Learning Portuguese: when brown is black and India is China
Portuguese and English have been part of my life as far as I can remember. I was brought up in Brazil and got used to switching from speaking Portuguese to English then back to Portuguese. Word games were part of my childhood and I would translate some expressions literally just for a laugh. Vamos dar no pé, which means ‘let’s get away’, became the completely nonsensical expression ‘let’s give on the foot’; ‘ice cream’ became creme de gelo [cream of ice] instead of its Brazilian Portuguese equivalent sorvete.
Behind this kind of wordplay lies an important lesson. When learning a new language, it’s no good memorizing words in isolation. The Portuguese word for ‘hand’ is mão (pronounced nasally, like ‘muh-oo’). But you’d better not ‘shake hands’ in Portuguese because, translated literally, sacudir as mãos means to grab someone’s hand and agitate it like a bottle of juice before you open it. If you want to greet a Portuguese speaker with a handshake, you “squeeze” hands instead, but there is not much squeezing involved. Apertar as mãos [squeeze hands] simply means to hold someone’s hand and move it gently up and down as a way of greeting or showing agreement. So while in English you shake hands, in Portuguese you squeeze them.
The same applies to many other words. When learning that ‘bread’ is pão (pronounced “puh-oo”) and that ‘brown’ is marrom in Brazilian Portuguese, don’t go to a bakery and ask for pão marrom for there is no such thing. In the context of bread, pão preto [black bread] is what you want.
The ways words combine even have quite radical geographical implications. If you are looking for India ink in Portugal, you won’t get very far if you translate word for word and ask for tinta da Índia. Your chances of success will improve dramatically if you travel northwest and order tinta da China instead.
A good bilingual dictionary should help you with this. When you look up the Portuguese for ‘bread’, you will learn that brown can actually be black, and when you look up ‘ink’, you will find out that in this context India is China.