Mineiro identity and first informants

I intend to usually update this blog on Sundays. This posting is therefore somewhat late, caused by (a) little of consequence happening until yesterday, (b) the fact that the topic upon which I started writing the linguistics content turned out to be extremely lengthy, and will need to be split up between a number of other posts, and (c) having lost two days of my life to Brazilian bureaucracy in order to obtain a temporary ID card. Apologies to all who were expecting to see this on Sunday.

I have now been in Taguatinga for ten days, renting a small room in a small apartment in Taguatinga North, CNB 13, and have spent the time getting to know the area, and starting to set up some networks. As my research will focus on the speech of migrants from Minas Gerais and their children, I have also been watching out for signs of mineiro identity in the town.

There does seem to be a strong mineiro identity still here. A great number of the cafés and por-kilo restaurants identify themselves as selling mineiro food[1] or incorporate the words mineiro or related terms into their names, and I have also seen a number that identify as caipira. As I start to try and form some networks of contacts, I have been visiting these places a fair amount. Two of them in particular bear noting.

Patureba restaurantThe first is a buffet restaurant called “Patureba.” The word patureba is a demonym for people originating from Patos de Minas, a town in the triângulo mineiro (see map). However, the “correct” demonym is patoense; patureba is considered derogatory. Similarly, a small café-bar near my flat is called o chapeau mineiro, “The Mineiro Hat.” Both the owner of the café and its sign sport a hat of a distinctive shape, similar to that associated (in my mind, at least) with cigar-toting Texan oilmen. The active branding of such institutions with perjorative indicators of rurality suggest that the somewhat yokelish stereotype of the rural mineiro[2] has been, not without a certain humour, repossessed by the mineiro community as markers of identity.

The behatted owner of the latter institution in fact also comes from Patos de Minas and, more importantly, agreed yesterday to be recorded, getting me my first informant within ten days of arriving in Taguatinga. Shortly after this, my landlord informed me that an elderly gentleman who lives on the same floor, and who I’ve chatted to a few times, was himself mineiro and happy to be recorded. This gentleman is actually well above my top age band in my design: he is 84 and was therefore at least 34 when Brasília was founded, and corresponds to the “adult” group in Bortoni-Ricardo 1985.[3] Although I still think it unlikely that I could gather enough 75+ informants to correspond to Bortoni-Ricardo’s adult group, I shall certainly be consulting with him, and may well use him as an exemplar or reference point.

A third route to informants also opened up yesterday — although at something of a price. One of the first things I did here was join a gym, which here are quite sociable institutions. Taguatinga is hardly touristy, and one can imagine very few foreigners passing through for long enough to join a gym, and so the novelty of a foreigner in their gym (coupled, no doubt, with my innate charm) meant that I quickly got chatting with a number of the staff and regulars there, and have been invited to join the staff for their weekly football session. There are, apparently, three mineiros on the staff, so hopefully at least one of them will fall within my age bands. But football! Oh dear Lord, the humiliations I am prepared to put myself through for my work. This is Brazil — land of Pele and Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and Kaká — and I? I have not played football since I was 16, and was not spectacularly good at it then. (I wasn’t terrible: I seem to recall I made a half-decent defender largely by failing to draw fine — or indeed any — distinctions between rugby and football tackling techniques.) Next Wednesday, in the name of firming up my network and meeting new people, I shall expose my sporting failure to members of the most footie-mad nation on the planet.

There is little more to report, other than a mildly interesting shift in my own speech: I have changed my pronunciation of coda r to the “strong” r, in which—

An observant reader interrupts: Hang on a moment. “Little more to report,” indeed. You did this last time. You mentioned a small final point, which turned out to involve a linguistic discussion of many paragraphs. That, coupled with the introductory comment indicating most posts are going to have linguistic content leads me to wonder—

Me: Yup. Bang on. Buckle up, you’re in for a discussion of Brazilian Portuguese rhoticity.

Standard Brazilian Portuguese is generally described as having two rs — the “weak r” and the “strong r.” These contrast in words such as caro/carro (“expensive”/“car”). The weak r here is pronounced something like Anglo-English r (that is, English of England). The strong r has a variety of realizations, all of the type that linguists call uvular (produced at the back of the mouth). The most familiar of these is something like the r of French.

This distinction only holds inside words, between vowels. At the start of words r is always strong, and as the second consonant of a cluster, such as tr or br it is always weak. Where it gets interesting, though, is in the position linguists call “coda” — at the end of a syllable (or word).

Now, it may be necessary at this point to let other Anglo-English speakers understand that it is possible to pronounce an r here. People from England are generally what is referred to as non-rhotic here: in, for instance, the word “car”, we simply say it with a long a; we do not pronounce an actual r of any type. But if you are English, think of the Scottish or American pronunciations, and you’ll realize it is possible to articulate an r at the end of a syllable. We just don’t.

The Brazilians have a huge range of pronunciations here. They, too, can drop it entirely (particularly common at the end of words, and even more likely when that word is an infinitive). They can also produce either the weak or the strong r in any of the variants above. There are also regional pronunciations including a retroflex articulation (made with the tongue curled right back in the mouth), which is associated with rurality and highly stigmatized.

The pronunciation of coda r is going to be — did you guess? — one of the variables I examine. My own pronunciation, as I say, has shifted. Whereas previously I produced the English-style approximant I have been increasingly concerned that, unsurprisingly given I speak non-rhotic English, the r has just tended to disappear, without me really noticing I am dropping it. Whilst this is one of the pronunciations in Brazilian Portuguese, from the point of view of my own command of the language, I would prefer to avoid optional deletions such as this. This is not a judgement upon the social significance of such speech, but rather simply so that I am comfortable that I am not deleting in inappropriate contexts, or accidentally misrepresenting the word in my own lexicon.

What started through natural accommodation to my landlord — who has a strong coda r, and I speak with him more than anyone else at the moment — I have subsequently consciously taken up through deliberate monitoring of my speech, and shifted to producing the strong coda r. For me, of course, this is now marked, but that is partly the point: by changing to a strong r I am ensuring to my own satisfaction that I have the underlying structure of the word correct.

Plus, to be honest, I kinda like the way it sounds as well.

[1] Characterized by a preference for pork over beef and chicken, as well as a local delicacies such as pequi, with which I have had something of a run-in. [Back up]

[2] The stereotype of the rural mineiro is exemplified here (note the hat in the caricature). The joke translates (badly, or it is a bad joke) as:

Three paulistas wanting to impress a mineiro:

First paulista: — I have plenty of money, I’ll buy the Vale do Rio Doce [a mining company].

Second paulista: — I’m rich, I’ll buy Fiat Automobiles.

Third paulista: — I’m a millionaire, I’ll buy Usiminas [a steel producer].

And the three wait to see which the mineiro will speak to. He adjusts his hat on his head, takes a puff of his straw cigarette [tobacco hand-rolled in a corn husk], spits, swallows, pauses … and says:

— I’m not selling.

[Back up]

[3] Bortoni-Ricardo’s study was conducted in the early 1980s, and forms a major springboard for mine. She divided her informants in two groups: “adults” (aged 25 and up) and “youth.” Although she was largely concerned with the adult language change — how those in the adult group had “urbanized” their speech — I decided in my project design not to include an age band corresponding to her “adult” group simply because this would involve a minimum age of 75. [Back up]

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  • Ian says:

    What can you tell us about the malandro?

    • Stuart says:

      Ah well, Ian, malandro is used to refer to a person’s character, rather than their regional or familial identity, so is beyond the scope of my study. It means trickster, really, but with a level of admiration for the skill. Think Odysseus. You wouldn’t let him near your wife or wallet, but you have to admire the skill with which he steals other men’s wives and wallets. That’s my understanding, at least.

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