The Spelling Revolt

On January 23 2017, the Portuguese newspaper Público published a manifesto signed by numerous writers, academics and other prominent personalities condemning the 1990 Spelling Agreement, which subsequently gave rise to the 2009 spelling reform, as an ‘economic, legal, cultural, social, linguistic and political fiasco’ (read it here). According to the manifesto, the reform has ‘opened a Pandora´s box and created a monster.’ It has generated so much uncertainty that even dictionaries and spellcheckers disagree on how some words should be spelt, so the authors claim. How has this situation come about?

The purpose of the first reform of Portuguese spelling, introduced in Portugal in 1911 and in Brazil in 1931, was to make it more phonetic and less etymological, and the reform largely achieved this objective, making the spelling of the language a good deal simpler in the process. Brazil introduced a further reform in 1943 which did away with silent consonants in words like ação, ator and ótimo (previously spelt acção, actor and óptimo) in Brazilian Portuguese (BP). Meanwhile, European Portuguese (EP) spelling retained these silent consonants and, in an attempt to restore a uniform orthography across the Portuguese-speaking world, a joint agreement drawn up between the two countries in 1945 sought to reintroduce them into BP spelling. Not surprisingly, this agreement was never ratified by Brazil and so the two different official spelling standards continued to coexist side by side for the next fifty years, never posing any barrier to written communication between Brazil and Portugal, just as the differences between British and American spelling have never been a problem, either for native speakers or for learners of English.

However, moves were still afoot in certain quarters to create a unified orthography and these culminated in the 1990 Spelling Agreement, the terms of which were only implemented 19 years later, in the 2009 spelling reform.

The Agreement stipulated that silent consonants should be dropped, thus bringing European spelling into line with Brazilian on this point. However, there is a series of words containing consonants which are silent in EP but pronounced in BP, for example recepção and espectador. Under the reform, these words are now spelt receção and espetador in EP, giving rise to a new set of spelling differences between the two countries as well as some confusing homophones (receção vs. recessão, conceção vs. concessão etc.). To make matters worse in Portugal, there are a whole range of words in which some EP speakers pronounce a consonant and others do not, and for these the Agreement allows two possible spellings within EP (e.g. contacto vs. contato, electro– vs. eletro-, aritmética vs. arimética, óptica vs. ótica etc.). According to the manifesto, this has led to a widespread tendency to hypercorrect, whereby speakers drop cs and ps wholesale in words that should retain them, as well as leaving out other consonants which are more or less silent for many EP speakers.

The manifesto also points out that the two major Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, Angola and Mozambique, which have always been much closer to EP linguistically speaking, have never implemented the reform, with the result that the official spelling used in these countries is now different from that of Portugal and Brazil.

The explanatory note appended to the Agreement claims that ‘the existence of two official spellings in Portuguese … has been considered widely prejudicial … to its prestige in the world’. We are left to wonder how or why exactly this has been considered prejudicial, especially given the fact that the existence of two official spellings has been in no way prejudicial to English (British vs. American) or Chinese (traditional vs. simplified), and in terms of promoting the Portuguese language globally, it is ironic that although the 2009 spelling reform had a much less dramatic impact on BP than on EP, it did away with two features which were of enormous benefit to foreign learners of the language: the acute accent formerly used to indicate the less common open pronunciation of the diphthongs ei and oi in stressed penultimate syllables (e.g. pre-reform idéia, jóia vs. post-reform ideia, joia) and the dieresis (¨), which conveniently indicated when u was to be pronounced as a separate letter in the combinations gue/gui and que/qui (e.g. pre-reform agüentar, lingüiça, freqüente, tranqüilo vs. post-reform aguentar, linguiça, frequente, tranquilo).

Furthermore, the Agreement glosses over the fact that EP and BP are now so vastly different from one another phonetically (even phonologically), lexically and syntactically, that some experts believe Brazilian now qualifies to be considered a separate language. These differences have not only made it linguistically impossible to impose a totally unified spelling, they also cancel out any benefits a unified spelling might bring. For example, even if there were a unified spelling, an EP translation of a foreign novel might be virtually unintelligible, or at least uncomfortably difficult, for a Brazilian to read, a reality that is reflected in the fact that books, movies, software and other content are translated and localized separately and independently for Portugal and Brazil.

The manifesto ends by quoting the words of a Portuguese member of parliament who, in a debate on the Agreement in 1991, described it as ‘useless, ineffective, secretive, overbearing, unrealistic, baseless, unnecessary, irresponsible, damaging, destabilizing and untimely’. The only solution, he went on to say, was to tear it up, which he then proceeded to do in front of his colleagues. The authors of the manifesto now advocate following his example.

NB: The manifesto also mentions the new rules on hyphenation imposed by the reform which it calls ‘totally chaotic’. I will discuss these further in a separate post.

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