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September 26, 2017

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Brazil 'gives back' to Portugal

LISBON, Portugal -- Portugal's former empire is striking back — through language. As Brazil rises on the international stage and its one-time colonial master wanes, a proposed standardization of the Portuguese language would require hundreds of words to be spelled the Brazilian way. The Portuguese government approves, but some here are mortified.

"There is no need for us to take a back seat to Brazil," protested Vasco Graca Moura, a respected poet who is among those leading the charge against the changes.

For a once-mighty power whose language is an official one for some 230 million people worldwide, it's a blow to pride comparable to making the British adopt American spelling — "honor," for instance, instead of "honour." But advocates say the benefits include easier Internet searches in Portuguese and uniform legalese for international contracts.

Portuguese officials hope it can advance an old ambition of getting Portuguese adopted as an official language at the United Nations, which currently has six. The government has asked Parliament to ratify an agreement with the world's seven other Portuguese-speaking countries — Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe.

The changes would match spelling more closely to the way words are pronounced by removing silent consonants, as Brazilians do. Thus "optimo" (great) would become "otimo," and "accao" (action) would become "acao." The alphabet would expand to 26 letters by adding k, w and y, to accommodate words like "kilometro" and "kwanza," the Angolan currency. New rules on hyphens and accents would change "auto-estrada" (highway) to "autoestrada."

Only about 2,000 words out of the 110,000-word Portuguese vocabulary are affected and modifications are to be adopted by all seven countries, but three-quarters of the changes fall on Portugal. In Brazil, independent of Portugal since 1822, some sympathize with the mother country's wounded pride.

"It's natural there is resistance," said Ottaviano de Fiore, an academic adviser at the Museum of the Portuguese Language in Sao Paulo. "We used to be the colony, and all of a sudden we are the ones colonizing them. That's going to be strange."

But there's no escaping reality; Brazil is bigger and more populous. It has 190 million Portuguese speakers and an economy big enough for the European Union to be offering it a political and economic alliance, granting it the same status as China, India and Russia.

Portugal, on the other hand, is one of the least influential of the EU's 27 member states. Its population of 10.6 million accounts for only around 1 percent of the bloc's GDP.

Brazilian culture abounds here. Portuguese have embraced Brazilian restaurants and "caipirinha," a distilled sugarcane drink. Brazilian TV soap operas are prime-time staples.

This month, Parliament invited proponents and dissenters to a debate about spelling, and it ran a passionate nine hours. The poet Graca Moura saw a capitulation to Brazilian economic and diplomatic influence, while literature professor Carlos Reis chided the holdouts for clinging to unnecessary orthodoxies.

"Should Portugal remain bound to a conservative view of spelling, as if it were the last bulwark of Portuguese identity?" Reis asked.

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