“Portuñol”: Spanish and Portuguese Language Contact in Northern Uruguay

Posted by Madeline Gilbert – PhD student in Linguistics at NYU

For two months this summer, I am doing linguistic research in Uruguay. I am splitting my time between Montevideo, the capital, and Rivera, a city that lies on the border between Uruguay and Brazil. The border between Uruguay and Brazil actually runs right through the middle of a city (along a main street), which is called Rivera on the Uruguayan side and Santana do Livramento on the Brazilian side. For all intents and purposes, it’s a single city that happens to have a border running through it.

My main linguistic interests lie in sociolinguistics and phonetics. The former deals with how language reflects and is used within a social structure: who says what, why, and how. The latter focuses on the sounds of human speech. My project here in Uruguay combines elements of both: how does the contact between Spanish and Portuguese on the border between Uruguay and Brazil affect the phonetics Spanish spoken? I’m collecting interviews of casual speech in Montevideo and in Rivera to be able to compare speakers from both regions.

A little bit of history: the border region has always been bilingual. The first Europeans there were Portuguese-speaking; Spanish was imposed on top of this through educational and state policies in the 1800s as part of the effort to construct a national identity. Nation building projects often equate a nation with a single language as a way to construct a sense of national unity, and the presence of other languages is seen as a threat to this unity. This was definitely the case with Portuguese in Uruguay, since Uruguay exists partly as a result of long territorial disputes between Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers. Today, some scholars consider the border region in Uruguay to be diglossic: Portuguese is spoken by many at home, among friends, and in the community, while Spanish is the language of public and official life, including schools and government. The centuries of language contact have led to widespread bilingualism and borrowing words from one language into the other.

If you ask pretty much any Uruguayan about Rivera, the immediate response is, “Oh, they speak portuñol.” What exactly is meant by portuñol? Well, the term can have multiple meanings depending on the context, but in this case, it reflects the general belief that what is spoken in Rivera is neither Spanish nor Portuguese, but a “mixed,” “broken,” variety of them. People will tell you that the intonation is different (on the border they speak “cantadito,” “sing-song”), that they use Portuguese words, and that they say some sounds differently (e.g. in the word “Rivera,” they pronounce the “v” like the English “v” ([v]), unlike most varieties of Spanish).

Simplifying, there are two main perspectives on this portuñol. One is that it is a new, truly mixed language that arose from the contact between Spanish and Portuguese, and that speakers can speak this language without knowing monolingual Spanish or Portuguese (see Lipski cited at end of post). The other perspective is that many speakers dominate both Spanish and Portuguese, which have not totally converged into a single code, and that speakers use more or fewer features of each language depending on the social situation or identity they want to project in any given moment (see Carvalho cited at end of post).

The term portuñol seems to be similar to Spanglish in the US, and often has a negative connotation. The connotation is that speakers from the border region are not fully competent in either language, and therefore mix them. The view that this language is somehow deficient, broken, and impure leads to discrimination against its speakers. This happens all the time—in all parts of the world—whether we’re aware of it or not: we form opinions about peoples’ intelligence, educational background, race, gender, etc. based on the way they speak. As many of the faculty members in my department often point out, discrimination based on the way someone speaks is one of the few forms of “acceptable” discrimination. We condemn race and gender discrimination, but when was the last time you heard someone (not a linguist!) condemn discrimination based on someone’s accent or language use? Linguistic prejudice is very hard to control (even as a linguist!), but being aware of it is a start.

How is linguistic research relevant to this? One of the main tenets of sociolinguistics is that the variation in speech is not random: variation is structured and orderly, and whatever “mixing” occurs is governed by a linguistic system. The “mixing” does not rise out of a deficiency; it reflects a speaker’s own mental linguistic system that is rule-governed and structured like any monolingual system. By studying how different languages in contact influence each other and how speakers use features of both in a non-random way, we can work to combat misconceptions of “mixed” languages.

Some interesting readings:

On the history of the border:

Carvalho, Ana Maria. 2006. Políticas lingüísticas de séculos passados nos dias de hoje: O dilema sobre a educação bilíngüe no norte do Uruguai. Language Problems and Language Planning 30(2). 149–171.

On “mixed” languages (Spanglish, here):

Otheguy, Ricardo. 2008. El llamado espanglish. In Humberto López Morales (ed.), Enciclopedia del español en los Estados Unidos, 222–247. Madrid: Instituto Cervantes & Editorial Santillana.

Two different perspectives on the portuñol in Rivera:

Carvalho, Ana Maria. 2014. Sociolinguistic continuities in language contact situations: The case of Portuguese in contact with Spanish along the Uruguayan-Brazilian Border. In Patricia Amaral & Ana Maria Carvalho (eds.), Portuguese-Spanish Interfaces: Diachrony, Synchrony, and Contact (Issues in Hispanic and Lusophone Linguistics), vol. 1, 263–294. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Lipski, John. 2006. Too Close for Comfort? The Genesis of Portuñol/Portunhol. Selected Proceedings of the 8th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium, 1–22. Citeseer. (29 September, 2016).

Some great videos from the NYU forum on Linguistic Prejudice, Linguistic Privilege:


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