A rural shibboleth

On Sunday I went to Vicente Pires, a suburb of Taguatinga, to do an interview with a friend of a friend who we shall call Mariella. Mariella comes from the north-east of Minas Gerais, is in her late 30s, and has lived in the Taguatinga area for 11 years. Like many mineiros, she came here largely to earn money, and intends to return to Minas Gerais. Mariella is of particular interest because, although in general she likes Taguatinga, and is reasonably content here, she remains very much a mineira at heart: and she is the first of my informants to regularly produce the caipira r.

As I’ve previously mentioned, there is a lot a variety in how people say r in Brazilian Portuguese, particularly in the position that we call ‘coda:’ that is, at the end of a syllable, after a vowel (as in cart but not caret). Some people don’t pronounce it at all — which should be familiar to most speakers in England as that’s largely what we do as well. There are a number of other realizations, which are not important for this post. What matters is that there is a particular pronunciation, using what is called a retroflex r (said with the tongue curled up towards the top of the mouth), that is only used by rural folk of Minas Gerais, and is especially a shibboleth for a particularly yokelish stereotype called caipira. A shibboleth is, in general terms, any kind of practice or habit that is used to identify someone as belonging to a particular group or region. They don’t have to be purely linguistic, or can be the use of a certain word rather than a particular sound, but in linguistics when we use the term we usually mean the use of a specific sound identifying a speaker as being from a region or social class.

Now, I’m not currently intending to looking at how people pronounce their rs, so why should this matter? Mainly, it’s important to me because her preservation of caipira r coheres with her responses to questions about identity, and she raised some interesting points when we discussed this.

Mariella doesn’t have particularly negative feelings towards Taguatinga and the Federal District in general, but she still identifies very strongly as mineira, visits Minas Gerais whenever possible, and intends to return there to live when she can. Before living in the Federal District, she lived for a year or so in Belo Horizonte, which is the capital of Minas Gerais, and itself a very large city. Notably, people in Belo Horizonte have a quite different accent from the rest of Minas (I do not use them in my study as a result), and do not use the caipira r. What’s interesting is that Mariella reported experiencing prejudice in Belo Horizonte because of this rural shibboleth, but not here in the Federal District. Here, she said, there is such a mix of accents from all over the country, no-one particularly discriminates against anyone else.

This ties in pretty closely with the theoretical stance I am taking. Following other writers on koineization, I am starting with a hypothesis that in the kind of hugely mixed immigrant-populated scenario we see in Brazil’s Federal District, social pressures take a back seat in the development of the emergent speech, and that purely linguistic factors play a more substantial role in deciding the direction of the brasiliense dialect. This is why, as indicated in other posts, the variables I am looking at are those which are both associated with a rural(ish) dialect, and linguistically relatively simpler than more standard forms. Whereas usually one might expect more standard forms to emerge (in a process generally known as ‘dialect levelling’), the hypothesis that I am testing is that here, if there is less social pressure affecting linguistic behaviour, it is more probable that those forms that are, simply, simpler are more likely to be preserved.

As ever, the opinions of any single individual cannot be interpreted as in anyway extrapolatable to the whole population. But, at the risk of confirmation bias, it is good to hear views that cohere with my thesis; and at the very least, I am glad to have one (and hopefully will get more) caipira r user in my sample. I may not examine it directly now, but it will be interesting to see what other features it co-varies with, and certainly will be of use should I perform any attitudinal testing at a later time.

To be updated: once I have finished working through her data, I intend to upload some samples so you can hear the caipira r in action. However, as I have a bad habit of half-finishing posts, and leaving them whilst I sort out the corresponding data, I thought I would post now, and update later with the samples!

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