Monday, February 15, 2010

Eu e É O

The title of this post translates as "I and Is The." To this gringo's ear this personal pronoun and verbal phrase sound identical in Portuguese, which causes a number of problems in daily conversation. I will follow along with a speaker's train of thought for the first few words, but then all of a sudden I can swear that I hear them say "Eu," and my brain shifts to interpret what comes next as a new sentence beginning with "I." At this point I'm struggling to remember the words I just heard, make sense of what is being spoken, and framing a response based on what I can only guess is the statement or question that's been formed. Usually I just sigh and say, "Sorry, I don't speak much Portuguese," or "Please speak slowly." It's annoying when my request is answered with a puzzled look and an even faster gush of confusing vowels. I am used to speaking English slowly for non-native speakers, not just from teaching here but also through business dealings in Boston with people from all sorts of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

If, like me, you're new to Portuguese, be mindful of the homophones eu and é o. It'll help with comprehension if you realize this sound has two distinct meanings dependent on context.

I am intrigued that in Portuguese there is no attempt to avoid hiatus in the phrase é o, indeed in any occurrence of hiatus with the exception of constructions like na or no meaning em + a and em + o. Avoiding hiatus is, if memory serves, of paramount concern to French speakers. It seems to me that in English we tend to avoid it, but we're not overly fussy with it. To my ear, Brazilian Portuguese speakers flaunt it. It's a bit like a violin's trill.

I fear I'm a bit over my head without looking through references for all this linguistic mumbo jumbo. I hope that a kind, more knowledgeable reader out there will correct where I may have erred, or further illuminate me on the subject.

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