Friday, 27 January 2012

Quick Rant on Stress Marks

You may have noticed that I keep writing Clarabóia with a stress mark on the o, even though the cover exhibits no such mark. I hope you’ve noticed it: as lovers of literature, you should pay attention to this; we’re all obsessed with clear, correct writing, aren’t we? The reason is very simple. In 1990, the Portuguese government decided to maim the Portuguese language by signing a spelling agreement with Brazil that seeks to standardize the spelling in both countries and in the Portuguese-speaking African countries. Spelling had evolved differently in Portugal and Brazil since the 1910s, when Portugal reformed its language after the instauration of the Republic. But apparently a couple of Ps and Cs and some stress marks made it difficult for Portugal’s Brazilian cousins to understand our writing, and vice-versa, so both government used all their political influence to force an agreement within Portuguese-speaking countries. The theory was that we couldn't understand each other, which is ridiculous; not to mention the biggest difficulties concern vocabulary and syntax, which can't be standardized. It’s really a business ploy because it will benefit Brazilian publishers - who were very active in the backstage - who wish to conquer new markets in African Portuguese-speaking countries, whose irregular spelling created an obstacle to their infiltration.

Although the agreement was signed over twenty years ago, resistance from writers, linguists, thinkers, et cetera, from all countries has delayed its application. It only began being used regularly, in newspapers and on television, in 2011. José Saramago was a writer who vehemently opposed the agreement. In spite of that, Clarabóia, which was written forty years before the signing of the agreement, was revised to comply with the new spelling. So Clarabóia becomes Claraboia.

I find this an odious betrayal of José Saramago. It’s not just a betrayal of his convictions, it’s also an indecent way for Caminho, his Portuguese publisher, to treat his posthumous novel, after all the money Saramago, a bestselling novelist in his own country, earned them over the years. I just think he deserved better.

The new spelling reform is a stupid idea. Defenders argue that a harmonized spelling will finally allow Portuguese to become a world language. (Brazil has inherited Portugal's delusional myth of the Fifth Empire, a belief that one day they'll rule the world.) Others say it’ll make translation easier. I have my doubts about that: if, say, Portuguese literature isn’t more widely translated, I don’t think it’s because of irregular spelling; that’s irrelevant in translation. I can’t imagine Margaret Jull Costa worrying whether or not acto or facto has a c, or whether or not Egipto and óptimo have a p. A translator only needs to worry about the language of destination. The real reason Portuguese translation doesn’t get translated is really because Portugal does a terrible job of promoting its own culture. “Portugal has many Nobel Prize-worthy writers,” Saramago once joked. “The problem is that no one ever heard of them.” How true.

And since we’re talking about world languages, it’s worth remembering that English, the world’s lingua franca, has an irregular spelling: Words like theatre, center, neighbour are written differently depending on whether the writer is in the UK or in the USA (alternately, he may be in Portugal writing in Word with the language set for English UK, like I am – Word tells me center is wrong; it should be centre). Can you imagine the United States telling the United Kingdom how to write English? It’d be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? And yet some of the architects of the spelling agreement insist that the English language rules supreme because it has no variant spellings. This is the intellectual level of so-called "Portuguese academics."

Unlike countries like Portugal, France or Spain, the English world doesn’t have an Academy micromanaging the development of its language. That’s one of the reasons I love English so much: it’s such a democratic language. It changes through everyday usage. If a language has to change – and all languages do – it must do so organically. Language, I was once told back at the university, was the last truly democratic thing people owned. But that’s not even true anymore; some languages don’t belong to the people who speak them: they belong to ministers and deputies and their academic lackeys – bureaucrats in suits and ties.  

Defenders of the agreement have also argued that Portuguese literature will sell better in Brazil, and vice versa. This of course ignores the fact that José Saramago, Gonçalo M. Tavares and Miguel Esteves Cardoso have been extremely popular in Brazil. It’s also a condescending argument because it makes readers look like simpletons. The idea that people aren’t reading books because of minute differences in spelling is simply insulting to one’s intelligence. That’s like saying US readers can’t understand Salman Rushdie. Speaking for myself, I never had problems reading Brazilian authors: Euclides da Cunha, Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado, Carlos Drummond, João Ubaldo Ribeiro. On the contrary, I revel in the different vocabulary, which is a matter that will not be solved by the agreement. Different countries have different words for things: in Portugal a bus is called autocarro; in Angola and Mozambique, machimbombo. I discovered this when I started reading Mia Couto and Pepetela, and I think it’s wonderful. Their books are just filled with African expressions. I don’t know how it is with English editions, but Portuguese editions tend to have glossaries with the meaning of these mysterious, beautiful foreign-sounding words. Mia Couto goes even further and often invents new words. I believe we book lovers are, by extension, lovers of language, so the richer the language, the more we love it. This hasn’t stopped these writers from being widely read in Portugal. Actually, I think it’s this richness of vocabulary that they brought to the Portuguese language that has made them so unique and popular.

Anyway, this rant was just to explain why I write Clarabóia with a stress mark on the o. I’ll be back next week to write about another aspect of the novel.


  1. Ah, I have struggled with this sort of thing (accents, standardized spelling), but pretty blindly, just following whatever example is in front of me.

    It is so useful to have the issue described so clearly.