The other day an article in Globo quoted Brazil’s ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, now one of the leaders of the opposition party “PSDB,” responding to the accusation that PDSB is a bunch of elitists. Cardoso managed to answer this accusation so as to confirm that he is an elitist:
Yes, there are academics among us. We are not ashamed of this. There are, yes, people who speak more than one language, but we also know how to speak our language, and we speak it correctly. And we do everything possible and impossible to make sure that all Brazilians can speak our language and speak it well. And Brazilians should not be lead by people who do not value education, starting with their own.
Tarso Genro, the Minister of Justice, responded to this obvious jab at President Lula by calling Cardoso “someone who was embittered by his failure to achieve either the recognition among the people or the international recognition that president Lula attained… a bitter man, who wishes he were understood by the people.” I think the minister is generally right, but as as someone who have studied linguistics and sociology I would like add a few comments.
Cardoso wishes that “all Brazilians could speak our language” and one could only wonder whose
language he is talking about. Brazilian Portuguese can be spoken in a number of quite
different styles, each of which carries clear class connotation. On one end of that
spectrum is the manner of speaking that educated Brazilians generally despise as “favela Portuguese.” On the other extreme is “good Portuguese” that is quite similar to the language spoken in Portugal, which really nobody speaks in Brazil, but which many educated Brazilians study in their private school and like to pretend to speak. Regional variation provides another dimension of prejudice: the speech of the economically prosperous South East (São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro) is usually considered good (despite its obvious phonetic differences from the Portuguese of Portugal), while southern and north-eastern dialects are ridiculed.
Ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso speaks (at least in public) “good” upper-class Portuguese, complete with urban São Paulo pronunciation – he lived in São Paulo most of his life. He doesn’t quite conform to all the rules – for example, he swallows his rs at the end of verbs, saying “dizê” instead of “dizer” – but he comes pretty close, as one might expect of a son of a lawyer and a general. One could say that FHC knows how to use the kind of grammar that makes his speech different not only from the working class, but also from much of the middle class. Mayhaps thou canst imagine to thyself a man who speaketh good Elizabethan English, but hath a heavy New York accent.
President Lula speaks working class Portuguese, with a pronunciation that easily marks him as being from Brazil’s poor North-East. Since Lula was born in the state of Pernambuco, and started working as a shoe-shine boy at 12 and then worked in a factor until getting into politics through a trade union, his way of speaking is hardly surprising. It seems only natural to me that Lula would address the Brazilians in a language that he and they are most comfortable with, rather than trying to express himself in a language that educated Brazilians learn either in upper class families or in the kind of schools to which neither Lula nor the majority of the people he addresses had access. To chastise him for speaking this way is elitist, and not just elitist in the sense of “snobbish” – no, it’s “elitist” in the sense of believing that only members of the elite should have a right to an opinion on how the country is run.
Put simply, the language that Cardoso calls “our language” is not the language majority of Brazilian speak. In fact, he himself admits as much — otherwise he would not need to do everything possible and impossible to ensure that all Brazilians speak that language. So, at best, Cardoso wants to make sure that the 150-180 million Brazilians who do not speak like him learn to speak this way. (Notice: not like Luís de Camões, who might not have even understood Cardoso, but like him, a professor from São Paulo. Or, put this in terms of English, not like Shakespeare, but like Woody Allen reciting Shakespeare.) It’s such a modest proposal. And if only they learned his language, they could understand what he has been trying to tell them all along. Perchance even vote for his party!
But this might be letting Cardoso off the hook too lightly. It would be strange for a Marxist sociologist like Cardoso, who have written extensively about power and exploitation,
to not understand the way language norms are used as a means of exclusion from political power. By declaring its own manner of speech to be the only acceptable way of speaking, the elite gains a great way to quite literally silence those excluded from power. Learning to speak like the elite becomes a pre-requisite for being allowed to express one’s opinions. Yet to learn to speak like the elite, one has to become a member of the elite. Cardoso seems upset that having had the guts to get himself elected a president of Brazil (rather than letting upper class marxists like Cardoso represent the working class), Lula fails at least to maintain the decorum by trying to speak like Cardoso, so that people understand that he is an exception rather than the rule. Instead, Lula goes up on the stage speaking working class Portuguese, as if to imply (heaven forbid!) that people who attended public schools (or none at all), are now allowed to express their opinions in Brazil. I mean, kids in favelas might hear Lula speaking and get the idea that one day they might be running Brazil. God-a-mercy!