Discovering Angolan Portuguese

by on October 5, 2019

Language enthusiasts may notice one thing almost all language education platforms and applications have in common: if they offer a Portuguese language learning option, the icon representing that language is often the flag of Brazil. One might assume that learning Portuguese is equivalent to learning Brazilian Portuguese.

Is this really a surprise? By learning Brazilian Portuguese, anyone will be able to communicate with over 200 million native Portuguese-language speakers living in and outside of Brazil, in countries as different as the United States, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and France. The massive influence of Brazilian music, entertainment, literature, and politics all around the globe cannot be denied. A lot has been written about the differences between Brazilian and European or Continental Portuguese, whether it is worth learning one over the other, which sounds more pleasant to the ear, and the history they share. Most curious learners looking to explore the Portuguese language will choose between one or the other.

But what do we truly know about Angolan Portuguese? What are we missing out on here?

Onwards, Angola

Angola is the country with the second largest number of Portuguese speakers, only after Brazil. Located on the west coast of South Central Africa, the young country declared independence from Portugal only in 1975, after centuries of colonization (from the end of the 15th century until the second half of the 20th century) and more than a decade of war under the control of the Portuguese dictatorship that lasted 41 years without interruption.

Colonialism has had a deep impact on the languages spoken in Angola, and on the perception of these languages. Today, Angola recognizes more than 10 national languages, including Umbundu, Kikongo, Kimbundo, Nganguela, and Chokwe. More than 7 million Angolans speak one of these 10 national languages at home. However, ask anybody what language the urban, highly-qualified, well-educated, well-traveled Angolan speaks—the answer is Portuguese, which continues to be the only official language in Angola. Spoken by 85% of the urban crowd in comparison to only 49% of speakers in rural areas, Portuguese has been perceived as the language of education, prestige and opportunity, even by local communities and often to the detriment of regional languages. It is used by the government, in media, in schools and in most forms of entertainment.

The Portuguese language has played a double role in Angola. On one hand, it is often seen as a unifying force in a country characterized by at least eight different peoples and a total of 45 languages, not including Portuguese. Even historically, the Portuguese language was a crucial tool of Angolan emancipation in the 20th century, again because it allowed the message of a national identity to spread more quickly and more thoroughly throughout a linguistically diverse country. It is also seen as a language of culture, opportunity and connection, opening doors to several other geographical and professional destinations.

On the other side of the coin, the Portuguese language has had a very dark past in the country, having been imposed by force in schools during the Portuguese dictatorship and humiliating children who spoke any other language. It is also often criticized for creating a divide between the rich and the poor, as the Portuguese spoken by the elites and the government is not the same version of Portuguese spoken on the streets.

All things considered, Angolan Portuguese is a dialect in its own right, but its existence cannot be mentioned without also including other national languages that have impacted its vocabulary, accent and ways of expression.

So, what makes Angolan Portuguese unique?

Characteristics of Angolan Portuguese

To the casual foreign ear, Angolan Portuguese will sound like European Portuguese in staccato—short, perky sounds and clear diction, sometimes clearly influenced by Brazilian Portuguese as well. However, Angolan language identity goes much deeper than this first impression that it could be just a dialect that stands between two other dialects. Its very distinct musicality, playfulness and elegance are contagious. It borrows several words from regional Angolan languages, a breath of fresh air for any Portuguese learner. For instance:

kota = old person; coming from “di-kota” in Kimbundu
bazar = to go away, to leave; coming from “kubaza” in Kimbundu
camba = friend, partner; coming from “di-kamba” in Kimbundu
bué = a lot, many; possibly coming from “mbewe” in Kimbundu

Spoken Angolan Portuguese is also characterized by stronger consonants. The letters “s”, “t” or “r” for instance will sound slightly more vigorous compared to Standard Portuguese. Secondly, Angolan Portuguese will often simplify combinations of two vowels. The word sexta-feira (Friday), pronounced in Portugal as “say-shta fay-ra”, would be heard in Angolan Portuguese as “say-shta feh-ra”. Another common feature of the Angolan variant of Portuguese is that it will often replace à/ao, which in Standard Portuguese means “to”, with na/no, which means “in the”. This is mostly common when speaking.

Here is an example: “Vou à escola” (I am going to school) would become “Vou na escola” (I am going in the school). Another major difference that has much in common with Brazilian Portuguese is the regular placement of pronouns before the verb rather than afterwards, as happens in Portugal and in the English language. For example, a European Portuguese speaker would say “Dá-me um beijo” (Give me a kiss). When speaking, Angolans would probably say “Me dá um beijo” (“Me give a kiss”).

Angolan Portuguese is so catchy and practical that the Portuguese themselves have adopted words brought in by Angolan immigrants. Millennials all over Portugal use the world (yah) for “yes”, rather than the original sim. Often, Portuguese youth prefer the previously mentioned bué (boo-eh) instead of the typical muito(a)(s) when they mean “a lot” or “many”—although this term has been adapted in Portugal to also mean “very”.

Any young Portuguese who wants to compliment a fantastic dish at a restaurant can call it a pitéu—slang originally used in Luanda, the Angolan capital, for “food”, and later used in Portugal to mean “tasty food”. Finally, the word bazar is used very frequently by youngsters in Portugal to refer to the verb “to leave”, although the traditional expression would be ir embora—and that is because it is originally an Angolan expression, and it too was borrowed. My grandparents would not be able to recognize these words or what they mean. Nor would Brazilians, as these particular words are not used at all on the other side of the Atlantic.

Brazil itself was not immune to the influence of Angolan Portuguese. Words like moleque (“little boy/kid”, originally Kimbundu), nenê (“newborn”, origin in Umbundu) and yes, even the globally famous samba (originally from semba, a traditional genre of music and dance in Angola) are still used today in full force, and it is evident that Angolan culture has been crucial in defining some of Brazil’s strongest cultural features, for example capoeira and candomblé.

This truly says something about the growing influence of Angolan Portuguese, and that it is not contained within strict borders. It has colored two variants of the language standing on opposite sides of the ocean, and continues to grow as Angola now undertakes one of its most controversial reforms to date.

The future of Angolan Portuguese

Angola is back on the news for the political reform it has been promised. It seems to be happening as we speak, with an understandable blend of optimism and skepticism as Angolans hope for a brighter future against corruption and poverty. Having said that, there are several good reasons to look to Angola for Portuguese language goals. In July of this year, the Observatory of the Portuguese Language predicted that by the year 2100, the number of Portuguese speakers will be much larger in Africa than in Latin America.

The case of the Portuguese language in Angola and its interaction with other variants is a great example of how language flows and spreads back and forth uncontrollably, unforgiving of oceans, wars, borders or laws. It flows with the people who carry it along, because and despite of political oppression and conflict. Angolan culture has in many ways been scared by an imposed language, but it is also deserving of more attention nowadays for its valuable linguistic diversity and potential.

At least since 2014, the Angolan Ministry of Education has expressed its will to have local languages taught in schools nationwide, side by side with the Portuguese language. While that has been happening in some regions of Angola since 1990, the Ministry has admitted to not having enough resources or teachers to be able to accomplish that goal yet. Bonifácio Tchimboto, an Angolan linguistics scholar who has written about regional languages and works for their preservation, worries that Portuguese is still seen as the only valid option in a country colored with a variety of languages.

According to Tchimboto, children who express themselves in Umbundu on the streets are still sometimes advised not to speak that language by Angolans themselves. Additionally, bilingualism is still frequently seen as unnecessary or even as an obstacle, as parents fear their children will get confused and not learn Portuguese: the proper way to succeed in life and in their careers. Earlier, oral African traditions had been ridiculed and excluded by the Portuguese. After the 1960s, they continued to be, this time by Angolan independence advocates and leaders, and even by other African countries.

Hopefully, Angolan Portuguese will get the visibility it deserves. From its inception, it has been a language of struggle, revolution, unity, ambition and controversy. And Angola is not alone on its relative lack of representation as a Portuguese-speaking country. Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe use Portuguese as their official language. Equatorial Guinea adopted Portuguese as one of its official languages in 2010.

Could the fascinating Angolan dialect become an open door for African cultures to finally claim their spot as giants of the Portuguese language?

Leave a Comment