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Theoretical Linguistics

Prepared by John Lipski


Brazilian Portuguese Ethnonymy and Europeanisms

Thomas M. Stephens

Rutgers University

     Abstract: Modern Brazilian racio-ethnic terminology is replete with words and phrases of non-Portuguese origin. Some of these ethnonyms derive from indigenous sources such as Tupi-Guarani or Quechua; others are Africanisms. A few racio-ethnic borrowings stem from European languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, and English and are especially prevalent in areas of Brazil where intercultural contacts have been prolonged or particularly conflictive. These Europeanisms treat not only ethnic and racial designations but also professional categories related to race and ethnicity. Even though racial characteristics are often implied in a person's ethnic designation, most ethnonyms from European sources refer more to ethnic origin, national origin, or social standing than to race. Few are of high frequency, however. Therein lies the basis for this study: to delineate the incorporation and analyze the impact of European borrowings in Brazilian racio-ethnic terminology.

     Key Words: Brazil, ethnic identity, ethnic labeling, lexical borrowing, Portuguese language

Introduction: The Ethnic Paradigm in Brazil

     Ethnonymy -the naming of ethnic groups- is culture-specific. (96) One cannot model discussion of another culture's ethnonyms after the U. S. ancestry-equals-racial-category example outside the Anglo-American context. Ethnonymy hinges on perceptions of observers not only from outside the system, but also from those inside it. If there is a �truth� with respect to the human penchant for naming, it lies somewhere between what the insiders and outsiders have to say regarding the system.

     Students of Brazilian racio-ethnic relations have long deliberated the supposed benign nature yet complicated structure of Brazil's racio-ethnic system, which generally emphasizes the importance of social class as the overriding factor in determining one's place (Harris 1964b, 24 and 1970, 12; Crépeau 1973, 33, 38). Harris (1964a, 57) also has cited the fluid, seemingly ever changing character of categories that allow parents and siblings to be labeled differently, since, as Harris and Kottak (1963, 205) have found, and one might expect, Brazilian racio-ethnic terms fluctuate depending on the person identified, the identifier, the place, and the moment. (97)

     Consequently, Brazilian racio-ethnic taxa, like those of any folk taxonomy, invite synonymy, polysemy, and metonymy at various levels. (98) Luso-Brazilians conceptualize and identify persons through socially designated, highly adaptable assortments of criteria, in the elusive attempt to recognize the relative racio-ethnic qualities each individual exhibits as a result of genetics and social status; besides, they have an arsenal of lexical items with which to do so (Kottak 1978, 53). (99) Whether Brazilians take the Tupi-Guaraniism caboclo to mean �mestizo� or one of 20 other racio-ethnic definitions (Stephens 1989), they likewise mark mestiço as a synonym for caboclo or another type of mixed-race person according to the meaning to be negotiated.

     Brazilian Portuguese, like American English, has freely acquired new lexical items from other languages, especially African and Amerindian languages. Ethnic terminology has also been enriched through the incorporation of Europeanisms -borrowings from European languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, and English- with only a slight impact on the overall Brazilian system. On the other hand, Lusisms manifest in the Spanish American racio-ethnic [537] terminology have also had some currency in American English. These Anglicisms play out the social, economic, and political pressures that are exerted on the linguistic process known as semantic change, of which one type is borrowing.

The Nature of Things: Semantic Change and Factors Leading to Borrowing

     The specialization and generalization of a language's lexicon result from social forces and affective factors incumbent on that language (Ullmann 1962, 199-200), as well as various psychological and social factors, many cases of metaphor, the very naming of new phenomena, certain historical situations, and naturally occurring processes of living languages (Ullmann 1974, 10). While several of these factors clearly impinge on the topic, the last one, language processes, is the crux of this study.

     Whereas Brazil's racio-ethnic nomenclature tends toward euphemism (Nogueira 1959, 175), the borrowings found here do not indicate simply euphemism or dysphemism, but generally perform other equally meaningful functions, including professional or technical identification, ethnic relationship, racial mixture, or phenotype. The variation that Brazilian Portuguese has abided in its ethnonymic system as a consequence of Spanish, French, English, and Italian borrowings serve as examples of the above-mentioned processes and characteristics.

     Semantic interference is one of the most common influences that languages in contact have on each other. Under contact conditions, new terms for newly acquired or previously unknown phenomena rule. This interference falls into four canonical categories, here with examples from Spanish contact with English in the United States (Milan 1982, 196-97):

     1 - semantic transfer (English carpet > Spanish carpeta in which standard Spanish alfombra is replaced semantically by carpeta, standard Spanish for �file folder�);

     2 - lexical borrowing (Spanish bil, jol, rapea < English bill, hall, rap respectively);

     3 - literal loan translation (Spanish tener un buen tiempo < English to have a good time); and

     4 - morphosyntactic readjustment (Spanish �qué tú haces? instead of the standard, �qué haces tú?, which, as some have suggested and others have rejected, may result from English influence on Spanish varieties in the United States).

     Cross-language influences in Brazilian racial and ethnic terminology revolve almost solely around lexical borrowings, i. e., words donated from another language, generally with a Portuguese pronunciation. A few, however, fall into the category of semantic transfer, i. e., words that take on new meanings in the Portuguese language as a result of the influence of a differently meaning cognate from another language. Examples of these two types are seen below.

     Colonization of America by Europeans, specifically the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and French, unquestionably created new situations of language contact. The concentration of the Portuguese and, to a much lesser extent and for a much shorter time, the Dutch, along Brazil's mountain-bound coastline heightened intercultural contacts and competition. Furthermore, enslavement and subsequent forced migration of Africans mostly from the western portions of their continent to America brought these peoples into close contact with the Europeans. The Africans, who had already been in contact with Portuguese and Spaniards from the mid-fifteenth century, contributed customs, foods, traditions, and languages to the new ethnic and cultural mix that the Europeans had never before encountered. In the New World, the Europeans and Africans confronted the indigenous populations, who stemmed from thousands of distinct ethnic groups divided by language and culture, some great, some meager. Although many African lexemes accompanied new cultural phenomena, Tupi-Guaraniisms had the greatest bearing on the Brazilian Portuguese vocabulary by extending to it myriad new words, a fact corroborated by consulting any large dictionary [538] of Brazilian Portuguese.

     In the case of Brazil, Africans bestowed on the racio-ethnic system the following terms: (100) babá �black nursemaid; leader of an Afro-Brazilian religious cult� probably < Yoruba (Schneider 1985, 23), banguela, �person, especially a black, who has no teeth�, < the ethnonym Banguela �African ethnic group known for the ceremonial custom of extracting their teeth� (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 182), bujamé �mulatto�,< an Angolese or other west African language (Schneider 1991, 46), malê �black Muslim slave; Brazilian Muslim of African origin�,< the ethnonym Malê �African Muslim group� (Núñez 1980, 293), quilombola �runaway slave�, < Kimbundu kilombo �capital� + Tupi influences (Schneider 1991, 79-80), and zumbi �black chieftain in a runaway slave camp�, possibly < Kimbundu (Laytano 1981, 216). Each of these taxa have undergone some semantic shift but can still denote ethnic (tribal) names, terms for religious figures or groups, and political labels. Similarly, the racio-ethnic system of Brazil has also absorbed many more words and expressions from indigenous sources. The present samples, unless otherwise noted, derive from Tupi-Guarani: biriba �rustic or country type� (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 208), caipira �country dweller, hick� (Ayrosa 1937, 79-80; Souza 1961, 68-69), china �Indian woman�,< Quechua (Corominas 1954-57, 2: 53 and 1973,195; also see Note 5), culumim �small Indian boy� (Machado 1952, 1: 716), piá �young Indian� (Freyre 1964, 424), potiguar �Potiguar Indian� (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 1123), sarará �person of mixed race� (Machado 1952, 2: 1950; Buarque de Holanda 1975,1273), and urubu �person of color� (Chamberlain and Harmon 1983, 505) or �Urubu Indian� (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 1433). These Africanisms and Americanisms serve as a perfect counterpoint to Europeanisms in that they allude almost exclusively to skin color, usually dark, or generally low social status, the latter of which is indicative of how the persons who spoke those languages have been treated historically.

     Immigration from Europe, especially from Portugal, Germany, and Italy, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, further stimulated the Brazilian ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and racial amalgam. Whereas the Portuguese-Brazilians suffered insults, epithets, and often poverty, the German-Brazilians thrived in the South. There exists no evidence that any racio-ethnic terms derive from German, but some ethnonyms designate Germans, including alemão �German� and alemão batata �potato German�. Ironically, the orthographic/phonological variant of alemão, alamão, carried the meaning �person of color� among Brazilian sertanejos of the mid-twentieth century (Almeida Oliveira 1940, 24). (101) Similarly, The Italian-Brazilians gained fame for their pidginized form of language and gave new lexical items not only to the general Brazilian Portuguese lexicon but also to the racio-ethnic taxonomy of Brazil. Continued immigration from other parts of the world, especially Asia, has certainly caused more evolution in Brazil's racio-ethnic system. Japanese immigrants, for example, form a sizeable portion of Brazil's population, and Nipponisms such as issei �Japanese immigrant� and nisei �child born to Japanese immigrant parents� (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 788, 974) have entered Brazilian-Portuguese as a result.


     Borrowings from Spanish into the Brazilian racio-ethnic taxonomy tend toward typical racio-ethnic names and technical or professional terms. These Hispanisms -words and phrases derived from Spanish- are found all over Brazil, but are especially common in Rio Grande do Sul and other southern Brazilian states that border Spanish-speaking areas. Sometimes, Spanish has simply served as a vehicle of transfer from other languages. These Hispanisms include baqueano �adept wilderness guide� (Coruja et al. 1964, 477), perhaps originally < Arawak, gaúcho �cowboy, vagrant Indian�, perhaps originally < Arawak or Quechua (Coruja et al. 1964, 222-27), gaudério �dweller of the interior, known for cattle [539] rustling and thievery� (Buarque de Holanda 175, 679), gringo �foreigner not from the Iberian peninsula� (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 702), the nickname jaleco �Portuguese person�, originally < Turkish via Algerian Arabic (Machado 1952, 2: 1254), ladino �foreigner, especially black, adept at speaking Portuguese and somewhat acculturated to things European�, perhaps < Spanish as a replacement for the older form ladinho (Corominas 1954-57, 3: 9-10), marosca �person of mixed race�, possibly < Spanish morocho �swarthy, brunette� (Coruja et al. 1964, 312), sacalagua �a child born of racially mixed parentage� (Souza 1961, 66), xíbaro �person of mixed race� (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 1478), probably originally < Arawak, and zambo �person of black and Indian race�, < Spanish through the River Plate region of Spanish America (Tenório d'Albuquerque 1954,44).

     Ethnonymic Hispanisms also deal with technical and professional categories that have become related to race, class, or ethnicity. Baqueano, a word generally restricted in use to the more rural areas, refers to a guide who directs expeditions into the sertão or interior of Brazil or to a person experienced in tracking. These practices have traditionally been tasks typical of Indians or mestizos, who generally are considered to live in less urban areas of Brazil. Furthermore, the common taxon gaúcho �cowboy� has acquired the more restricted meaning of a Southern Brazilian from the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Similarly, American English Nutmegger nicknames a person from the state of Connecticut and Mountaineer one from West Virginia. In these examples of metonymy, the person denoted has become synonymous with the industry, practice, or feature for which the area is known.

     Through the continued contact with Spanish speakers, especially along the borders with Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, Spanish has given Brazil's racio-ethnic system almost half of the terms of classification loaned by European languages. The problem with Spanish borrowings into Portuguese is that it is often difficult to distinguish the end of Spanish and the beginning of Portuguese, as is well known. Current border situations and the sociolinguistic phenomena of mixed language such as Portunhol make the distinction even more difficult. (102) Many Brazilian Portuguese racio-ethnic terms have exact orthographic cognates in Spanish, which thus hinder the identification of what might be a Hispanism in Portuguese or a Lusism in Spanish. Ladino, for example, is problematic, since the term could be a semi-learned borrowing from Late Latin, an alternate historical development from Latin, or a direct loan from Spanish. Moreover, during the Middle Ages, the term meant �Romance language or latinate Spanish, as opposed to Arabic� or �Hispanized Moor, especially one fluent in Spanish� (Corominas 1973, 351). According to Meyer-Lübke (1924, 355), ladinho 'neat, clean, pure' exists in Portuguese, or at least existed in some varieties of Portuguese as the regular derivative of Latin latinus. Thus, ladino may not be a borrowing from Spanish, but rather another slightly anomalous etymological quirk in Portuguese's evolution. Only a distinct spelling can give a good clue as to the Spanish origin of many terms.


     Gallicisms -borrowings from French- are predisposed toward the technical and derogatory ethnic or class designations (slurs). (103) An ethnic slur or epithet �reflect [s] stereotypes that often have harmful social and psychological consequences for their victims� and �amount to nicknames for ethnic persons or groups� (Allen 1990, 8). These words demonstrate intergroup relations, and �are preeminently a political vocabulary� (Allen 1990, 9). Brazilian racioethnic borrowings from French include bagagem �low-class type�, < French bagage (Machado 1952, 1: 299), boche �German�, < obsolete French slang Boche �German�, ultimately < the German surname Bosch (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 213), bugre �uncivilized Indian�, < French bougre �blackguard� (Alonso 1958, 1: 793), camelô �street [540] vendor, especially a Portuguese or a caboclo�, < French camelot �street hawker� (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 262), marabu, �Muslim hermit or ascetic�,< French marabout with the same meaning (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 885), originally < Arabic via French, marrom �chestnut-haired� (Machado 1952, 2: 1439), and probably grifo, used in the phrase zambo grifo �offspring of a black and a mulatto�. (104)

     Racio-ethnic Gallicisms are normally Brazilian calques that simulate the pronunciations of the French original and are used to insult or scorn the person denoted. Bagagem is a collective ethnic classification referring to class, is similar in focus to the Southern American English trash, white trash, and trailer trash, and may have been brought into Portuguese through Spanish. The derogatory boche is originally from the German surname Bosch, and from bugre �uncivilized� one can infer much concerning how the Europeans viewed the Amerindians. Meanwhile, grifo is likely a derivation of the French griffon �wiry, wiry-haired terrier�; compare the French griffonage �scratch, scribble, scrawl�. On the other hand, camelô specifies a profession, whereas marabu, originally < Arabic for �Muslim ascetic� (Pescatello 1975, 248), identifies religious as well as racio-ethnic affinity.


     Racio-ethnic Anglicisms -borrowings from English- tend to be relatively recent metonymous or polysemous metaphors. (105) Anglicisms such as ameríndio �native American, American Indian� (Souza 1961, 11-12), charuto �person of color�, (Machado 1952, 1: 574), colored �person of color� (Chamberlain and Harmon 1983,147), and godeme �Englishman� are somewhat more technical and tend to be, with the exception of godeme, relatively neutrally charged.

     With respect to these few, the derivations are varied. Whereas ameríndio, < English Amerindian, is a North American technical or learned invention (Souza 1961, 1112), its seldom-used counterpart brasilíndio is a Portuguese-language original based on ameríndio. Charuto, < English cheroot �type of cigar�, comes originally from Tamil, and the derogatory godeme may derive from either the English phrase good man (Souza 1961, 161) or God damn (Buarque de Holanda 1975, 691), in allusion to the English person's putatively frequent use of that exclamation. Finally, colored, < English colored (person), can replace pessoa de cor in some instances.


     Italianisms -borrowings from Italian- in Brazilian Portuguese racio-ethnic terminology are less current than borrowings from other European languages, but they do exist. First of all, the Carioca term bachicha is an ethnic epithet used to refer to a foreigner (Chamberlain 1981, 410), while in the River Plate region of Spanish America, the nickname generally belittles an Italian. Used in both Portuguese and Spanish slang, bachicha derives from the Genoese surname Baciccia, variant of Italian Battista. Furthermore, carcamano �Italian� (Chamberlain 1981, 420; Buarque de Holanda 1975, 281) and menelique �person of color� (Fernandes 1969,146, 452; Levine 1980, 85) may also descend from one of the varieties of Italian spoken by immigrants in Brazil.

     The problem of inter-Romance language borrowings and tracing derivations emerges with the collectives canalha and gentalha �riff-raff, person of the lower classes�. Based solely on orthographic/phonological evidence, each lexeme could just as easily be a Hispanism (Spanish canalla, gentalla), a Catalanism (canalla, gentalla), a Gallicism (canaille), (106) or an Italianism (canailla, gentaglia), each with the same basic meaning as the Portuguese (Corominas 1954-57, 2: 723). The use of gentalha is restricted to the interior and the South of Brazil, again suggesting that a possible reenforcement of, if not a motivation for, the borrowing may have come from the River Plate. Nonetheless, Buarque de Holanda's (1975, 265, 683) derivation of canalha and [541] gentalha from Italian canaglia and gentaglia, both of which manifest contemptuous nuances, remains the more plausible of the two explanations.

     As is similar in many of the borrowings from the other European languages, Italianism connote ethnic or class differences as well as racial characteristics. With respect to the Brazilian ethnonymic system, Italianisms are not high-profile terms, but they are generally high-frequency.

General Discussion, Commentary, and Comparison

     One can say with little trepidation that borrowings from European languages have had a small impact on the calculus of Brazilian racio-ethnic terms. In fact, of the more than 1000 Brazilian racio-ethnic terms found in Stephens (1989), fewer than 30 low frequency ethnonyms have derivational links to non-Portuguese European languages.

     Compare the high-frequency Lusism in Spanish American racio-ethnic terminology, criollo. (107) It has had meanings ranging from �white or black born in the New World� to �nativized, native�. In essence, since criollo has accumulated approximately 20 racio-ethnic meanings, many of which are words and phrases also derived from it or used practically with it (Stephens 1989), this one term, originally < Portuguese, has had more impact on Spanish American racio-ethnic terms than all the Hispanisms in Brazilian Portuguese combined, with the possible exception of the Hispanism gringo. It is additionally used in other contexts in reference to a wide variety of languages, cultures, and peoples.

     Similarly, the English-language Lusisms creole and pickaninny, the latter used previously in Southern American English and especially in many Creole languages, have enjoyed wide use even into the twentieth century. (108) Creole is mostly known in the United States as a type of cooking or a variety of language usually connected with the Southern American state of Louisiana, while pickaninny was used by both blacks and whites in the American South to refer, rather in the etymological sense, to �young child�, not just to �black child� as is popularly held (Paz Soldán 1938, 323; Álvarez Nazario 1974, 338-39). As in the case with Spanish criollo, the Portuguese borrowings are more widely used in English than are the Anglicisms in Portuguese.

     Although most Brazilian racio-ethnic terminology is of Portuguese origin, words and phrases of non-Portuguese, especially Amerindian and African, sources are abundant. Even though racial characteristics are often implied in a person's ethnic designation, most ethnic and racial expressions derived from non-Portuguese sources imply ethnicity or class rather than racial characteristics. Both racial classification and social position or class are implicit in the European-language borrowings found in Brazil's racio-ethnic system. Finally, derogation is highly common, if not requisite, in a borrowing from another European language. (109)


     After each borrowing, there is a category listed to which the word generally belongs. In a few cases some additional derivational data is also listed for clarification.



ameríndio - technical/racial
charuto - racial (< Tamil via English)
colored - technical/racial
godeme - ethnic
bagagem - ethnic/class
boche - ethnic (<German via French)
bugre - ethnic
camelô - professional/ethnic
grifo - racial
marabu - ethnic/religious (< Arabic via French)
marrom - racial
baqueano - technical/professional [542]
chulo - racial (< Italian via Spanish)
gaúcho - technical (< an Amerindian language via Spanish)
gaudério - technical/professional
gringo - ethnic
jaleco - ethnic (< Turkish via Arabic and Spanish)
ladino - ethnic
marosca - racial
sacalagua - racial
saraça - racial
xíbaro - ethnic (< Amerindian language via Spanish)
zambo - racial
bachicha - ethnic
carcamano - ethnic
gentalha - ethnic/class
menelique - racial


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