Among the dialects of Portuguese spoken worldwide today, the variety spoken on the Azorean island of São Miguel (St. Michael) exhibits a vowel inventory unique to the Lusophone world. The most emblematic characteristic of this dialect are, without doubt, the use of the stressed front rounded vowels ü and ö – sounds more readily found in French and German – which correspond to standard Portuguese [u] and [ou/oi], respectively. Hence, a typical Micaelense will say früta for fruta ‘fruit’, azül for azul ‘blue’, öt for oito ‘eight’ and pök for pouco ‘few’.
But these are not the only phonetic characteristics found on a Ilha Verde. There are also systematic differences in the pronunciation of nearly all the other stressed vowels. For example, dedo ‘finger’ is pronounced by many Micaelenses much like the American English word dead, with a so-called "open" vowel, é. Standard Portuguese sete ‘seven’ is often rendered with a vowel akin to the short a of American English cat, i.e., [sæt]. And in S. Miguel, your grandfather may be your "vavu" (as opposed to standard vavô) and your grandmother, well… she would be your "vavô" (as opposed to standard vavó). Luso-American language scholar Francis Rogers once noted how surprised he was to be offered "snake cheese" in São Miguel, quickly realizing that the Micaelense’s queij d’ cóbra referred specifically to goats, not snakes – a much less shocking choice for a cheese…
These phonetic characteristics have been well attested in the speech of the island, in the 19th century (by the great Portuguese linguists Leite de Vasconcellos and Gonçalves Vianna), the 20th century (by Rogers, Blayer and Silva) and more recently, by Rolão Bernardo of the University of the Azores. Toward the end of her work, Rolão Bernardo writes the following: "… a frequência e a sistematização de emprego das vogais [ü], [ö] e até mesmo [a], ainda que esta última seja evitada nos meios citadinos, não encontram paralelo no universo da Lusofonia, constituindo marcas indeléveis de um modo de falar muito típico da ilha de São Miguel" (2003:115).
While these phonetic features are well attested in the contemporary speech of São Miguel, one might wonder if they persist in the pronunciation of those Micaelenses who have emigrated, be it to the United States, Canada, Brazil, or elsewhere. This question is worthy of attention in the U.S. context, especially when one considers the sociolinguistic forces – and outright prejudice – that many Micaelenses encounter within the Luso-American community. Given that the majority of U.S. Portuguese immigrants control a speech variety more attuned to the norms of the standard language including (but not limited to) the system of stressed vowels, immigrants from São Miguel find themselves a minority within the minority. As recent research indicates, under such pressure, some Micaelenses opt to abandon certain typical features of their native dialect, adopting a pronunciation akin to that of the standard. Other Micaelenses, however, preserve a few key typical (or better, stereotypical) features of the dialect – ü and ö – but they do not manifest others (such as cóbra in place of standard cabra ‘goat’). Finally, some speakers, particularly the minority of whom whose social network does not extend far beyond the sub-community of Micaelenses in the United States, preserve a majority of the dialect’s acoustic characteristics, manifesting a system that is traditional, conservative, stereotyped, and stigmatized.
Even among members of the same nuclear family, there are observable differences in terms of how the vowels of each speaker pattern. Contrary to what might have been expected, however, it was not the oldest member of the family who presented the most conservative dialect-based speech patterns: rather, it was the youngest son, who – curiously enough – is the only member of the family to never have passed any time at all on the island. Why? In a phrase, "it’s the network." The speaker with the fewest ties to the larger Lusophone community is he who has preserved the majority of speech behaviors characteristic of the São Miguel sub-community. On the contrary, the speaker with the most frequent and intimate ties to native speakers of more standard varieties of European Portuguese manifests a vowel space that more clearly corresponds to the standard language. In this interpersonal variability we witness a tension between verbal behaviors that mark a speaker as Micaelense (such as ü in place of standard Portuguese u) and those which represent a response to the social and linguistic forces of the standard.
What more, then, might be offered regarding the relationship between cultural identity and corresponding language behaviors? Here we might appeal to a modified version of a model of acculturation proposed by Berry in 2003, which juxtaposes an individual’s desires to value / maintain his local cultural identity with his desire to participate in the larger community, thereby extending himself beyond his native cultural context.
For a more detailed account of this phenomenon, including the linguistic details and more in-depth networking analysis, see the following works:
Silva, David J. "The Persistence of Stereotyped Dialect Features among Portuguese-American Immigrants from São Miguel, Azores," to appear in the Journal of Portuguese Linguistics.
________. "Vowel Shifting as a Marker of Social Identity in the Portuguese Dialect of Nordeste, São Miguel (Azores)," in Luso-Brazilian Review 42.1: 1-22 (2005).
________. "Vowel Elision in São Miguel Portuguese," in Hispania 81:166-178 (1998).
David J. Silva Vice-Reitor Assuntos Académicos, Universidade de Arlington Texas. Professor Catedrático de Linguística. Membro do Departamento de Linguística desde 1993; Director do Departamento de 2000 a 2007.
The son of Azorean immigrants – with his father from Nordeste, S. Miguel and his mother from Flamengos, Faial – Dr. Silva earned a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in linguistics from Harvard University in 1986, as well as an M.A. (1989) and a Ph.D. in linguistics (1992) from Cornell University. He has been recognized multiple times for his teaching, both at Cornell University and at UT Arlington, where he was elected to the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers. In 2007, he was elected as the founding president of UT Arlington’s recently-installed chapter of the National Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi.
Dr. Silva’s research focuses on the connections among speech behavior, social identity, and language attitudes. He has worked most extensively in the areas of Korean phonetics and phonology, Portuguese dialectology and socio-phonetics, and, most recently, the effects of dental health on speech among Sudanese refugees in Nebraska. He has also conducted research on the socio-political aspects of language attitudes in late 19th century Korea an on the career paths of women in the discipline of linguistics. A committed advocate of global teaching and learning, Dr. Silva is a former Fulbright Scholar to Korean and a Korea Foundation Field Fellow.
Irene Maria F. Blayer