Sunday 11 January 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (Portuguese State of Mind)

There are words in some languages that are enticingly built for pleasure. These are terms that roll off the tip of our tongue with no brakes on, falling blithely into a realm of self-indulgence and hedonism.

The Portuguese word saudade is the only term I know of whose meaning escapes the borders of linguistics and enters the kingdom of emotions and feelings. For starters it is an ambiguous term, as in it hasn't a definite meaning. Depending on the context it is used in it can convey different ideas. I have seen it translated as 'longing' in English, but even that is rather misleading as it can also signify 'joy'. Everytime I hear it, it catches me unawares in the same way someone who steps on the back of my shoe in the underground does.

In order to write this post I e-mailed my dance students (many of which speak Portuguese) and fellow dance tutors (some of which come from Brazil, Angola and Portugal) and asked them to give me their definition of saudade. I have included some of their replies below (no contribution has been altered or edited). As you will see their responses are not clear-cut and exact. And how can you be with a word whose significance is chiefly affirmed by the speakers who utilise it? And by those of us who, though not able to speak the language fluently, appreciate the feelings evoked by one of its linguistic jewels.

This is from Mireilla, a long-standing dance pupil of mine:

What about nostalgia or a yearning,nostalgic longing?

Francesca, on the other hand, has one of her co-workers help her out with my enquiry:

My Brazilian colleague says: it can mean positive but also negative feelings, such as missing somebody or something from the past, feeling blue or nostalgic. There is no such word in English.

Mariana could hardly contain her enthusiasm when she received my electronic missive:

hello, what a lovely email to receive

i'm half brazilian and half english, born in sao paulo raised in london, bilingual and work in theatre and dance. i think you touch on the wonders of bilingualism. i think i once read or someone once told me that with every new language we learn a new way to see and experience life, new ways to live and as a theatre practioner interested in multi lingual performance i discover something new in this way every day, but the best thing about it is that there is no absolute. language changes according to the meaning needed at the point in time, by who speaks it and where they are, and how beautiful is that!

anyway im sure you know or have you own views on this as a linguist, but i thought id write these words down as i feel the beauty of what you hit upon is that we dont always need to rely on one definition, conflicting and differing ones can also be valid.

Saudades Carinho and Companero are my favourite words in portuguese. Saudades to me in brief is the feeling you feel when you miss someone, therefore it can be however that feeling manifests to you.We dont have a descriptive word for that feeling in english, we have the past action i missed or i am missing which suggests the action that occurs now, and we understand the feeling associated in this way, but we dont actually have a word for the feeling, i dont think. Perhpas longing? but thats not exactly it cos it applies want, and is perhaps melancholy, with sad notionsSaudades is an arduous feeling, we love and hate, i think saudades cements what you feel for someone, your love you friendship you concern with another morfs into another version of itself whilst the other is distant. another one for you just for the hell of it, i thought i understand companero but i was being too alternative is 'the one you part bread with', few of my english, conservative, capitalist extreme friends could not get their heads around that. i guess our lived experiences no longer reflect that action so much. thank you for a lovely email and giving me an outlet to rant about something im passionate about.

Zela, though not fluent in Portuguese, contributed to the discussion:

I have never spoken a word of Portuguese but now that you share this with me I think its great to know that one word could mean so much that it cannot be explained in English except that we accept it for what it is/ the feeling it brings you when you say it .....The true meaning of love is ultimately the great feelings of joy and prosperity and divine inspiration that comes with so much more that you cant quite put your finger on defining it.

Maybe it is the thought that love (Saudade) if it stands for all those things; tenderness, affection and care it is most definately overwhelmingly magnificent!

I have left for the end the reply I got from Iris de Brito, an Angolan choreographer and fellow tutor who describes this Portuguese word thus:

Saudade- You are right, its quite difficult to describe in one word.I would say it describes the act of missing someone or something, but it can also be implying a certain melancholy mixed with tenderness and love for the familiar and things we hold most dear.Its present in many songs of Fado in Lisbon, Morna in Cabo-Verde or Kilapanda in Angola, it became a word that described a longing, a sentiment deep set in our hearts.At school we were also told that this word/feeling evolved from the time of the Portuguese Discoveries when women lost their man to the sea and were waiting for them to come back indefinitely.

And in order to demonstrate with images what this word cannot explain in writing I shall leave you with a clip by the Portuguese singer Mariza singing 'Meu Fado Meu'. This is also this week's 'Song for a Winter Sunday Morning. Enjoy, com muita saudade.

Copyright 2009


  1. Ciao Cuban,

    saudade da come lo conosco io é un poco come dire ennui in francese.

    Saudade é una parola tipica dalla cultura lusitana, che unisce sia la malinconia, l'accettare il passato, la speranza nel futuro, il desiderio.

    E´ un termine che si trova interpretato in forma musicale nel fado. La parola fado deriva dalla parola latina "fato", che si usa ancoa come termine nell'italiano, e vuol dire destino, ma con un significato mistico.
    I portoghesi usano molte parole latine ovviamente. Parole che in Italia non si usano piu´, ma che peró ancora oggi si ritrovano nei dialetti del sud-Italia.

    Nel Fado-Portoghese si trova tutto quello che rappresenta il saudade. A me personalmente piacciono alcuni pezzi musicali. Ma non tutti! Un mio post che feci sul fado, tra fado classico, e fado moderno (Mariza):

    Amche se io preferisco la musica di un mio amico. Non famoso, ma bravissimo. guarda qui:

    Saluti da Colonia Cuban,
    Salva :)

  2. Such a wonderful word........yes, it sounds almost untranslatable.
    Like the word 'home' which they don't have in Italian
    mia casa isn't exactly the same thing.

    word verification:oprop
    is that like apropos?

  3. Ciao Liz,
    A CASA é la stessa cosa di dire HOME :)
    Con questo termine noi non intendiamo dire solo la nostra casa, o il nostro appartamento. Ma intendiamo anche dirlo per il nostro paese o nazione o addirittura la nostra famiglia! Dipende sempre dalle circostanze che usiamo la parola ;)

    Saluti da Colonia,

  4. It's an obligation not to let this word disappear. Language changes, so we have to guard it. This word is a gift because it needs the speaker's emotion, memory. The sound of the voice saying "saudade", surely plays a role?
    Great post...thanks.

  5. I think this word would have pleased Derrida. What I am hearing is that the word signifies the experience of an emotion, but not the content of the emotion since that is uniquely experienced.

    I have been reading Spanish & Portuguese literature to try to better understand a culture not my own. However, that puts you at the mercy of the competence and sensitivity of the translator.

  6. Concordo com Salva. Há também muitas palavras em espanhol que não se traduzir em inglês.

  7. Dear Cuban in London,
    In the end of your post you sould say 'com muita saudade' not 'con muito saudade'...
    Saudade is a feminine word and it's well explained here: means missing someone, a place, a good or bad moment lived in the past, means longing... but above all it's quiet a 'portuguese state of mind'
    It is the feeling of roots, the back-home! (Forgive my basic english)
    Congratulations for the post,

  8. A jewel of a post, Chelsea Boy. Truly. Till the last detail.
    Saudade is one of my favorite words. And I am surprised that this world is not part of our Cuban lexicon already. If we have other words like "paladar" in it, how come we don't have that one yet? Because we all know what saudade is. We all have felt it, intensively.
    As for defining the word... I have stopped making any attempts. It's like defining "Love"... a real impossibility. Some things were not meant to be defined. So when I want to explain what "saudade" is to other people, I do what you did here: I find an appropriate song (Elis Regina's, usually) and play it.
    Thank you very much for this meditation on the word (the word, the feeling, the state of mind) called Saudade. I must also say that I found very interesting the fact that is a masculine noun (muito saudade). I wonder why. Does is have anything to do with the origin of the word suggested by Iris?
    I am going to have to ask La Giraldilla about this.
    I have the suspicion she has something to do with the inclusion of the feeling in our collective psyche.

  9. Thank you very much for your kind comments.

    Wow, 'ennui', never thought of that one.

    Lovely exhcnage on the word 'home', too. I loved it.

    Saudade, feminine or masculine? Please, let me know and I will amend the post. I've seen it often used as masculine, muito saudade, but I can't speak Portuguese (yet!).

    Above all, I have seen posters replying in Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and English. Beautiful.

    Greetings from London.

  10. The word sounds powerful, able to immediately access an emotion.

    The Dutch often use a word, in fact they practically punctuate their sentences with it, to describe a homey, comfy, cozy, inviting feeling: gezellig. It's the word you use when you have couple of friends over for a cup of hot chocolate in front of the crackling fire. It also connotes a positive, in-the-moment feeling, leaving all your worries behind.

    Thanks for another great post with the perfect song to match.

  11. London, please visit me:

    I posted that when I read this post that I liked so much...

    greetings from Florida

  12. Thanks, dutch and lisetg. I was completely unaware of that word, dutch. It reminds me of the Irish word 'craic', which will be featuring on my blog in a few weeks.

    Greetings from London.

  13. seems like "yearning" might be the closest single word translation... we obviously have a similar taste in world Music as i am also a fan of mariza...but my favourite diva who sings in Portugese has to be the lady herself from cap verde - Cesaria Evora.

  14. Incroyable! Wow!Such a magnificent post and exchange of comments from so many different languages-

    Alas, as I understand it ,only by all of your input, that it is like the heart's memory -- where thoughts and feelings are intertwined, like the strands of DNA of our past moments which are trying to be lived again, in a sort of intensely felt rewind!!
    merci bien- this word now gives me a descriptive for my heart's memory of my father ,as he was before the veil of Alzheimer closed more tightly around him. "Saudade" reframes the sense of longing to return to my past into a beautiful sentiment.
    salut du midi!

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these definitions! Lovely post.

  16. What a great post...I'll be thinking of this for days to come.

  17. Beautiful song, beautiful word. Thanks!

  18. Fascinating Cuban. i really enjoyed reading this. I love words, their sounds, and subtle meanings. This made me think of the word, "ennui."

  19. Thanks to all for you kind comments. catherine, I love Cesaria.

    Mmm, it's funny, now the comments space has come back full circle as 'ennui' was the word that salva mentioned first.

    I have been informed by a Portuguese speaker that saudade is definitely feminine.

    Greetings from London.

  20. Si, definitivamente femminile la parola saudade.

    Tenho uma saudade - ho una nostalgia.
    Cosi tradurrei la frase ad esempio!

    Come ha cantato giá Shirley Bassey: History repeating, e anche le parole :)

    Vedi sul mio blog, ho un post piccolo di Shirley. A ge che ti piace la musica buona Cuban ;)

    Saluti da Colonia,

  21. Muchas gracias, salva, parto para alla enseguida.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  22. hi neighbor!
    i just read your comment and had to laugh...but you're right, Deneuve is so great in that movie and gosh isn't the decor, the scenery, the story just grand !

    I love this word "saudade". i studied Portuguese for 2 years and wish i had continued. Sometimes i just go over to 2 brazilian blogs just to read their posts aloud...

    i have to come back and read your post with the attention it all deserves...

    as i have to resume the card making. my boyfriend says : yes to Ballantine's no to Valentine's !
    ok...very gross i know :-)

    hasta luego amigo...

  23. Thanks for your kind comment, my castle.

    Greetings from London.

  24. Hola!!! Gracias mil por dejarme un mensaje en mi blog y por el tuyo, que me gusta mucho! Disfruta de Londres... y de la vida que es maravillosa!

  25. Gracias por tu comentario, Susana.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  26. This reminds me of the impossibility of translating the Norwegian 'koselig' (in Dutch they have 'gezellig' which means the same) into English. It means anything from cozy to enjoyable to personable to just plain 'nice', and can be used about a place, a person, a situation... unsurprisingly for such a Nordic word, it is most easily conjusred up by the image of drinking hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire together with warm, pleasent people, while a snowstorm rages outside. Thats as close to a translation as I can get :)

  27. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post.

    There is so much to learn...

  28. Thanks, diva, it was my pleasure.

    Greetings from London.

  29. Ah the nuances of words. A wonderful post! And I adored the beautiful video and song at the end.

  30. Thanks, just a plane.

    Greetings from London.

  31. Waving hello from California! Might you be interested in contributing to The Brown Girl World on I'm sure OBG subscribers would love to hear your point of view.

  32. Thanks OBG for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.



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