Remember your high school Spanish? Remember how hard it was to make the “r” sound? It’s easy, we were told. Sure, it was: you just had to make the tip of your tongue vibrate against the back of your front teeth 587 times in 0000.4 seconds, and you nailed it.
Perhaps you took French. Remember how hard it was to make that “r” sound? You had to simultaneously gargle and growl while attempting to project the beauty and romance of the Language of Love. Bonne chance.
We’re back in school again on the Iberian Peninsula, attempting to learn Portuguese, using a variety of methods: CDs, conversing with the locals, and watching Murder, She Wrote, and Rizzoli and Isles in English with subtitles (actually, that would be only me, doing the last).
One of the problems of daily immersion is, once the targeted locals find we’re American, they usually want to practice their English. We often insist on Portuguese, and that’s where the real trouble starts. Unlike experiences we’ve had with speaking other foreign languages, where a native grasps the gist of what we’re saying, nods excitedly and urges us on, the Portuguese look perplexed if we do not pronounce a word precisely as they do.
Now we come to the biggest problem of all: it depends on what area of the country they were born in, how much education they’ve had, where they live now, their age bracket, how fast they’re speaking—and several other factors we’ve yet to figure out—how a given word is said. For instance, the word for “Friday” is “sexta-feira.” Most people pronounce it, “sayshtafairuh” but we also hear “sayshtafireruh” like the English word “fire.”
Back to those gnarly “r’s”: here, they’re both trilled and guttural. It seems if the letter begins a word, it’s an aspirated and throaty “h” sound, but in the middle of a word, it’s trilled. Then we did some research and discovered that officially and originally, “r’s” were to be trilled, but when upper classes of Portuguese society traveled to France and Belgium to be educated long ago, they began making the sound in the back of the throat. When they brought that pronunciation back to the fatherland, lesser-privileged folk picked it up. Is this true? Who knows? When asked, everyone in this photo had a different story.
I won’t even get into the differences between Continental and Brazilian Portuguese.
So we stumble along, making ourselves understood with our patchwork pronunciation. Oh, and we’ve advanced to Olympic status in the critical game of Charades.