First progress report

I have now been in Brasília for four days, and it is time for my first progess report. When I first arrived in Brazil I spent a some days on the coast with existing friends, partly to get my Portuguese flowing again, and partly to get contacts. This proved very fruitful, because the father of one of my friends — a chap called Dirceu — lives in Taguatinga, exactly the part of the Federal District in which I am interested. I met with him on Thursday and not only did he show me around Taguatinga a bit, but he offered my a room in his apartment to stay in.

This is pretty fantastic — within a few days of arriving I have a place to stay bang in the middle of community I want to be in. Additionally, although Dirceu himself is paulistano (from São Paulo), and therefore excluded from being a potential informant for me, he falls well within the age range of my top age-band — who were those that I had most concerns recruiting — and I hope will provide a number of informants from his own circle. So, tomorrow I move to Taguatinga and can begin the serious business of recruiting informants. More on my informant selection criteria will follow in later posts.

In the mean time, since I have been in Brasília, I have largely been accustoming myself to the accent here, and getting a general feel for the area. One noticable difference from the picture I drew in from my preliminary research is the presence of the metro. This was opened in 2001, and was a largely intended to address the socio-spatial problems I describe. The two lines thus start from the central bus station (for full transport integration), trace together down the south wing of the Plano Piloto, and thread into the western satellite cities, splitting into a line through the main part Taguatinga into Ceilânda, and another through southern Taguatinga and into Samambaia. The cost is a flat-rate R$3 per journey (around £1).

The metro certainly seems to have been a success. Although the trip is somewhat lengthy (around 40 minutes from Taguatinga to the central station; and most workers would then have to take a bus to their place of work within Plano Piloto), and R$6 per day (plus bus fares) is probably quite steep for the most lowly-paid workers, there is a definite feel that the satellites are less removed from the Plano Piloto than would be indicated in my preliminary research. Obviously I am not in a position to judge socio-economic improvement diachronically, but Taguatinga is less underdeveloped than I had expected, and the neighbourhood of Aguas Claras — the first stop on the metro within the satellite area — is positively gleaming with new, and architecturally rather snazzy, flats.

Beyond this, the one item I want to report — and regret that I cannot show because I did not have a camera with me at the time — is a sign I saw yesterday that beautifully captured one of my variables, and provides a nice little segue into explaining a feature of my research. The sign was by a street performer — a guy with two children, both of whom were slightly disfigured — playing music. The sign was an encouragement to give money, and read Estes crianças são especiais e precisa sua ajuda, “These children are special and need your help.” Speakers of Portuguese will note an apparent “error” there: precisa (the third person singular conjugation of precisar, to need) instead of precisam (the third person plural conjugation).

Now, one of the things I shall be looking at is how people conjugate their verbs. “Standard” Portguese has a conjugation system that will look fairly familiar to anyone who has learnt a Romance language, with different terminations for each grammatical person. Thus precisar, “to need”, is in the present:

Eu preciso I need
Tu precisas You (informal, singular) need
Ele/ela/você precisa He/she/you (formal, singular) need
Nós precisamos We need
Vós precisais You (informal, plural) need
Eles/elas/vocês precisam They/you (formal, plural) need

The gray forms — informal second persons — are basically absent from almost all forms of Brazilian Portuguese. However, what I am looking at is a further reduction in which speakers use the third person singular conjugation for all other persons except first person singular. That is, verbal paradigms become reduced to a simple I/everyone else opposition: eu preciso, every one else precisa. This is strongly associated with rurality/low socio-economic class and lack of education.

A great deal has been written on this (see here for my bibliography entry for the topic), however what is of interest here is an early analysis by Anthony Naro, who proposed that in any given utterance the likelihood a speaker using the non-standard form could be associated with its phonetic salience, and suggested a hierarchy of forms, the most salient of which would be most likely to be conjugated according to “standard” patterns, and the least salient of which would be likely to be conjugated according to the reduced opposition. The details of this are not relevant here: for a full description of this see Naro and Lemle 1976 or Naro 1981.

A lot of work has been done since then, and one of Naro’s major assumptions — that the popular speech was diverging from standard — has largely been challenged (starting from Guy 1981) and most authorities would now agree that the popular speech is diachronically converging on the standard from a historically simplified form. One of my research questions is whether, in the particular environment of Brasília, this convergence has been retarded or even reversed. More on that in posts to come!

For now, what matters is that Naro’s hierarchy of application has largely held, whatever the diachronic or social variation in the actual rates. The highest item in Naro’s hierarchy is the specific conjugation of the verb ser, “to be”, which is totally irregular and therefore highly salient: you couldn’t very easily mistake the third person singular é with the third person plural são. The second-lowest item in his hierarchy, though, is the regular present tense opposition between third person singular and third person plural of -ar verbs: between precisa and precisam as shown above. Non-Portuguese speakers should note that the terminal -m is not pronounced as such, but causes the preceding vowel to become nasalised.[1] The difference between these two word is solely of vowel quality and therefore of comparatively low salience.

So, this speaker shows a singular/plural distinction for the phonetically-salient “to be”, but not for the “to need”, and this for the same referents in the same clause. This immaculately exemplifies Naro’s hierarchy, and also gives me a sigh of relief that one of the expected phenomena is, indeed, still present in the Brasília speech community.

Of course, it could also be a simple spelling mistake. But that wouldn’t validate an interesting explanation of verb paradigms in vernacular Brazilian Portuguese, now would it?

[1] Many dialects of Portuguese do not have a nasal [ã], so the nasalization of /a/ leads to [ũ]. It is this that makes the -a/-am opposition the second-lowest on the hierarchy: the lowest is -i/-im where there is little change in vowel position (other than a slight centering) in the nasalization. [Back up]


Welcome to the latest incarnation of my blog proper. For once, the incentive to keep this updated is more than my own willpower — I have been awarded a grant to help fund my PhD fieldwork from the Department of Language and Linguistic Science at the University of York, and it comes with a condition that I keep a weekly blog during my fieldwork. I have yet to leave for Brazil, but in the mean time intend to add the supporting pages.

Once I begin my fieldwork, in a week or two, the blog will document it, explaining aspects of the research and my experiences in carrying it out. It is intended for a lay audience and linguists alike.

So welcome, look around, and enjoy!