PAIVA, V.L.M.O. Social implications of English in Brazil. In: Encontro Nacional de Professores Universitários de Língua Inglesa, 14,1997, Belo Horizonte. Anais... Belo Horizonte: Departamento de Letras Anglo-Germânicas/UFMG, 1999. p.326-331

Social Implications of English in Brazil

Vera Lúcia Menezes de Oliveira e Paiva (UFMG)

In Brazil, English language signs can be found everywhere: advertisements, billboards, brands and labels, shop names, foreign and national songs, T-shirts, movies, soap-operas, bumper stickers, cartoons, comic books, newspapers and magazines, etc. Occasionally, the Brazilian press acknowledges this phenomenon and shows a deep concern for linguistic and cultural identity: they argue that there is an improper use of borrowed words either in oral or in written language. However, linguists usually view foreign words as harmless as long as Portuguese syntax is not altered. Such linguists are ideological neutral; they limit their analysis on the effects of the phenomenon rather than the causes of linguistic dependence.

The aim of this paper is to show that the upper classes in Brazil are responsible for linguistic innovation on the level of lexical borrowing. Their use of English words also functions as an ideological tool which, highlighting social class differences.

Most research on word borrowing deals with morphological and phonological adaptation of the loan-words to the language system. In our research, we tried to study the phenomenon as a whole unit. We changed the focus and took the language in use as our corpus because we were interested in any manifestation of English language signs, even those which appear to us as mere sensations. For theoretical support, we used Peircian Semiotics and the theories of ideology.

Peircian Tricotomy

We classified the English language signs found in the Brazilian culture according to Peircian first tricotomy which classifies the sign in itself. They are:

1. Loan-signs in the form of qualisigns ( a quality which is a sign and appears to us as mere sensation). As examples we have Portuguese words pronounced as if they were English; for example, americano / æ meri’kæ nu/ and Manuel /man’wel/, found in a pop song. Another example can be found in a comedy named Amante Inglesa (English Lover), totally spoken in a "fake English", (i.e., the actors utter a sequence of sounds which resemble English but have no meaning). Only the context, facial expressions, intonation and other paralinguistic features convey meaning to the text as the uttered signs do not belong to any natural language.

2. Loan-signs in the form of sinsigns ( an actual object or event which is a sign). As examples we have names of shops, restaurants, pubs (such as Gang, Mr.Blue, Grill, Pier); names of buildings and shopping centers (such as Golden Center, The First Place, Central Park, Santana's Contemporary Free Home, Elite Free & Flex); names of several kinds of products: foods (such as Cream Cracker, Diet Coke, Brownie); cleaning products (such as Thunder, Comfort, Mr. Magic), beauty products (such as Clearskin, Lip Perfector, Moon Drops). We can also find messages written in English on bumper stickers (such as Fasten seat belts and, believe it or not, Fuck you!), on buttons as (I am married, not dead), in souvenirs (such as I love Rio); in T-shirts (such as Marvelous Moments or Green, I want you alive [the latter worn by a previous Brazilian president in a public event]); in advertising (such as Complete the day with Black & White); in names of magazines (such as Playboy, After Eight and Movie), and also in a series of articles written in English and published by several Brazilian academic journals.

3. Loan-signs in the form of legisigns (signs which are laws, usually established by men). We found three kinds of legisigns: the genitive case, as in Delfim's boys or Kit's Cozinhas Planejadas; the anteposition of the adjective as in Tropical Bar (instead of Bar Tropical); and word-formation rules which eventually produce words which resemble English, such as the examples DIRD and SEIL found on T-shirts.

English Usage and the Brazilian Elite

Members of the Brazilian economic and intellectual elite use of English words as a strategy to differentiate themselves from the popular classes. According to Bourdieu (1987:15), the symbolic order duplicates the economic differences. Language is one agent that perpetuates economic class domination and constitute, par excellence, what Bourdieu & Passeron (1975) called symbolic violence. By using language heavy in English language signs, members of the elite cement the boundaries of their social space and display their symbolic strength. At the same time, those speakers who pepper their spoken Portuguese with English words exhibit a certain fascination for the colonizer and also of submission to the symbolic violence they perpetuate.

For the great majority of the Brazilian population, the English language signs are just firstness manifestations, that is, mere phonological and morpho-syntactic qualities. The interpretants for these signs are rhemes, i.e., open to possible interpretation. Thus, the Brazilian people who cannot speak English perceive the English language signs that surround them as rhematic iconic qualisigns. Those signs can only yield the sensation of being in contact with the English language since no relation between the signs and the objects they represent are established. A good example to make it clearer, was found in a Brazilian soap-opera. A female character joins a group protesting against a neighbor. When she produces a sign that reads ELZA, GO HOME, she is asked what it means but she claims that she does not know. She says in Portuguese: "I don't know, but I saw it once on TV and I liked it very much."

The rap phenomenon in Brazil also suggests that most Brazilians view English language only as qualisigns. At parties, people imitate the sounds of the original lyrics of the rap songs without understanding the meaning of what they are singing. When these same songs are played in their instrumental versions they create new refrains in Portuguese which sound like English. "You talk too much", for instance, becomes "taca tomate", which means, in English, "Throw tomatoes".

Some Brazilian samba songs, mainly the ones from the 1930s ¾ a decade influenced by the arrival of talking motion pictures ¾ criticize the excessive use of English language signs. We can also detect in the lyrics of some samba songs of that time a prejudice against the lower classes where the use of such signs is prevalent. Because the lower classes do not speak the standard Portuguese, there is also a prejudice against any attempt on their part to learn English. The statement " Why learn English if they don't know even Portuguese?" is a common saying among the members of the upper classes. Such prejudices are illustrated in verses as the following ones: Amor lá no morro é amor prá chuchu / As rimas do morro não são I love you ( Love in the slums is real love / the slum rhymes are not I love you); or Good-bye, good-bye boy, deixa a mania do inglês / Fica tão feio prá você, moreno frajola / Que nunca frequentou os bancos da escola (Good-bye, good bye boy, get rid of this English mania / it doesn't suit you who has never been to school); or Tem gente que qualquer dia / Fica mudo de uma vez / Não consegue falar gringo / Esqueceu do português (there are people who one day / Will be completely dumb/ They cannot speak English / and have forgotten Portuguese)

Learning English, however is considered to be a middle class need. In Brazilian popular music there is a song, BABY, by Caetano Veloso, which says: Você precisa aprender inglês / Precisa aprender o que eu sei / E o que eu não sei mais (You must learn English / You must learn what I know / And what I don't know any more). These verses show that only by learning English will the beloved woman be able to decode the proposition "I LOVE YOU" printed on the poet's T-shit.

Caetano Veloso belongs to a musical movement called Tropicalism, which superimposed English language signs on the Portuguese code in order to portray, on a symbolic level, the urban Brazilian culture. That was completely different from the musical production of the 1930s, which also made use of English language signs but used them to satirize the acculturation caused by the American cultural influence. In the Tropicalism, the focus is no longer the slams but the middle class, the mass media and urban life. In BATMACUMBA, by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, the super hero Batman is linked to macumba (Brazilian variant of voodooism) and both to iê-iê-iê ( Brazilian rock in the 1960s) producing the verse batmacumbaiêiêiê batmacumbaobá and its variations. The verse is continually repeated, each time it losing a letter or a syllable until it becomes Ba, an acronym for the Brazilian state, Bahia, considered the land of macumba. Then the verse is continually repeated, each time gaining a letter until it again becomes batmacumbaiêiêiê batmacumbaobá. The arrangement of the verses gives birth to a concrete poem in the shape of bat wings. It is noteworthy that one of the verses is the word BAT. The music also made up of superimposed intercultural signs: the Brazilian macumba rhythm and the foreign electric guitar together produce a syncretic sound, which attempts to achieve a kind of universal music.

In the 1970s, many songs were composed in English by Brazilians who adopted English pseudonyms. The English language was a true passport for success and some of the songs became famous worldwide, for example, Morris Albert's Feelings and Summer Holiday. Morris Albert, among other Brazilian composers, realized that the Brazilians despised their own language and overvalued English. The assumption that English is a superior language can also be detected in the speech of some Brazilian rock stars. Rock bands, as the famous Trash band, Sepultura, for example, compose their songs in English as they think Portuguese is inadequate. But Brazilian rock also makes use of loan-signs in a creative way. The song EU SOU FREE (I AM FREE), by Patrícia Travassos and Ruban, for example, makes a pun with the signs "Eu sou free/sempre free/ eu sou free demais", which can be interpreted in different ways: SOU is the first person singular of the verb SER (BE in English), thus Sou free can mean "I am free". But "sou free" sounds like the past tense of the verb SUFFER in Portuguese and then can also be interpreted as I suffered. Free is also a cigarette brand.

The ideology of any society can be detected in the discourses it produces. In the case of popular music, we found out that the samba, on one hand, struggled to defend the Brazilian culture by protesting against the fashions brought from America. On the other hand, the samba helped spread the ideology which justifies class division because it ridicules the lower class dialect and criticizes the linguistic behavior of people from the slums.

English Signs on Brazilian T-shirts

Brazilian’s preference for English language can also be detected on their wearing of English T-shirts without understanding what he words printed on them mean. A samba composer, João Nogueira, refers to that fact with the following verses: "Gerusa comprou uma blusa / Dessas made in USA / E fez a tradução / A frase que tinha no peito / Quando olhou direito era um palavrão" (Gerusa has bought a blouse / one of those made in USA / and then she made the translation / the sentence she had on her breast / when she looked at it carefully / she saw it was a four-letter word).

T-shirts with messages written in Portuguese are hard to find in Brazil. T-shirts with messages in English are everywhere. According to Lima (1988:45), Brazilians people wear clothes with statements printed in English as an attempt to become part of what they see as the most important part of the world, the American Society.

We interviewed printing firm representatives to verify their attitudes towards the English language and found that their preference for the English language is supported by the same prejudice that describes Portuguese as an inferior language. Some understood that the upper classes feel the necessity to differentiate themselves from the lower ones. In this capacity, language works because English is seen as a status symbol. Using Portuguese is considered a daring, and only printing firms of high status have the courage to do so. This occasional use of Portuguese is not an index of political consciousness On the contrary, it supports the same necessity of the upper classes to differentiate themselves from the lower ones since English is on almost every T-shirt worn by poor people.

In the T-shirt world, the English language is not seen as a linguistic code, but as an aesthetic sign, a rhematic sinsign, that is, an actual existent whose meaning is mere possibility of meaning. The words are seen as signifiers only. Although some stylists say that the meaning of the words do not matter, the messages ¾ whether talking about the products themselves, a metalinguistic function, or talking about what is happening around the world ¾ are there to be read. Often, those messages do not belong to the stylists who produce the print but are lifted from magazines and newspapers. Thus, wearing clothes with printed messages on them is also a way of broadcasting someone's discourse. The T-shirt discourse is by nature deitic because it points to the person wearing the message. The same way a man's portrait with a man's name written under it is strictly a proposition, although its syntax is not that of speech (Peirce, 1974:2:320), the signs printed on T-shirts are also propositions and the one who wears the T-shirt is seen as its presupposed enunciator. That is why certain "utterances" on T-shirts can be embarrassing situations for the person wearing them. When one puts on a T-shirt, he assigns to his breast or this back the role of a billboard. Such a vehicle can defend universal values (for example, the ones linked to ecology) and likewise spread foreign myths and values. On the streets of Brazil, one can see hundreds and hundreds of people "tattooed" with American super-heroes such as Rambo, He-Man, Super-Man, Spider-Man, etc.

Prejudice against the native language can be found not only in Brazilian popular music and T-shirts but also in people's attitude towards the language. Part of our study consisted of a group of university entrance examination compositions where students wrote about the influence of the English language in Brazil. Some of them said that the English language is more beautiful and more sonorous than Portuguese and almost all of them acknowledged the importance of English in the world.

We believe that the increasing number of lexical borrowing helps compound the idea that English is superior because it circulates among us as a hard currency. Learning English is seen as a means of ascending in the social pyramid since the language has been seen as symbol of status, power, prestige, culture and technological development. Borrowing words from English more accurately reflects our need to be identified with a politically and economically strong society than it does the need to name new objects and concepts. That is how we justify, for instance, the existence of thousands of Brazilian products with English names.

The unnecessary use of loan-words is not a problem to be solved by means of official decrees but by will require a policy that aims at raising pride and culture as a whole. The problem is not the loss of linguistic identity but of political identity. As Santos (1989:5) reminds us, "when a country exports its language, other items are wrapped alongside."

We believe that it is not the linguist task to fight this phenomenon because language merely reflects the material relations among men. However, if those material relations were altered, we believe the linguistic behavior would be altered as well.


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