Couple of words on/in Portuguese

When the walls speak it is because we are all crazy. (photo by Jelena Barac)
“When the walls speak it is because we are all crazy.” (photo by Jelena Barac)

Surely none would completely disagree with me if I were to say that a language can mirror a culture. Perhaps you would be skeptical if I were to say that language is culture. I guess that would indeed be pushing it too far. If nothing, you could not deny that language and culture are tightly interconnected and influence each other in, even if subtle, significant way. Learning a language without getting to know the culture to which this language belongs would definitely leave one with a half-baked experience, just as it is almost impossible to integrate with people, regardless of how well one knows their culture, if one does not speak their language.

Because of this, among other things, my experience of Brazil, and for that matter of Rio de Janeiro, was largely influenced by my progress—or lack thereof—in learning Portuguese. My understanding of the people and the surroundings in which I found myself varied together with this process: it grew as I started to understand and use the language more and more (often wrong too, which, surprisingly, led to nothing short of a series of discoveries). So I am about to tell you some of my linguistic, if you can call them that way, experiences in the waters of Portuguese language.

One of the first words I learned, even before I went to Rio, was saudades. Many people who speak Portuguese always selected this word as one of the most interesting ones to share with me. They told me it is untranslatable: it represents a sort of nostalgia for someone or something, but not a mere ”missing”. Some of my friends told me ”You can’t translate saudades, it’s a certain melancholy feeling, for which  there is no corresponding word in other languages.” I obnoxiously thought to myself ”it is nostalgia, why are you making such a big deal out of it, one can miss in other languages too.” And it was not until after I was mud-deep into my Portuguese that I could in fact trace the word’s silhouette, and could actually tangibly feel it. Perhaps not even then.

Brazilians say ”Eu estou com saudade’,’ which, if translated literally, means ”I am with saudade (longing).” Perhaps my mind is influenced by English or Serbian syntax, but to be ‘with something’ means to me to add something to yourself, or to your state. In English I would say I am ‘nostalgic for’, or ‘I miss this and that’. It is almost like something was taken away from the previous state of mind; it’s a lack, a crumpling of your emotional wall. In Portuguese it is an addition, like an entity that befalls you. Though, perhaps I should stress that put this way, i.e. being with nostalgia, saudade sounds too negative; losing something usually has at least the connotation of slight negativity. Having an ‘extra’ sad feeling also seems negative. Saudade, however, could be a melancholic feeling, but not necessarily a negative one. One indeed misses someone or something, yet this feeling does not take away something from her, but enriches her and, ultimately, it’s a gain to her and her life experience. I cannot help but be reminded of Shakespeare’s bitter-sweet sorrow. In it, you are sad because you miss, but happy that you have someone or something, a person or a memory, or even experience, to miss.

This is how I understood the word and how I tried to feel it. Ultimately I liked it so much I almost got offended when Brazilians would use it just for anything. Saudade for feijão (beans), for their own bed, a fruit, a neighbor’s dog etc. I felt like such dense and strongly emotionally charged word should not be thrown around just in any occasion. You should keep your pearls for that special dinner, or should you? In English too, sometimes we use the word love for that chocolate creamy topping, or those fries with extra garlic, then, other times, we also love a person, and then that word gains a deeper meaning. I do not compare words with pearls for no reason––they do indeed become special only once you have a dress for them, since without a context, both saudade and love can be as banal or as significant as we decide.

One could argue against my position, or along the same line. I am not trying to claim the rights for the meaning of a word, it’s just a short story of my personal journey towards my way of understanding it. And to keep it short, I would like to tell you my favorite word in Portuguese: sussurrar, which means to whisper. I like the way the word sounds because it reflects how a whisper sounds. I think of it as the background sound which I have in my memory of the ocean, and the way the waves would break against the sand at night and then retreat slowly back into the darkness again. The water’s own dessasossego––unrest, disquiet—and its reoccurring sussurro to the sand. Perhaps it’s just a pure word-fetish from my side, but to me the visual and the sound “image” of this word reflect perfectly its meaning. At times I felt as if I could see it, as if it manifested itself in the sounds of the nature and the night in Rio. It is slightly paradoxical that I would ‘see’ this ‘whisper’ everywhere around me, in a city that almost never sleeps, whose streets are saturated with noise, music, and scurry of all types. It could have been my need for silence that led me to fall in love with this word.

I might have rendered my experience of Portuguese in a slightly too romantic a way and I would not want you to think only of how it can be used for contemplation or reminiscing. So just a small reminder: there is a practical side to language as well. Obviously, one needs it in order to accomplish her day-to-day life-support activities. Thus, while I was pondering about the ocean and Shakespearean sorrow, I also ordered a bunda de vaca (cow’s ass) before I learned how to say ‘steak’, or left my friend waiting for me when his partiu (“left”) actually meant deal and I understood it as ‘I left’. I was lucky that I was learning the language of a people that are so understanding towards the linguistic struggles gringos (strangers) are facing, and would not take it to their heart when I butchered it. One travels through landscapes and explores the architecture, however, together with the physical exploration there is another travel that is happening in, or with, our LAS (language acquisition system), that is as exciting and as challenging. I have and still am enjoying every step of it and I am with terrible saudade for it all.

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