despite the score and it seemed no-one really cared about the result."

3:43 AM  
Blogger Vikrum said...


I agree with you that the accent difference makes it difficult for Spanish speakers to understand spoken Portuguese. But I think that the focus on accent sometimes tends to neglect the important grammatical differences that favor the Brazilian listening to spoken Spanish and not vice versa.

In regards to differences in accents and pronunciations, I'm afraid that I do not have enough time to write out a full response. I recommend Wikipedia's article on romance languages and the article on the Portuguese language. Both give good insights that you may find interesting.

In regards to soccer,

I think it is interesting that you consider the Brazilian team to be "model athletes." I think that our diverging opinions are due to different standards.

Yes, compared to athletes like Allen Iverson, John Rocker, Kobe Bryant, and Ray Lewis, the Brazilian players are "model athletes."

But I don't think that playing in a goodwill match alone signifies that one is a role model.

When I think of a "model athlete," I think of someone like Ted Williams, who twice interrupted his outstanding career to serve as a Marine Corps pilot in the Second World War and the Korean War. I think of Jackie Robinson, who played so gracefully despite being taunted with the n-word and jeers like, "go back to the jungle." I think of Arthur Ashe, who publicly challenged the South African apartheid regime, raised millions of dollars for charities, and addressed issues of inadequate health care before his tragic death. And I think of Roberto Clemente, who spent most of his off-season time doing charity work. Clemente was killed on route to deliver supplies to the victims of Nicaragua's 1972 earthquake.

With that said, I do not think that merely showing up for a friendly exhibition qualifies someone for "model athlete" status.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Diego said...


Your points are well taken.

Perhaps I was too hasty in calling the Brazilians "model athletes" because of one humanitarian gesture.

On top of being "model athletes", those men you mention should be also be labeled "heroes" (admittedly, "hero" is probably one of the most abused words these days).

On a separate note: have you noticed how few North American athletes are openly "liberal" and how barely any took an anti-war stance? (Only the Canadian, NBA MVP Steve Nash, and former Jay, Dominican born Carlos Delgado come to mind).

3:50 PM  
Blogger Diego said...

Correction: Carlos Delgado is Puerto Rican.

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Blogger Vale_Arg said...

Primero quiero agradecerle a la "profesora" de portugués por tomarse el tiempo para darnos tan buena explicación sobre la gramática protuguesa, que además les cuento que me interesa mucho.
Estoy estudiando ese idioma, porque siento una gran atracción por él y sobre todo por Brasil en general. Me gusta su gente, su espíritu y su lenguaje también.
Puede sonar curioso, pero puede ser quizás, por la eterna rivalidad entre Brasil y Argentina que se despertó esta pasión tropical en mí.
Sin embargo, no puedo dejar de hacer una acotación, en cuanto a lo futbolístico se refiere.
Es verdad que Brasil tiene 5 campeonatos mundiales y la Argentina sólo 2.
También es verdad que en la final de Italia 90 contra Alemania, el árbitro Colosal, cobró un penal que terminó robandonos la que hubiese sido 3º copa, y después reconoció publicamente que estaba todo arreglado y que debía cumplir ordenes superiores.
También es verdad que a la hora de enfrentarnos, la cosa es bastante pareja. 33 partidos ganados nosotros y 33 ellos. 22 empates.
¿No despierta algo de curiosidad que entonces a la hora de los campeonatos mundiales, ellos nos saquen tanta diferencia?
No puedo evitar acordarme de la injusta expulsión de Maradona en el 94, estando Joao Avelange a la cabeza de la FIFA, ese año y todos los siguiente??¿?
A mí, me hace ruido... no sé.
Veremos que pasa en Alemania.
Igual, eu amo aos brazileiros y tá tudo bem com eles. Adoro a sua musica assim como tambem as suas praias.
Buenaaaaa!!! Estoy mejorando.
Besos, para todos.

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