When Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, does dialect variation across its vast territories make the local language easier or harder to learn? Do regional differences present language barriers to non-native speakers with only a basic understanding of Portuguese?
Brazil stretches over 3.28 million square miles. If you tried to fit Portugal inside of Brazil, there’d still be room for India, Argentina, Algeria, and Britain.
Across that much space, Brazil’s particular brand of Portuguese has had room to evolve over time. The language has morphed with variations in indigenous populations, heavily influenced by the many different African dialects of slaves brought over since the 1500’s.
Nowadays, are the differences so great that someone with a basic or textbook knowledge of Portuguese will find it difficult to understand regional dialects?
A Universal Language?
Though Brazilian people can trace their history back to Europe, Africa, and Latin America, the language tends to be fairly unified because of the popularity of telenovelas, or soap operas. This TV style’s widespread popularity has led to an almost ubiquitous adoption of the dialect used in mass media.
The economic and cultural sway of both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro further encourages Brazil’s citizens to pick up mass-market dialects. These days, many and urban Brazilians in particular can understand the formulaic language, both in speech and written word.
It’s Not All Easy
But don’t get too comfortable. Complete understanding may elude the foreigner who’s received formal training in Portuguese when the spoken language often departs from what’s written.
If you’re visiting Brazil, be sure to familiarize yourself with the way Brazilian’s speak. Foreigners will find regional differences in accent and conjugations of certain verbs, and due to Brazil’s relative isolation within South America, speaking English and Spanish will only get them so far.
Although Brazilians use a much more formal language than in European Portuguese territories, many Brazilians in rural areas don’t have access to formal education, meaning slang and colloquialisms have come to dominate over the years. Although in the big cities, you will find many Brazilians speak formally, if you venture to the lesser-visited areas where the population isn’t accustomed to tourists, the dialect can vary greatly and communication can be a challenge.
Variations occur along geographical lines; you can separate the country’s dialects into northern and southern groups. Northern dialects, used in the Amazonian (Amazonico) and Northeastern (Nordestino) regions tend to use open, pre-stressed vowels.
The Amazonian language dialect resembles European Portuguese, especially in and around the city of Belém. Pronouns are shortened, so você is typically reduced to cê (though seen in other regions of Brazil, in the Amazonian, this trend is more prevalent), and vowels are pronounced differently, as explained in-depth by Caleb Everett from the University of Miami.
There are many complex rules relating to how Northeasterns in particular pronounce vowels as well; for the general majority, open vowels are not exclusively used in stressed syllables. In the northern regions, including Amazonia, the vowels are nasalized in virtually all cases, while in the south fewer people make such a nasal sound.
Bahian (Baiano) Portuguese
Going back to its African roots, much of the Bahian dialect takes inspiration from those who migrated from Africa or were brought over as slaves.
If you’re heading to Bahia, you’ll find slang takes center stage and many of the words used are likely the antithesis of what you’ve been taught if you know some Brazilian Portuguese. For example, though the word “pivete” usually denotes “thief” around the rest of Brazil, it means “friend” in Bahia. Words like “bróder,” taken from the English word brother, are also used to greet friends.
Abbreviations are likewise popular in the area. If you want to catch a bus, the driver is referred to as motô rather than the full word, which is motorista. Similarly, the fare collector will be referred to as cobra. Cobra still refers to the snake species, but in this case, locals use a shortened version of cobrador.
Fluminense Portuguese is most associated with the city of Rio de Janeiro and as such, although it contains a lot of slang, it is more closely related to the formal Portuguese language. When it comes to speaking the language, most words are said how they are written and in this way Fluminese takes influence from Portugal, Germany and France.
Fluminense is the dialect used on TV Globo, the most-viewed TV service in Brazil. The majority of the country’s celebrities and journalists have adopted Fluminese, which helped the dialect become the most popular dialect in the country.
The only catch: many consider Fluminese too similar to the formal version of European Portuguese. Enthusiasts find it boring and other regions of Brazil dislike it in comparison to more flavorful local dialects.
Prevalent only in a very small area of the country, in the highlands, the Mineiro dialect is one of the least spoken variants. Least like formal Brazilian Portuguese of all the dialects, it is not largely understood outside of the region.
Words are often merged more in this region, resulting in a faster pace of speech. A common question, para onde nós estamos indo? meaning “Where are we going?”, changes to pronoistamuíno? in Mineiro.
Parallel, adjectives and nouns are often made singular; meus filhos, for example, meaning my children, becomes meus filho.
Sulina (Sulista) Portuguese
Sulina, or Southern Portuguese is spoken across the biggest region of Brazil, covering São Paulo up to Brazil’s borders with Uruguay and Paraguay.
Like the Fluminense dialect, Sulina is more formal than those employed in the smaller areas, but unlike Fluminese, Sulina comes with its share of deviations from “generic” Brazilian Portuguese. Also known as Caipira, the language took its roots from Galician Portuguese and a Tupian Portuguese-like Creole language used by the Jesuits, with some Italian-influenced elements thrown in for good measure.
In Sulina, “l” is more commonly replaced with an “r” sound, while the word meaning no (não) has two forms – não for short replies and num for negative phrases. As is the case with Mineiro, plurals are often replaced with singular articles or pronouns, while the adjective remains plural.
How Brazilian Dialects Have Spread
Because of migration from northern to southern states, the South has extended some sway over the languages of the North. It’s important to note that dialects in Brazil tend to have cultural significance. People with a Gaúcho accent, for example, are proud of the fact and are not easily influenced by other regions.
Students of Portuguese should remember that there are distinctions between European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. Since colonization, the two languages have departed from one another, leading to differences in both pronunciation and grammar. Brazilian Portuguese has felt the influence of African and Amerindian languages, leading to independent development.
Before you visit the Brazil, or if you’re already in town for the World Cup, try catching up on some soap operas or listening to radio broadcasts from the region you’re visiting. This will help you acclimatize to the accent, so you’re more comfortable while abroad.
Whether you’re on site or watching and listening from home, if the exposure to Brazil has you falling in love with Brazilian Portuguese, check out the World Cup-inspired language-learning programs from Language Trainers. Their qualified tutors have a special sensitivity to and lots of familiarity with Brazil’s exciting brand of Portuguese!