listening like a hillbilly in the interior of São Paulo and Minas Gerais

Just as I was starting to get complacent about my Portuguese, I’m entering an area where I’m confronted with a very different accent, which is essentially the hillbilly (caipira) accent

I’m familiar with this accent from my studies, but mostly in the abstract and from one person on Orlando Kelm’s amazing podcast for Portuguese for Spanish speakers, Tá Falado.

There are a lot of differences between this accent and the received pronunciation of the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo city accents, but I’m registering a few in particular: 

One difference is that the sound of a syllable-final ‘r’ here is much more like that of the American English ‘r’. Yay! Well, not “Yay!”, actually, since that’s not how I’ve been practicing. But at least when I make a “mistake” here and slip into an American English ‘r’, I slip into being “correct” for this area.

I’m also noticing a lack (or at least a lessening) of vowel lift—the tendency for unstressed /e/ to drift higher in the front of the mouth toward /i/. This is important for consonants in a lot of words because of a tendency for ‘d’ to be pronounced like the American English ‘j’ when it comes before an /i/ sound. So, whereas city folk say the word ‘onde’ like an American English speaker would pronounce ‘ownjee’, caipiras would say it like we would say ‘owndeh’. This is a big difference when it is affecting several of the most common words at natural speed. 

Even more problematic is something that I recognize from Carribean (e.g., Puerto Rican) Spanish: diminishing or even losing entirely word-final /s/ and certain stops (e.g., /d/, /b/) between vowels. For a foreigner who is grasping for all possible information to understand each utterance, this dropping of consonants is an infuriating loss of data. Of course, to a native, this is just part of the natural stripping down of a language so that it can go as fast as possible.

I was very rude yesterday because of these pronunciation differences. I was talking with a family, and I was struggling to understand the man, while I was easily understanding the woman. After a while, I was looking at her each time he spoke, basically imploring her for translation help. It was only after the conversation, when I could replay it in my head, that I realized that I was failing to do the accent/dialect conversion. 

Today, just as I thought I was getting a handle on this regional accent, I heard an entire conversation that I understood zero of. I politely interrupted to tell these people that I was a foreigner who was trying to learn Portuguese, but their Portuguese made no sense to me. It was Guarani.

Tomorrow, I leave Itobi after completing one-third of this hike through rural Brazil. By the time I’m done, I hope to be embarrassing myself less in Portuguese. I also hope to meet more trail friends like this little girl:

One thought on “listening like a hillbilly in the interior of São Paulo and Minas Gerais

  1. The rapid natural pace of native speech leaves me in the dark every time. I am lucky if I can understand a kindergarten cartoon. But I have found speaking with some very old people easier. They often speak more slowly.
    Love the dog. What a great expression she has.


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