So my first language to study, investigate, and find out about was Portuguese. Hunting around online, I was keen to find a free way to learn that would give me a grounding in the basics. One I stumbled upon dated back to the 1970s, and was used to teach American diplomats. Although it was at the height of the Cold War and Portugal itself was a dictatorship, the sentences that were taught via the Foreign Services Institute were not political however they did come across as a tad old-fashioned.

Constant repetitions and a badly scanned pdf file of dated materials reminded me of the kind of text books that I had to wade through during Saturday morning school lessons. Still, they were free and the sheer range of languages you can learn are rather impressive. Everything from Russian, to Farsi to a number of languages I had barely heard of. Twi (spoken in Ghana), Yoruba, (spoken in Nigeria) Kituba (Central African Republic) are among the tongues that I will get to know along this journey, during this project, and even if I can’t find any text books on these African tongues in future, I can always fall back on this resource.

True or False?

Portuguese does lull you into a false sense of security, not only via false friends, those pesky words which look the same, may be cognates, but mean different things; If you have Spanish, you might be able to read it OK. It is just the sound of Portuguese that foxes you. Words that on paper should be relatively straight forward to enunciate, get caught up in a swish of a tongue, your comprehension jolts against a silent word ending, an M that is nasalized, and some real quirks of grammar that make it more than just an offshoot of Spanish.

‘You’ know it

We all know how impolite the English can be and not just when they are on a stag weekend in Prague. Unlike virtually every Indo-European language, there is only one way of saying you. It used to exist in the versions of thou and thee and to this day, the Irish in colloquial speech will often refer to the – plural of ye. In Spanish, the polite form of usted is followed by the third person ending of the verb. It stems from vuestra merced, which the Spanish demanded mestizos in Latin American to address them as when they conquered that part of the world. Shortened to usted, this creates distance between the speaker and the person she is addressing, the sense being that the addressee is not being addressed too directly. We might get this in a posh restaurant, or in Harrods, neither of whose doorways I would usually grace, if an assistant comes up to you and asks “Would Sir like anything else?”. It may hark back to a bygone era of servitude, and would really only be restricted to very select situations.

Even in French, the polite vous form is rather more versatile, it is a word you use for someone you don’t know but equally it refers to the plural. However, in Portuguese, the polite form for you is O Senor/A Senora. O means the, so it is not just “Sir” but “the Sir”. In turn, “Do you want”, would be rendered as “does the Sir want” or “O Senor Quer...”This to me sounds a step that is even more polite, more removed, than the Spanish usted.

My first experience of this came in this restaurant in Ponta Delgada (pictured below). This is the main city of the Azores, a group of nine volcanic islands some two hours by plane away from mainland Portugal where we are spending a week. After arriving on a newly installed route from Ryanair, which goes there from London once a week, no doubt a period to test its popularity, I was expecting to be asked in Portuguese by the waiter, the equivalent to “what would the Sir want”. However, it seems that everyone here speaks perfect English anyway, and so he just asked in English: “Are you ready to order?” Perhaps I would get a chance to say ‘The Sir’ later on. ‘The Sir’, namely me, ordered tuna as it happened.