Fala rural

Here’s a link to the first in a series of pretty amusing cartoons concerning Tonin, a young rural mineiro who gets taken by ninjas to follow his destiny.


It is full of stereotypes, and young Tonin and his parents speak with strong mineiro accents. The subtitles are nice, reflecting the pronunciation, for example:

Noís tem doze fi! Se é pra iscoiê um, iscói o menorzim.

“We have twelve children. If you’re going to choose one, choose the youngest.”

This is chock full of ruralisms! Should you care I spotted (and I am sure a native speaker would pick more):

  • Noís for nós. This addition of an i prior to a syllable-final s is not just limited to mineiro speech; it is fairly common throughout Brazil. It is interesting that, in the audio track, the pronunciation of this is actually closer to “noysh”. This pronunciation of syllable-final s as sh is typical not just of the mineiro accent but also that of Rio de Janeiro. It can be represented orthographically — as noíx — but they have chosen not to. This tells us a little about which features of the speech are considered emphatically mineiro, and thus worth highlighting for humour, and those which are seen as just “ordinary” variations.
  • Tem here is the third person singular form of ter, “to have,” yet it is being applied to “we” (noís). This lack of agreement is one of the very distinctive features of vernacular speech, and one which looks very creolized (to reference the previous post).
  • Fi is impressive: it is a substantial reduction of filhos, “sons, children” (remember my gender/markedness post?). How one gets from filhos to fi is a combination of the mineiro tendency to drop unstressed vowels at the end of the word, the rural pronunciation of lh (usually pronounced as a palatal lateral, which doesn’t exist in English, but sounds to our ears more-or-less like ly) as the semi-vowel y and probably the fact that the singular filho would have been used anyway (lack of agreement again). That is:
    • for “standard” filhos (“feelyus”) the farmer would have said singular filho;
    • the lh is pronounced y, which merges with the preceding ee (=“fiyu”);
    • the word-teminal u is dropped (=“feey”)
  • Se é pra iscoiê um means, more-or-less, “If you are to choose one.” However the exact meaning is actually quite difficult for me to parse due to the non-standard grammar, compounded by the (perfectly standard) omission of a pronoun. The é (“is”) is, in standard terms, “wrong.” It could be that it applies to the ninjas, (that is, we would gloss the sentence as “If [you] are”), in which case it fails to agree, as per the tem above. However, it could also be just an existential “it is” — the sentence starts “If it is that”. Either way, after se (“if”) the standard grammar would expect the subjunctive (seja or sejam in the plural) — which you may recall in a previous post I noted was generally absent in the rural vernaculars, and so it is here.
  • Iscoiê and iscói are both renderings of the rural pronunciation of forms of the verb escolher, “to choose.” The initial e is raised to i (sounds which in English we would generally represent with eh and ee respectively) and, as for filhos above, the lh has become a semi-vowel i.
  • Finally, in menorzim, we see the characteristic addition of the diminutive zinho, with (as before) the equally distinctive deletion of the final vowel.

There’s plenty more, both in this episode and others. Worth a chuckle, possibly mainly for Portuguese-speakers though!

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)