Skip to content

Blimey, this is a bit of a surprise

An FT correspondent who actually knows something about the subect they’re the correspondent upon. Hope nobody finds out, they’ll have to fire him:

Spaniards do visit on holiday — but they can rub the locals up the wrong way, by marching in speaking their own language. “The assumption that we are supposed to understand is what rankles,” says one Portuguese social scientist.

In reality, many Portuguese can make sense of Spanish because the languages are close and the phonetics of Spanish are very simple (it has just five vowel sounds). But the reverse is not true. Portuguese enjoy bewildering Spaniards by replying in their own tongue, with its slippery consonants and up to 15 vowel sounds.

14 thoughts on “Blimey, this is a bit of a surprise”

  1. A pal of mine finds he can get by in Spanish in Italy (when English won’t do).

    Decades ago I knew a Portuguese and a North Italian who would chat away happily.

    I wonder whether a study of the location of major Roman army forts would cast any light on idiosyncrasies of local dialects in Hispania/Provence/Italy. Are they all speaking not so much sub-Latin but sub-Army-Latin?

  2. Yeah. One does notice the language changes right on the border.

    the phonetics of Spanish are very simple (it has just five vowel sounds). But the reverse is not true. Portuguese enjoy bewildering Spaniards by replying in their own tongue, with its slippery consonants and up to 15 vowel sounds.
    Yep. Limited is the word. I can remember asking a guy for directions to the road to Burgos. “Burgos?” he replied, baffled. And at the time we were in the province of Burgos not more than 25 km from the city. OK, so I’ve used something pretty close to the english pronunciation of Burgos. So I tried some others. Got a hit on the third one. The ‘U’ with just a touch of ‘OO’ (as in wool) in it eventually got a result.
    I’m trying to learn Portuguese at the moment. Or at least more than the few words I have. Trying to string 4 or 5 vowels together is certainly a challenge. Although I’m learning the Brasilian/Bahia flavour. I gather the Port version’s even harder.

  3. When I was working in Madrid (late 80s) many Spaniards watched Italian TV, which tells you something about how lousy TVE was! Italian and Spanish are very close, where the vocab differs it’s usually because of Germanic influences on the former: birra/cerveza tavola/mesa etc. Weirdly, genders can change – asking for the bill is: il conto (m), per favore or la cuenta (f), por favor.

  4. The Portugeuse/Spanish isogloss and geography is really weird. The boundaries aren’t rivers or mountains as you expect of any other language or polity. It slices perpendicualrly across everything, halfway up river valleys with no instrinsic boundaries anywhere.

  5. Given the history between Spain and Portugal, I would think the Spanish would piss the Portuguese just by existing nearby even if they spoke the language fluently – like the French and English.

    And like the French, no matter how well you speak it, they’ll pretend its shite;)

  6. My basic Spanish served me ok in Brazil. The numbers are largely the same. Once you learn to ask what something costs in Portuguese you’ve covered a lot of tourist needs. I also found that a lot of Brazilians were at least functional in Spanish and spoke it carefully and clearly. It was the Argentines that are hard to understand. Rather like someone learning English and then going to Scotland. Chileans, however, were easy to understand, as are Paraguayans. Go figure.

  7. Some years ago I was in Prague and asked my colleague which way should I go for the motorway to Brno ( in English ). I pronounced it ( of course ) as “Bruno” then “Brerno” .Blank look. Eventually I tried the German “Brunn”. She got that last version.

    “Oh you mean Bbbbrrrrrrrrnnnnnnnoooooo !” With a rolling tongue. “See that bue sign in the distance ? That’s where it starts.”

    Thanks a bunch.

  8. And like the French, no matter how well you speak it, they’ll pretend its shite;)

    I have always found the French very accepting of poorly spoken French. And my accent in French is dreadful. (Mind you, it’s bad in English too.)

    The only person in my six years living there who wasn’t nice about it was an Italian waiter in the French-speaking Aosta area!

    One thing I found was that the French didn’t assume I was an idiot because my accent was bad. They didn’t speak loudly and slowly to me. Which is just as well, as my understanding of spoken French is actually not too bad.

  9. @jgh
    It does make some sort of sense, if you look at a map. The few roads that that cross the frontier. It’s not as if the mountains are particularly high. But they’re on two different water-sheds. So there’s few easy natural crossing points. Mostly in inhospitable country, which would limit support infrastructure. So presumably restricted trade & the cross fertilisation of cultures would result. I’d imagine most trade went by sea.

  10. Bloke in North Dorset

    “It was the Argentines that are hard to understand. ”

    I found it much easier to pick up a bit of Spanish when I worked in BA compared to working in Madrid. I found the Spanish in Madrid incomprehensible. I picked up more Korean in Seoul than I did Spanish in Madrid.

  11. It’s the “Spanish” Spanish which is out of place. It’s one specific regional accent – Castilian – which has become the national language. It’s thus out of place in the palette of romance languages. Portuguese to Galician across the country to Valencian and Catalan makes sense – except for the grand blob of Castilian in the middle. It’s as if English, instead of centering on RP, had decided to use Scouse or Geordie instead. That Spain always was a war between the varied kingdoms that make it up and the central powers in Madrid (who, as a result of historical accident, were Castilian speakers) just embedded that all in politics. A lot of the colonial Spanishes are more natural variations of the romance base, not that specific accent.

  12. The capital of Portugal is the mouth of the river that starts (near) the capital of Spain. The entire headwaters of the Portugese capital are controlled by Spain, the Spanish capital could be entirely cut off from the sea by Portugal. These Iberians are weird.

  13. I was once congratulated on my French pronunciation by a shopkeeper in Le Touquet, though being a resort well frequented by the English he must have heard a lot of really bad attempts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *