UNE scholar Steven Byrd's new book examines legacy of a 'secret' African language in Brazil

October 30, 2012

Although millions of slaves were forcibly transported from Africa to Brazil, the languages the slaves brought with them remain little known. Most studies have focused on African contributions to Brazilian Portuguese rather than on the African languages themselves.

Calunga and the Legacy of an African language in Brazil (2012) by Steven Byrd, Ph.D., University of New England associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, is unusual in focusing on an African-descended language.

The author describes and analyzes the Afro- Brazilian speech community of Calunga, in Minas Gerais. Linguistically descended from West African Bantu, Calunga is an endangered Afro-Brazilian language spoken by a few hundred older Afro-Brazilian men.

"I first learned about this Afro-Brazilian language while studying at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in 2002, and began recording speakers as early as 2003," Byrd explains. "However, finding speakers of this language was not such a straight-forward task. Because of cultural sensitivities, Calunga speakers understandably do not openly share their language with outsiders, especially since they use it as a type of ethnolinguistic 'secret language' to speak amongst themselves so not to be understood by others."

Byrd notes that "this obstacle of the research certainly added a type of 'Indiana Jones' feel to it, which made it incredibly fascinating and challenging on the one hand, but, on the other hand, led me to almost give up at one point."

In fact, in 2003, Byrd and his wife, Daniela, had been frustrated for weeks with finding Calunga speakers in Patrocínio, and were almost ready to go home and never return.

"Then, one day," he explains, "quite literally out of the blue, entered this guy in our hotel lobby who said, 'Hi, I speak that language you're looking for.' This was Tadeu de Barros, and, like a character out of memorable book or movie, he was one of the funniest, most gracious, and most endearing persons I have ever met in my life. From that day on, Tadeu taught us Calunga and found us as many speakers as he possibly could within Patrocínio and in the ranching and farming estates just outside the town."

What Byrd found was that unlike most creole languages, which are based largely on the vocabulary of the colonial language, Calunga has a large proportion of African vocabulary items embedded in an essentially Portuguese grammar. A hybrid language, its formation can be seen as a form of cultural resistance.

Interestingly, the origin of the word "Calunga" is actually not known, though it is possibly from Kimbundu or Umbundu, which are languages spoken in Angola, where many Africans originated from that were sent to Brazil during the transatlantic slave trade.

Byrd recalls that apart from learning about the nature of the Calunga speech community from Tadeu, "we learned how anteater is a delicacy in those parts, how ants mixed with coffee is not bad to drink and is actually good for your health, and how to successfully drive a 1970s Volkswagen Bug through rampant brush fires with a shot clutch and a leaky gas tank. In short, without Tadeu's unforgettable collaboration on this project, this book would not exist. He is the hero of this story."

Calunga and the Legacy of an African language in Brazil is published by the University of New Mexico Press.

Steven Byrd

Professor Byrd is a faculty member in the UNE's Department of Society, Culture and Languages and is director of UNE's Latin American Studies minor.

He received his Ph.D. in Hispanic and Romance Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. His scholarly interests include sociolinguistics and dialectology of Latin America, Latin American languages and cultures.

Byrd is also the advisor for IMM(UNE), an undergraduate club that organizes short-term medical missions of one to two weeks for students of all majors to Latin America. He also leads a unique two-week travel course to Peru, which provides students an opportunity to explore the complexity of Peruvian Andean culture, while participating in community service with a healthcare focus.

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