Multilingualism in a single language – why not? I, for one, see no difference between saying Olá! vs. Hi! in what are said to be different languages, and saying Olá! vs. Ôi! in what is said to be the same language.
Let me explain. When Brazilian telenovelas first reached Portugal, we Portuguese found ourselves wishing they had come with subtitles. It wasn’t just the words, the rhythms and the intonations of the different varieties of Brazilian Portuguese portrayed in the episodes that were alien to us, it was the body language too, through which we tried to make sense of unintelligible lines. Things got better, in time, but only in time. With our eyes glued to the screen, we practised our daily listening to make intelligibility happen.
Several years later, I moved to Britain, where I came to have my first regular contact with Brazilians. One evening, I was watching a thriller on TV with one of my Brazilian friends. The good guy was leisurely making his way home, where we knew, but he didn’t, that horrid bad guys were waiting to do horrid things to him. I had to express out loud my jitters about the hero’s predicament, and the following drama took place in our room:
Me, the native speaker of Portuguese: Este tipo vai-se meter num sarilho...
My friend, the native speaker of Portuguese: Quê!?
[Interlude, while these two lines were repeated in measured and louder tones, with zero effect on intelligibility, until I decided to translate what I had said into (non-native) English.]
My friend: Ah! Esse cara vai entrar numa fria!
Both my first line and my friend’s last one mean, roughly, ‘This guy is done for’ (in some varieties of English, perhaps?) – and I probably don’t need to explain what Quê and Ah mean. The bottom line is that we were both glad that we could resort to (English) subtitles, as it were, to make sense of our respective foreign Portugueses.
Even if you don’t understand Portuguese, cursory visual inspection of the two lines in question shows that we were speaking two different languages. This is why my Brazilian friends and me had huge amounts of fun making fun of our funny cross-Atlantic accents, turns of phrase and gestural habits, and accusing one another of “speaking like my grandmother” (this is a mild insult, by the way, in both versions of our language), which shows that historically-marked uses of language feature in both geographic and generational varieties. Daily practice ended up improving mutual intelligibility here too, but we remained, as George Bernard Shaw said of England and America, divided by a common language. I had more in common with the British, with whom I shared cultural traits, than with the Brazilians, with whom I shared a language. My friends felt the same about themselves and the Americans, as opposed to me. Maybe the labels Old World and New World are there for a reason.
The question is, then, why did we all call what we were speaking “Portuguese”? The reason we go on saying that we share a “common language” must be a matter of habit, drilled into us by whoever was drilled, in turn, to say so. A matter of political convenience (and probably correctness too), in other words. Politics in fact holds the clue to what defines a language: the sociolinguist Max Weinreich is credited with popularising the criterion which hits the nail on the head, when he quipped that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. What we call “a language” can no more be defined linguistically than what we call “a nation” can be defined geographically. Which also explains the urge of creators of new nations to decide which “national language(s)” to institutionalise.
Mutual intelligibility is sometimes used as the touchstone of language distinctiveness, in the sense that if I understand you, then we’re using the same language, and if I don’t, then we’re not. Questions arise here too, besides the ones illustrated in Acts I and II above. I may understand you, but you may not understand me, so where do we draw intelligible boundaries, and for whom? One of the reasons I found myself learning Spanish from my Spanish-speaking friends (in Britain too) was that they didn’t understand my Portuguese, whereas their American Spanishes were crystal-clear to me – although I can’t say the same of several European Spanishes.
Many of us become multi-dialectal in our language(s) the way I did – if that’s the right word to call it by. I learned when to talk about caras and frias instead of tipos and sarilhos, in Portuguese; I learned, in Britain, to say crisps for what my school textbooks said were chips, because chips are what you eat there with newspaper-wrapped fish, not what comes on its own in plastic bags; I learned, in Singapore, that you on and off the aircon; and, whenever I’m back in Portugal relaxing in lingua-franca-English among local and foreign friends, I do my best to avoid Britishisms and Singaporeanisms in my English vocabularies, grammars and accents.
Many of us grow up multi-dialectal too, perhaps in less fun-filled ways: monolingual children don’t always have it easy sorting themselves out in what adults call their language, in the singular. I turn to this matter next.
© MCF 2012
Next post: Little multi-dialectals. Wednesday 30th May 2012.