16 February 2009

In Country: Pessoas, Pintadas e Palavras

As it is spoken in Brasil, the Portuguese language is lyrical and lovely. Although similar to European Portuguese (EP), there are some distinct differences in spelling, lexicon and grammar. This has to do with indigenous, African and British colonial influences upon the spoken word. Portuguese colonists may have brought the language to Brasil, but earlier inhabitants and other immigrants changed it into the unique language that it is today. Furthermore, although Brasil is the only country in the Western Hemisphere which speaks Portuguese, its historical relations with Britain and its close proximity to the United States probably explain why Brasilian Portuguese (BP) has absorbed considerably more words in the English language than EP. Take, for example, the English word "bus." In BP it is ├┤nibus, or more commonly, unibus. Yet in Portugal it is autocarro. Another transportation-related example can be found in the English word "train." In BP it is trem, but in EP it is comboio.

In some ways it might be worth considering the language as representing points on a continuum. Going back in time, one could start with the painted pictures in the caves at Pedra Pintada. Although we may not always know exactly what the earliest human inhabitants were saying, we know without question that their pictures are saying something to us. Our inability to interpret their picture words with any certainty is analogous to some of my conversations with Brasilians today. Because of my inability to de-code the language, it's auditory gibberish to me. Likewise with the pictures painted on the rocks by our Pleistocene brethren. In our 21st century inability to de-code the images, those 12,000 year old pictures are visual gibberish to us. We can guess what they are trying to tell us, just as I guess when Brasilians speak with me on the street, but often it is just that: a guess.

Moving forward through time, the Tupi people emerge as a distinct culture with a distinct language in the region. Actually there are hundreds of dialects of the Tupi language, some now extinct but some still persisting in the face of genocide and modernization. Perhaps the people who made the ceramics and funerary urns c. 5000 BCE spoke an early derivation of Tupi. It's likely.

With some imagination one can visualize Tupi men sharping stone blades and carving wooden statues, with hushed voices discussing crops, rain, and women as they labored late into the night. Likewise the women, working the dampened earth with their hands and shaping the earth into ceramic urns, would work as they discussed food, their children and men. Sometimes the women might break into laughter at a particularly funny story one told of a man, but the hands would continue to kneed the clay and the words would continue to ebb through the task. All this in a language which we will never hear but which we can catch a glimpse into by looking at the objects those men and women left behind.

Fast forward again to the first Europeans who washed up on Brasilian shores. They brought with them other languages, more words than the Tupi could have ever imagined along with weapons superior to the stone tools which had been in use for thousands of years. But, as with the confluence of rivers which may run side by side for miles without mixing but then ultimately do, there was a cross fertilization of words, ideas and labors between the Tupi and their interlocutors. For several decades in the 16th century the two civilizations inhabited parallel lives, human rivers which flowed side by side but seldom mixed. Eventually, though, the Tupi learned European words and European weaponry. So, too, did the Europeans learn Tupi words and Tupi foods. The rivers merged to form a new language, sprinkled with Portuguese, English, Spanish and the words of the newest arrivals, the unlucky people from Angola and the Gold Coast of Africa. It is not a pure Tupi, nor is it a pure Portuguese that is spoken in Brasil. Too many other rivers have met at this confluence.
With the speed of light on our journey through language we move forward into the 21st century. Techology once again changes the method and the medium of communication. An ironic example can be found during my excursion into the jungle to visit the cave paintings. Several times our guide, Nelsi, received calls on his cell phone. So there I am studying 12,000 year old paintings -- the only communication we have in a one-way conversation with our Pleistocene forefathers-- and my guide is talking on his cell phone. The beauty of the moment may be beyond words. Yet that is what we have: communication. Whether in pictures or words, whether ancient or recent, whether by petroglyph or cell phone, the most profound element to being human is our ability to communicate.

1 comment:

Rondinella said...

My son' s father is an archeologist, PhD, and he works in Amazon with pedra lascadas from the eight thousand years ago.