The old man tuts …

The old man tuts to indicate disagreement. I’d already encountered this once, briefly, when discussing the procedure for getting my CPF number — a procedure which the website expressly warns you not to take native Brazilians’ advice on, because it differs substantially for foreigners.

Today I had it in its full force, and it was infuriating. We were discussing mosquitos, which here in Brasília are blessedly few, but in the coastal village of Picinguaba are the size of small dogs, and less suck slightly at your blood than rip a gaping hole in your flesh and lap up your precious essences as they flow out. The old man was expounding upon diseases that you get from them in Picinguaba, and I mentioned that there were some diseases here as well — hadn’t they just had an outbreak of dengue?

OLD MAN: (Suck… tut … tut … tut)

It is important to get some idea of the nature of this. The suck is an inhale, like the stereotyped builders’ it’s-gonna-cost-you suck, but louder, and with extra phlegm. The tuts are also full volume alveolar clicks, probably (from the amount of sucky moisture noises going on) with a substantial amount of laminal contact, not just a quick apical tap. They are also not rapid — no quick tsk-tsk-tsk this — they are fairly slowly paced. The whole is clearly designed to be loud enough to terminate your conversational turn, not just provide a comment thereupon.

No really, I tried to explain. You had a dengue outbreak just before I arrived. I remember this clearly, because in the taxi from the bus station to the hotel, we picked up the free local paper and the headline said …

OLD MAN: (Suck… tut … tut … tut)

Turn ended again. The tuts are sometimes accompanied with a wag of the finger. It’s a fairly precise gesture and not idiomatic to the old man: a single swipe of the index finger from left to right (or right to left if you’re a southpaw). I picked it up very early on in my experience of Brazil — before I really spoke any Portuguese — and was quite pleased with myself for having spotted it and its effect. I used it against street traders: it clearly signifies a complete refusal to engage. And now it’s being used against me!

OK, so forget trying to persuade him about the dengue. We move on. There is concord in the conversation that, yes, Picinguaba is infested with the buggers, but here in Brasília they are far less common. The old man points to a couple of tell-tale red splotches on my arms and mentions that I must have picked those up in the park. Well, possibly, but actually a mosquito was in my room last night …

OLD MAN: (Suck… tut … tut … tut)

Really quite forceful this time. There was to be no debate.

Maybe he was offended by the suggestion of a mosquito in his apartment. So I went on to point out it was my fault: I opened the window with the light on, my smelly gym-clothes were in the room. I should have known better. But there definitely was a mosquito. Look, I can show you the bloodied stumps where once my toes wriggled pinkly and contentedly, and I was kept awake by her smug buzzing through large portions of the n…

OLD MAN: (Suck… tut … tut … tut)

The great power of this gesture is that, in lacking any semantic content, it is completely unchallengeable. You cannot pick it up, and say “ah well, you may say that, but ….” It is not an argumentative technique at all, it is simply a complete and direct refusal — without any requirement to substantify or give reason — to accept what you are saying. It is, I think it is fair to say, really. fucking. annoying.

The current head of department at the University of York, Richard Ogden, and his students have done a lot of work on tuts in conversation and on gestural indications of agreement and disagreement, you should probably take a look through his publications to learn more about this issue, which is really rather interesting.

For me, I have no idea whether this a particularly widespread feature in Brazilian Portuguese discourse, or an idiomatic gesture of the old man. It seems close enough to the more generic tsk-tsk-tsk that we could speculate it to be an exaggerated performance of that, the speaker having discovered that in strengthening the clicks and slowing the pace, they could augment in-turn disagreement to a more aggressive turn-terminating action.

However, there is a high risk that if this gesture is idiomatic, we may also soon lose the opportunity to study it further. For if the old man tries it again on me, I shall leave the light on and the window open in his room, and secure him, Prometheus-like, to his bed, to have his liver and flesh rent by the self-same mosquitos that he claims exist not in his house.

A READER: Isn’t this all a little over-the-top? I mean it can’t be that irritat—

ME: (Suck… tut … tut … tut)


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