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Portugal's empire is talking back

A plan to standardize the language by adopting styles of former colony Brazil runs into vocal dissent.

May 04, 2008|Barry Hatton | Associated Press

LISBON, PORTUGAL — Portugal's former empire is striking back -- through language.

As Brazil rises on the international stage and its onetime colonial master wanes, a proposed standardization of the Portuguese language would require hundreds of words to be spelled the Brazilian way.

The Portuguese government approves, but some here are mortified.

"There is no need for us to take a back seat to Brazil," protested Vasco Graca Moura, a respected poet against the proposal.

For a once-mighty power whose tongue is an official language for 230 million people worldwide, it's a blow to pride comparable to making the British adopt American spelling -- "honor," for instance, instead of "honour."

But advocates say the benefits include easier Internet searches and uniform legalese for international contracts.

Portuguese officials hope it can advance an old ambition of getting Portuguese adopted as an official language at the U.N., which currently has six.

The government has asked parliament to ratify an agreement with the world's seven other Portuguese-speaking countries -- Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe.

The changes would match spelling more closely to the way words are pronounced by removing silent consonants, as Brazilians do. Thus "optimo" (great) would become "otimo."

The alphabet would expand to 26 letters by adding K, W and Y to accommodate words such as "kilometro" and "kwanza," the Angolan currency. New rules on hyphens and accents would change "auto-estrada" (highway) to "autoestrada."

Only about 2,000 words in the 110,000-word Portuguese vocabulary would be affected and modifications would be adopted by all seven countries, but three-quarters of the changes fall on Portugal.

In Brazil, independent since 1822, some sympathize with the mother country's injured pride.

"It's natural there is resistance," said Ottaviano de Fiore, an advisor at the Museum of the Portuguese Language in Sao Paulo. "We used to be the colony, and all of a sudden we are the ones colonizing them."

But there's no escaping reality: Brazil is bigger and more populous. It has 190 million Portuguese speakers and an economy big enough for the European Union to be offering it a political and economic alliance, granting it the same status as China, India and Russia.

Portugal, on the other hand, is one of the least influential of the EU's 27 member states. Its population of 10.6 million accounts for only about 1% of the bloc's gross domestic product.

Brazilian culture abounds here. Portuguese have embraced Brazilian food and drink. Brazilian soap operas are prime-time staples.

Last month, parliament invited both sides to a debate about spelling, and it ran a passionate nine hours.

Parliament is to vote on the changes May 15.

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Associated Press writers Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Elaine Ganley in Paris; and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.

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