20 September 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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PORTUGAL: Linguistic terrorism strikes: three letters hit

Plans to drop the letters c, p and h from some Portuguese words have provoked outrage among academics who describe the move as an act of ‘linguistic terrorism’. "The proponents of change say that there will be a breakdown in communication, and that Brazil will take over in the future if we do not do something," says António M Feijó, Professor of Literature at the University of Lisbon. "But I think that this proposal is both absurd and reckless."

An international conference in Lisbon later this month will seek to impose a system of standardised spelling reform that was initially supported in 1990 by the governments of Portugal, Brazil, Angola and East Timor, among others. The agreement they ratified, known as the Orthographic Accord, was never fully put into practice but it has now been given fresh impetus by José Sócrates, the Portuguese Prime Minister, who seeks a timetable of six years for its introduction.

Portugal's recently appointed Culture Minister, José António Pinto Ribeiro, has argued that "it is necessary to unify the Portuguese language in order to consolidate it internationally."

The orthographic agreement proposes, for example, the elimination of the letters c, p and h from the European and African spelling whenever they are silent. It establishes common guidelines for capitalisation but will allow some divergence in the case of particular spellings such as the English word 'fact', which is spelt facto in Portugal, Asia and Africa and fato in Brazil and East Timor. The divergence in the spelling will depend on the dialect of the region.

This flexibility, however, is exactly what makes the whole new proposal flawed, according to its detractors. "It is only partial standardisation because there will be optional adoption depending on how different countries pronounce words," says Feijó. He also argues that America and the UK have different spellings for a large number of words but that this diversity has not affected the power or influence of the language.

"Words have a living existence and people have a visceral connection with them, so it is wrong for the state to try to intervene and to attempt to control it. After 40 years of dictatorship we witnessed an attempt at a totalitarian revolution and in its aftermath, as a fully-fledged democracy took its place, the Portuguese state withdrew from most economic sectors, such as banking. So I don't see why it should suddenly feel that it has a vocation in spelling now."

Feijó also argues that if the agreement is implemented, all the text books in the education system will have to be rewritten and republished, at huge cost to parents. On the other hand, proponents argue that in the long term dropping unnecessary letters in the alphabet will make huge savings in both time and ink.

The obsession with correct spelling is a modern phenomenon, connected to the introduction of dictionaries, the printing press and mass education. Shakespeare famously spelt his own name in a number of different ways. However, when Dan Quayle, the ex-US Vice President, erroneously corrected a schoolchild's spelling of the word 'potato' by adding an 'e' on the end – while being filmed – he was widely mocked.

In fact, countries including France, Russia, Spain, Norway, Japan and Germany have all sought to introduce spelling standardisation with varying degrees of success over the past century. The 'Latinisation' of Turkey under Ataturk in the 1930s successfully resulted in the removal of hundreds of words of Persian and Arabic origin from the language.

But Turkey's experience is irrelevant to the situation of the 200 million Portuguese speakers, says Feijó: "Turkey's Ataturk was intent on nation building but Portugal has no such need. It has been a fairly homogeneous country with a strong identity since the 12th century and so there is no need for such moves.

"There was a huge outcry in academic circles in 1990 against this step but nothing happened because people did not want to modify the way they wrote. Now a few politicians who are looking for a new pet project are seeking to revive it," he concludes. "The spellings that we now have are part of the way we live. Why should I have to change?"
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