Portuguese is one of the few languages in the world that is official in some country on almost every continent. It is spoken, read and heard on a daily basis in homes in Macao or Goa (India), in schools in East Timor, on the streets of Mozambique, Angola or Brazil. The Museu da Língua Portuguesa reopens its doors this Saturday in São Paulo to celebrate that overwhelming linguistic diversity with its gaze fixed on Brazil, but without losing sight of the words and accents of the rest of the countries that have Portuguese as their own language. Portuguese speakers are a community of 260 million people in seven countries to whom little unites them beyond the language left behind by colonization when Portugal ruled the seven seas.
Designed as an interactive museum for all audiences in this uneven country like few others, it aims to stimulate visitors to reflect on something as everyday as language, as explained by the special curator Isa Grinspum, in charge of the design of the permanent collection “The museum wants to bring the complexity and richness of the language that we speak every day. The Brazilians have deep down a giant, historical inferiority complex, that we are less because of our training… because Portugal… because African… because Indian… It is the opposite. It is the uniqueness of those encounters that only we had in this way that produced wonderful things in literature, music, cinema and in everyday life ”, Grinspum explained during an interview a few days before the reopening.
The museum opens in a completely rebuilt building after it was completely destroyed in December 2015 by a random fire that originated from an exhibition. It is located in a beautiful building in the run-down center of São Paulo: the Luz railway station, one of the first places where the Portuguese heard the immigrants that Brazil attracted from Europe, Africa or Asia to replace the slaves and whitewash the hand of construction site. This Thursday, the fire once again threatened the Brazilian cultural heritage when a fire broke out in a warehouse of the São Paulo Film Library.
Along with maps that illustrate the origin of Portuguese and the Indo-European kinship relationships that gave rise to it with other linguistic families, various panels show fragments of scholarly and popular texts, poems, advertisements, proverbs, and so on.
With the aim of documenting the immense regional and sociocultural variety of Brazilian Portuguese, the museum managers sent emissaries throughout the territory to collect almost 200 video testimonies, each reflecting a Portuguese way of speaking. There they are from the indigenous people of Amazonia to the evangelical pastor, the mother of Candomblé (a religion of African origin), the teacher, the student, the prostitute …
Favela, samba, tanga or saudade are some of the Portuguese words recognized far beyond its linguistic borders. Grinspum emphasizes that his starting point is that “absolutely all speakers are authors of the language”, eliminating hierarchies in this country where inequality is omnipresent. The idea is that any visitor will find their Portuguese reflected in this cultural institution created in 2006 by the São Paulo state government in collaboration with the Roberto Marinho Foundation, which honors the founder of the Globo group.
Like the language itself, the museum has the vocation of being a living entity, which is updated as new accents, vocabulary or neologisms are born. When flames forced closure in 2015, debates about gender-neutral language barely existed in Brazil. Today, all, all and deaths they have their way of speaking, writing and creating reflected in the institution. Along with Tupinambá (the language of the homonymous ethnic group) and other of the more than 180 indigenous languages that are spoken today, the pajubá, a dialect of the LGTB community – especially of trans women – that fuses the Portuguese language with Yoruba vocabulary to create the cultural identity of a group constantly under threat.
Although the language is updated thanks to the creativity of its speakers, which even makes it a weapon of resistance, Portuguese as a common identity in a territory as vast as that occupied by Brazil (similar to the one it had when it became independent almost two centuries ago and which is twice the size of the European Union) was forged “with iron and fire,” explains Grinspum. “The Jesuits took the Tupi, which was spoken on the coast, and from it, to facilitate colonization, they created the so-called general indigenous language, which is spoken to this day in some corners of the Amazon.” It is known as nheengatu and it can be heard even on the Colombian and Venezuelan borders.
It was this process of violent imposition of the language that gave birth to a Portuguese different from the one spoken in the old metropolis. For Spanish speakers, for example, the Brazilian variant is easier to understand than the Portuguese original. Grysnpun attributes this greater ease to the legacy of the African slaves brought by force: “It is due to the influence of African languages, especially Bantu, that they are more vocal, open-vowel and (pronunciation) slower.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.