I have been continuing to look through the “Languages for the 21st century” booklets included with last week’s issues of the Guardian newspaper.
Of all the things one might possibly say about Portuguese pronunciation, which are the most important?
Opinions can legitimately differ on this point. But I would claim that among the very least important is the fact that the writing system uses the letters k, w, and y only in foreign words, despite their being recognized as “official letters” of the Portuguese alphabet. Yet that is what the treatment in the Guardian’s Brazilian Portuguese booklet starts with and wastes valuable space on.
If we have to focus on spelling rather than pronunciation, you might expect some comment on the accented vowel letters that Portuguese orthography does include, and what (other than stress) they imply in terms of reading rules: ã, ê, õ; á, à, â, é, ó, ô. There’s nothing in the booklet beyond the misleading statement that ã is “as in ‘rang’”. (Actually it represents [ɐ̃], nasalized [ɐ], and the closest model in English would be the first vowel in money ˈmʌni.)
What would I prioritize if I had to write one short paragraph on Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation? I would say that in very general terms it is similar to that of Spanish or Italian (since the reader is likely to have some knowledge of these). However, I would say that it is important to note that vowels in unstressed syllables undergo reduction, posttonic e becoming i and o becoming u. (This makes the general auditory impression very different from that of Spanish.) I would draw attention to the nasalized vowels and diphthongs and do my best to describe what they sound like: e.g. vão is like English vow, but with nasal escape. Yes, I would tell the reader about the spellings lh, nh, x, standing for [ʎ, ɲ, ʃ] respectively, and would attempt to describe the first two. I would say that in Brazil the spellings t and d before i and e usually stand for the affricates [tʃ] and [dʒ].
One of the differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese is the pronunciation of initial r (and double rr). In (some kinds of) Brazilian it is a voiceless fricative, glottal [h], uvular [χ], or velar [x]. As we discovered with an informant from Rio at UCL, it can even be pharyngeal [ħ]: our informant called her native city [ˈħiu], though others would say [ˈhiu] or [ˈχiu]. How does the Guardian describe this phenomenon? “A little bit like a hard ‘h’.”
Neither the layman nor the phonetician can extract a meaningful description from the expression “hard ‘h’”. What would I say if I were writing this booklet? Perhaps that initial r and double rr are voiceless fricatives, like the ch in loch.
And I don’t even know Portuguese.
(I do, however, know the difference between a train and a bus, a distinction that the author of the booklet seems to have problems with.)
If you can’t say anything useful, say nothing. If the reader has no phonetic knowledge there is not a great deal you can do. So you ought to cater for the intelligent layman who does know a little phonetics and can understand such terms as “voiceless” and “fricative”.
If you were writing about archaeology and wanted to discuss bronze, would you explain it as being a mixture of two kinds of melted stony stuff? No, you would say that it is an alloy of copper and tin.
The technical term “voiceless” ought to be no more frightening to the general reader than the technical term “alloy”. “Velar” ought to be no more offputting than “tin” (the chemical element, not the container).
Wikipedia doesn’t hesitate to use appropriate technical terms and technical descriptions. Why should a newspaper catering for an educated and literate readership be more timid?