Another shibboleth

After recording Mariella last weekend (see previous post), she invited me over yesterday to record one of her neighbours, a lady who we shall call Fatimah. Have we had a Fatimah yet? I lose track. I get these pseudonyms by scanning down my Facebook wall for the first Brazilian friend of the relevant gender, and using their name, which therefore carries a risk of repetition — although maybe less than in real life, where of the actual interviewee names, the same one has already cropped up four times!

Anyway, when I arrived, Fatimah was lunching with some friends, so Mariella took me to visit another friend of hers, Adriana. Adriana was amazing. She’s 88 and still fully alert, fit, and healthy. She has been married for 67 years and her husband, at 93, still works, making traditional leather-hide stools. They were a pretty cool couple, and I really enjoyed interviewing her. She too has the caipira r that I discussed in my previous post, as well as the most awesome creaky voice — the latter is a result of aging, as the larynx sits in a cage of cartilage which over time slowly ossifies, causing less flexibility in the whole mechanism. Talking with Adriana really was a glimpse of pre-urbanized Brazil: in the 1950 census 36% of the population lived in urban areas, by last year the same figure was 84%.

We later returned to interview Fatimah. Mariella had warned me that she was a little shy, and I’d asked her to sit in on the interview to ease matters. This turned out to be useful, but for a completely different reason. Fatimah very quickly lost her shyness, and was one of my best interviewees ever, with a simple question leading to lengthy and enthusiastically-related stories about her childhood, her neighbourhood, life Minas Gerais and all kinds of topics. But she also, oh wow, was more mineiro in her speech than anyone I have encountered yet. Mariella sitting in the interview was useful far more because, frankly, I struggled to follow a lot of what Fatimah was saying.

If you remember my previous link to and commentary on the Tonin cartoon, Fatimah exhibits a number of the features of the rural speech caricatured therein: she cuts off the end of words, she doesn’t always agree, but most importantly for me, she produces caipira y. This concerns the pronunciation of the sound written as lh. In ‘standard’ Portuguese this is pronounced as a palatal lateral approximant, a sound we don’t have in English, but if you are familiar with Spanish you would recognize as the pronunciation (in Castilian, at least) of the ll in, for instance, llama.[1] There is some variety in urban pronunciation: with some people using ly or even just l in place of the ‘true’ palatal, however the caipira pronunciation is as a y.

The caipira y is even more stereotyped than the r, considered extremely yokelish, and the touchstone of caricatures mocking rural mineiros. I was not expecting to come across it at all, largely because of the findings of Bortoni-Ricardo in her work on the nearby satellite city of Brazlândia. Bortoni-Ricardo looked at caipira immigrants to what was then a semi-rural town and her work is one of the major starting-points for my own. Bortoni-Ricardo found that within a relatively short time of moving to the area, the vast majority of her informants seemed to have dropped the caipira y; including older adults in whom language change would be expected to occur much less, if at all.

What’s going on here? Bortoni-Ricardo’s fieldwork was conducted in the early 1980s, twenty years after the founding of Brasília. Why, thirty years later, should we find alive and well a feature which her trajectory of change would predict to be long eliminated by now? There’s a number of points here:

  1. I said ‘seemed’ above because there are some methodological problems with Bortoni-Ricardo’s work, one of which is that she has no actual evidence for how her informants spoke prior to their arrival in Brazlândia; instead she uses documentary sources of the caipira dialect and assumes that they have shifted from that. Given the sources themselves were up to 60 years old at the time of her research, this is a significant and flawed assumption. If caipira y levels were less than 100% in the informants prior to their move to Brazlândia, the rate of change would be much slower than she takes it to be in her work.
  2. The direction of change may have switched. In particular, it is fairly common for a feature that is being excluded to become repurposed by a younger generation. However it should be noted that Fatimah corresponds roughly in generation to Bortoni-Ricardo’s younger cohort, in whom the feature was totally excluded, so this seems unlikely.
  3. Fatimah could, of course, simply be an outlier.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and any or all of them could contribute. What interests me though, is a fourth possibility. Bortoni-Ricardo’s work was done in Brazlândia, which was one of the two communities in what in now the Federal District that existed prior to the establishment of Brasília. As such, her informants had moved to a location with an existing dialect, and where they were considered outsiders. Bortoni-Ricardo reports that they experienced a degree of prejudice initially, although more lately had been accepted into the community.

However, the reason I shifted the location my study to Taguatinga was precisely because I wanted to see what occurred in the absence of any existing dialect, where the entire population were migrants, and where there was a substantial mixture of dialects, from all over the country. Previous literature suggests that in this environment there may be less linguistic prejudice, as there is no established local ‘norm’ from which people can be seen to deviate. So far only one of my informants has reported experiencing any level of prejudice against his accent upon arriving in the area. I noted in my previous post that Mariella reported more prejudice in the capital of Minas Gerais than she experienced here, and Fatimah too claimed that everyone here was thrown in together, and that no-one had any prejudice against any other accent.

In this environment, with a great range of features, but less social pressure on the direction the emergent dialect takes, we may expect to see structural rather than social forces coming to the fore in shaping the nascent brasiliense dialect. This was one of the major hypotheses I want to test out here and, though as with other posts we must be careful to acknowledge that all I have reported above is anecdote and not data, I am once again cheered that I do not appear to have been wildly inaccurate in my background assumptions.

1 Portuguese and Spanish are, of course, very closely related; however you would be wrong to assume that where Spanish has ll Portuguese has lh. In fact the Spanish ll usually occurs as ch (pronounced sh) in Portuguese cognates: thus Spanish llamear (‘to blaze’) is Portuguese chamejar. The palatal lateral in Portuguese appears to have arisen separately (an interesting fact, given the relative rareness of the sound cross-linguistically) and corresponds to Spanish j, thus Spanish mujer (‘woman’) is Portugese mulher. [Back up]

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  • Andy Bro says:

    As a pseudo-journalist, I’m actually really interested in the stories Fatimah told you. I know you’re looking at the way she said it, rather than what she said, but do you think there’s scope for a future blog on ‘some of the best stories I’ve been told by informants’?

    Yours, intrigued of Bangkok

  • Stuart says:

    Sure Andy, once I’ve worked out what she says! Actually it was the older lady (‘Adriana’) who was the real eye-opener. As I say, Brazil pretty much shifted from overwhelmingly rural to overwhelmingly urban in about fifty years (the whole Brasília project was kind of the pinnacle of this). One of the first things I asked was for her to tell me about her childhood in Minas Gerais, and she started with “My father was very strict,” and then started to describe the skin filled with water and rice which he used to beat them across the legs with. She presented pretty much a life of church, being beaten, and doing “women’s work” until she left home to get married (she still is, 67 years later!)

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