The historical struggle over control of the Portuguese language

Portugal has been going through a rough patch. Its international stature has diminished over the years, its economy has always struggled to remain competitive, the government had to accept a bailout to avoid defaulting on its debt, and on top of it all, it is losing control of its own language.

In Portugal, the latest round of Portuguese spelling reform takes effect over a six-year transition period, leaving the Portuguese dismayed that the spelling of their language is being driven by Brazil, a former colony. I sympathize with the plight of the Portuguese, although I also understand the value of consistent spelling. (The rules for the English language are established not by any central authority but rather are determined by convention.)

I wonder if the U.K. feels the same way about its former colony.

Bonus chatter: The Microsoft Language Portal Blog reports that Microsoft intends to phase in the spelling reform over a four-year period for Brazil-localized products. A quick glance at the Microsoft style guide for Portuguese (Portugal) says that the spelling reform has yet to take effect among the Portugal-localized version of Microsoft products.

Comments (42)
  1. GWO says:

    I wonder if the U.K. feels the same way about its former colony.

    Not especially, mainly for the reason you give yourself.  Since there's no central authority hell bent on forcing American English on us Brits, we're quite happy to continue to use our quaint archaisms while the rest of the world standardises – sorry, standardizes – on US English.  (And besides, Indian English is still closer to British English than American English – for imperial/colonial reasons – so we're not quite the last bastion of linguistic purity like Portugal).

    Also, we periodically cover the Florida and Louisiana coastss in oil as an act of revenge.

  2. Chris says:

    I wonder if the U.K. feels the same way about its former colony.

    As GWO said, the spelling differences are mostly not coming back.

    I'm still pretty annoyed at the change of meaning of "billion", "trillion" etc., which used to make sense knowing what the prefixes "bi", "tri", etc. mean!

  3. Tristan Hunt says:

    I wonder if the U.K. feels the same way about its former colony.

    Not at all. Because nobody is standardising us. We will write british English until the end of time, and enjoy looking down on the colonist patois   ;)

  4. dave says:

    It's not "British English", it is simply "English".

  5. JM says:

    rest of the world standardises – sorry, standardizes – on US English.

    Which rest of the world is that? The vast majority of english speaking countries are ex-(or current)-commonwealth nations.

  6. Pete says:

    I wonder if the U.K. feels the same way about its former colony.

    Not really. There are a few spelling differences especially around missing U's and swapping S for Z but our correct spelling remains the same. Now we live in a globalized world I doubt many more differences will arise as we watch the same tv, read the same books…

    p.s. The more annoying thing is the mm/dd/yy date format which has no logic to it and as Chris said the change of what a billion is (which has changed over here) also defying logic of the preceding sequence.

  7. michkap says:

    The Portuguese question has been complicated for hundreds of years, I doubt it will get easier any time soon….


  8. Boris says:

    Actually the date format differences are pretty bad even within the US, especially with food expiration dates. What in the world does 10/11 mean? Is 11 the year? Is 10 the month and 11 the day? Maybe vice versa? (it might be imported after all)

  9. Margarida says:

    The reason there are differences in spelling between both languages is because we pronounce things differently.

    I sympathize with the plight of the Portuguese, although I also understand the value of consistent spelling.

    The value of consistent spelling is high for those who have lived all their lives leaning and teaching one form of spelling and are now having that taken away and being replaced with words that are written in ways that – to us – make no sense. Portuguese (PT) reflects the way the people of Portugal pronounce things. By making PT more similar to BR you end up with far more inconsistencies across word forms (plurals, root words, verbs) than we had before. And why? In an attempt to boost business links between BR and PT.

    The only way I can express how painful it is to an English native is by asking how you'd feel if English were standardised with some form of Pidgin English or Creole. The Brazilians and Portuguese don't even use the same words with the same meanings, so it really is trying to impose equality where there isn't any naturally.

  10. PhilW says:

    I wonder if the U.K. feels the same way about its former colony.

    I'd argue that the British incline towards standards, the Oxford English Dictionary being a good example. American English (I'll blame Noah Webster) is what people are seen to use, the problem being that if the trend continues words like they're, their, and there will be interchangeable because that's more and more how they get used. So the spelling of "center" wasn't really planned – that's how it was spelt (rather than centre) because that was the most common mis-spelling.

  11. James Schend says:

    @GWO: Actually American spelling is "older", in that it's a more direct descendant of Shakespearean English than British English is. In other words, you guys added all those extra u's after the colonies were already founded.

    @Pete: It comes from writing the full date "July the 6th, 2011" as opposed to "6th of July, 2011". You can argue that it's it's hard to sort, it can be confusing internationally, etc. But you can't argue there's no logic to it.

  12. Anonymous says:

    @James Schend: "July the 6th, 2011" also has no logic to it.

  13. Steve says:

    I would be better said July 6th, 2011. The "the" in the sentence above seems to be implied, though it's not commonly spoken or written.

  14. JM says:

    What are you people talking about? You write dates YYYY-MM-DD. What are these other "date formats" you speak of? These are blasphemous and accursed in the eyes of the Lord.

    (Changing the date format to ISO is the first thing I do on any new computer system. Since this is not the default in my culture, this also helps weeding out some localization bugs.)

  15. Skyborne says:

    @Boris – one maker of salad in my area stamps the expiration code as YYmmDD (of all things); around the 12th-15th of the month, I go to buy one, and see it expires '11JL..', and almost put it back. My eyes skip the day at the end, because I'm so accustomed to the year being there.

    @James Schend – I've never seen "the full date" written with an article in the middle.  Yet I've seen plenty of "on the 6th day of July, 2011" on certificates, and I tend to name my files big-endian and just read it as "twenty eleven july sixth" in my head.

  16. Leonardo Brondani Schenkel says:

    I'm Brazilian and this reform is controversial even in Brazil, at least among the population. (I'm personally against it, by the way, together with most Brazilian linguists.) But it is a done deal, politicians decided and fast-tracked a law, so in 2009 the new spelling was in effect. There's a provisional period until 2013 where both spellings can be used, but after that the use of the new spelling is mandatory. Newspapers in Brazil have been using the new spelling since 2009 and school books since 2010.

    @Margarida: I don't want to start a political discussion here, but comparing the minor differences in spelling and vocabulary in Brazil to Pidgin or Creole is very insulting (imagine saying US English is a Pidgin or Creole version of British English). And your argument that you spell as you pronounce is false, since Portugal still keeps the "mute" consonants (why are they called mute again?) while Brazil dropped them some decades ago, just to give an example.

  17. Jose says:

    I am portuguese and think that this is all irrelevant. Granted that there are advantages to having a "standard" but the real reason why this is even news is because there are a very small number of portuguese academics and "poets" that need to justify their existence (and salaries I imagine). I guess that is not the case in the UK so we will continue to have more than one en-…

  18. voo says:

    while the rest of the world standardises – sorry, standardizes – on US English

    Well I'm pretty sure that I learned British English here (western Europe, Austria) at school – but then I'm also pretty sure it was fine to write US English as long as one didn't mix the both in every other sentence. And with other people all over the world I've seen both varieties be used.

    PS: But really it's not as if you'd need another country to make spelling reforms controversial or unloved – people just don't like changes, even if those changes are mostly helpful (see the german reforms)

  19. Spelling reform is an old problem

    A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

    attributed to Mark Twain.

    For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later.

    Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y replasing it with i and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all.

    Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

    Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli.

    Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

  20. news flash says:

    Ancient Rome losing control of latin, now inferior "colonies" use a *** form of the true language.

  21. Amit says:

    "I wonder if the U.K. feels the same way about its former colony."

    I'm sure it does:…/baldridgeindianenglish.html

    Oh, you mean the other former colony. Never mind.

  22. Jolyon Smith says:

    I wonder if the U.K. feels the same way about its former colony.

    Care to clarify?

    We had quite a few, donchyaknow.  ;)

  23. Simon Buchan says:

    As far as I am aware only the US uses en-US spelling – so I don't think Britain is terribly worried. The Portugal issue sounds like another 'Something must be done. This is something. This must be done.' problem.

    Despite being in a Commonwealth nation (NZ), I do use US spelling in my source code for consistency with libraries. Is that somewhat common?

  24. Martinho Fernandes says:

    What I find most offensive about this reform that hopes to bring consistency, is that it doesn't.

    The idea of spelling as you pronounce is completely ludicrous. Take for example the word "Egipto". With the new style, we're supposed to drop the "p" because we don't pronounce it. That's stupid. We pronounce the "E" as if it was "I", why don't we write it "Igito" then? I think every Portuguese speaker will agree that is a ridiculous spelling. And what about derived words? When we pronounce "egípcio" the "p" is not mute. But this reform will drop it nonetheless. How is that consistent, or simple, or easy to learn?

    Also, there are various local variations on pronounciation. More than once I've seen Azoreans being subtitled on national TV, because they're really difficult to understand. In the North of Portugal, "vaca" is often pronounce as "baca". What should we make of that?

    In Portugal several big newspapers and editors are opposing this reform and have publicly stated their intentions of *not* changing the spelling in their publications. This fact alone should have been enough to make the reformist rethink this whole shebang, but apparently they don't believe the language belongs to the people, to those that speak it and to those that write it.

    The reform has been hailed as something that will make Portuguese easier to learn and thus make it a more atractive language for non-native speakers. As something that will reinforce the transatlantic bond between Portugal and Brasil. They're treating the language as a marketing tool, and they're creating dissent instead of bonding.

    They're also forgetting that Portugal and Brasil are only two of eight countries that have Portuguese as an official language (and there's also the special administrative region of Macau): none of Angola, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, or São Tomé and Príncipe have ratified this reform.

  25. Simon Geard says:

    @Simon Buchan – yes, as another NZ developer, I'd generally use US spelling in code. But then, US spellings are pretty common anyway – I assume UK spellings are still taught in schools, but in practice people communicating with an international audience seem to copy (perhaps unintentionally) the US.

  26. Karan says:

    When I started coding way back in school, I was always irritated when the compiler refused to do its job properly and complained that I had spelt things like bgcolour wrong. :) Unlike some acquaintances though, I never stuck to American spelling when I wasn't programming.

  27. Worf says:

    Canada is even more fun – the correct way is the British spelling – u's and all. But because of our neighbour to the south, it gets jumbled in there.

    We need a spellcheck that accepts either, but emphasizes consistency – so it would accept both color and colour, but also reject having both color and colour in the same document.

    Also, our official date format is YYYY-MM-DD, but again, we also accept dd/mm/yyyy (common mostly outside the US) AND the blasphemous mm/dd/yyyy. C'mon, you 'Merkins had a big celebration on the FOURTH of JULY! Yes, dates end up being a major source of confusion here… And will for nearly a year and a half as 2-digit years make the date completely ambiguous. E.g., 07/04/07 (or 7/4/7). What date is that?

    Me personally, YYYY-MM-DD at least sorts nicely using alphabetical sorts (especially if something messed up timestamps).

  28. Keith Henry says:

    As a UK programmer the US misspellings are mildly annoying because code is always US patois. You get fun bugs and inconsistencies for things like colour vs color, centre vs center and serialise vs serialize. You get used to it.

    I think the only real problem is numbers – in UK schools we learnt that a billion is a million million (the bi- prefix is the giveaway) and a trillion is a million million million (again tri- meaning 3). American schools weren't so good: they think that a billion means a thousand million and a trillion means a million million. I'm not sure why, but the American numbers seem to have 'won' over here (despite many schools still teaching the UK numbers), which creates some confusion. A modern news story referring to a billion pound debt is talking about a thousand million, but a report from the 70s will be a million million and a 90s one could be either way.

    Also the dates are strange, why are so many Americans upset about the 9th of November?

  29. Magnum says:

    About 'Colour' and 'CentreDialogue', even American developers of languages and libraries have said they should use the language familiar to most people internationally.  And then they go and use American spelling.

    But what really grates with me is '#include <math.h>' or 'from math import *'.

  30. Jonathan says:

    Indeed, billion is confusing. In Israel, 1e9 is "milliard", probably coming from French, and 1e12 is "Billion". The US convention of 1e9=billion is slowly taking hold, especially in areas strongly influenced by the US (hi-tech).

    And indeed, US date format is silly:

    Best: (East-Asia)

    OK: dd/mm/yyyy (Europe, and Israel too)

    Bad: mm/dd/yyyy (US)

  31. GWO says:

    @James Schend: "In other words, you guys added all those extra u's after the colonies were already founded."

    <a href="…/American_and_British_English_spelling_differences just plain wrong.</a>  Seriously, why do people just make stuff like this up, where google has made actual facts trivial to find?

  32. Neil says:

    When developing for Windows 3.1 I actually used to use an extra header which I'd specially written to fix the spelling of all the Windows API calls and variables, in particular the references to grey, colour and centre.

  33. Paul says:

    I tend to end up with stuff like this in my code:

    MyObject.TextColour = Color.Red

  34. I despise Microsoft for not localising its products to British English.

  35. @Peter says:

    A company can really fall out of favour for not support localisation.

  36. James Schend says:

    @GWO: Your link doesn't back-up your point. To be fair, I'm not having much luck Googling it either, but I found this: which only goes as far as to say:

    "In certain respects, some varieties of American English are closer to the English of Shakespeare than modern Standard English"

    So I might be wrong. But your Wikipedia link doesn't prove whether I am or not.

  37. 640k says:

    @Jonathan: Best: (East-Asia), OK: dd/mm/yyyy (Europe, and Israel too)

    This is plain wrong, several Europen contries use the ISO standard.

  38. Karan says:

    Magnum >> But what really grates with me is '#include <math.h>' or 'from math import *'.

    Ha! Yeah, it's always been Maths for us, but as with bgcolor, center and other examples of Webster & Co.'s tinkering (why don't Americans use the ridiculous "thru", "nite", "yung", and "nabor" as well, which he advocated?), you sort of train your brain to type one way while programming, and another while documenting etc. (to the extent that it is now no longer a conscious effort).

  39. Jon Anderson says:

    We use thru and nite in some contexts, but I've never seen the others. "Thru traffic" and "Late-nite" are the first examples that come to mind.

  40. Karan says:

    Jon >> We use thru and nite in some contexts

    In formal writing?

  41. Jolyon Smith says:

    @James Schend – GWO's link does indeed make/back up his point.  Did you read it ?

    The article linked to observes that the use of -or and -our was always a complicated matter and that both usages were present in English long before the US colony decided to settle the matter for itself by essentially removing/ignoring the alternative -our spellings and adopting -or across the board ('color' being present in English alongside 'coloUr' in the 15th Century, some 200 years before Jamestown was founded)

    i.e.  The 'u's were not "added after the colonies were founded" as you asserted, and that link does support that observation (I would never assert that a Wikipedia entry "proves" anything).


  42. Hugh says:

    As someone has already noted, where there's a discrepancy in spelling between the US and the Commonwealth (effectively), in most cases the it's US that is on the right side etymologically and historically.

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