Friday, May 7, 2010

What a difference an accent mark makes

Not only am I a full time Mommy but I'm also a part time Conversational English teacher.  During class last night we started talking about the importance of pronunciation and accent.  It makes a huge difference in being understood or completely misunderstood.  I say this out of experience as I have made an ass out of myself many times here in Rio.  I'm pretty sure it'll become a running theme in this blog. 

This story goes back to when I first came to Brazil.  I was a shiny little sheltered girl who spoke no Portuguese. I mean, zero.

One day I figured I had enough Portuguese to run an easy errand. I went down the street to the neighborhood bakery and picked up some bread.  The first time the guy was a little confused but then I pointed to the bread and he understood. He giggled a little bit, smiled, and sent me on my way.  Mission accomplished! I was a master of my own universe... or the bakery.

I was so excited that I could manage something on my own.  I was nervous every time but I got a huge smile and, what seemed to be, a lot of encouragement from the baker and cashier.

So that became my routine. I would pass by the bakery in the evening, receive lots of smiles, and buy some bread.  That was, until, I went with Cousin Letty.

We were heading to the neighborhood bar for some beers  and I saw that they were putting out little fresh loafs of bread.  I figured a snack wouldn't be a bad idea if I planned to keep up with her.

Long story short, I ordered my bread and Letty practically had a laughter induced seizure. She literally fell over laughing onto the bakery floor.  Imagine me standing there with my little brown paper bag of bread, once so proud and now so confused.

Let me just give you a little Portuguese lesson.  Accents mean a lot down here.  Pão is bread in Portuguese.  If you do not pronounce the accent it becomes Pao. Pao is a completely different word.  I'm going to give you a minute to figure out what it means.

You're right. It means Penis.  For about 5 months I had been ordering bags of penises.  It put the smiles into a whole new perspective. I was that American girl who kept coming in and ordering male genitalia.  Awesome!

After the day of Letty's stop drop and roll laughter, I never again entered into that shop.  I couldn't explain how the ão in Portuguese is a very difficult sound for native English speakers to make.  Not that they cared.  It's funny regardless. I mean, I was there ordering penises daily. There's no saving yourself from that. 

Needless to say, I am damn good at the ão sound now.  Letty still gets a little laugh if she comes into a bakery with me, even though I now order bread.


  1. ok... another piece of the language I need to master...

  2. Well, that kind of gaffe is not a privilege of Portuguese. When I went to Canada, I pointed to the yard and yield "screw!" trying to pronounce "squirrel". The two teenagers Canadian girls (of the host family) giggled, and I repeated "screw" many times, trying to find the correct pronunciation. They laughed a lot, but did not tell me what I was saying. I just understood their joy weeks later, when my brother told me what "screw"means.

  3. funny... when I was working at my first hospital in DC I worked with a young RN from Spain. She came out of a patients room one morning and told all of us that she needed some help with the shits... "I need help with the shits... the shits..." She meant sheets. I figured it out first.

  4. You gotta love the diversity of languages! Much laughter today - thank you and your Paos!!!

  5. Hello, I've just discovered your blog, it's just great! It's very interesting to see how other people see our own culture. About this problem you've mentioned:

    1) I'm not sure if you know that already, but in Rio Grande do Sul they ask for "cacete" or "cacetinho" instead of "pão" or "pãozinho" at the bakery. It is the same bread-penis issue, but at least there is no pronounce problem, it's actually the same word!

    2) I'm living in Italy now. The problem here are the double consonants. The difference in the pronounce is very subtle and hard to get. For example, "Penne" is a particular kind of pasta and "pene" means... penis, again. I've just learned to observe the look the waiter gives me to find out if I ordered it right or not.