The Afro-Brazilian speech of Calunga: historical, sociolinguistic, and linguistic considerations.

Author:Byrd, Steven


Joao Dornas Filho, a Brazilian historian and sociologist, argues the following about the state of Afro-Brazilian cultural and language studies in 1943:

Studies about the Black Brazilian have suffered from the lack of an exact understanding of the language that the imported [Africans] of the traffic spoke, perhaps because today, when interest in these subjects has increased according to their importance, there are almost no more Africans or near descendants of Africans who know the language of their ancestors.

And the understanding of this subject is fundamental for a complete analysis [of Afro-Brazilian culture], because language--in its characteristics, by its nature, in its diverse forms--is the key to many problems of folklore, sociology, ethnography and other prisms related to the subject. (Dornas Filho 1943:71, my translation)

Indeed, starting in the mid-16th century to the end of the 19th century, millions of Africans were forcibly transported to Brazil. Even though exact numbers are unknown, estimates of 4 to 4.5 million Africans have been suggested by scholars (Bueno 2003:120; Klein 2002:93; Olsen 2003:57). But, given that many were shipped clandestinely to Brazil, the actual numbers could be higher--possibly in the range of 5 to 8 million (Castro 2001:62). Estimates aside, researchers agree that Brazil received more Africans than any other country, accounting for approximately 40% of the entire transatlantic trade (Dodson 2001:119). Such a large influx of persons typically has a lasting influence on the culture; and, in fact, Brazilian music, dance, religion, folklore, art, and cuisine all have African roots or notable African influence. However, as Dornas Filho correctly notes, our understanding of the Africa-Brazil connection in regard to language is rudimentary at best.

Studies on Afro-Brazilian language, which span over a century, have mostly attempted to establish the African contribution to Brazilian Portuguese. Bonvini and Petter (1998:79) note that these studies tend to focus on two features: the lexical component of Brazilian Portuguese and the phonological and morphosyntactic characteristics of Brazilian Portuguese vernacular (BPV) through possible creolization, semi-creolization, or decreolization. But African languages and subsequent varieties that have persisted in Brazil have not been the focus of much research. As Bonvini and Petter (1998:74) rightly question: What do we really know about the languages spoken by the Africans in Brazil? According to Castro (2001:71), the answer is close to nothing. And, as Bonvini (2008a:21) asserts, the lack of data regarding African languages in Brazil is rather surprising given that varieties of these languages have survived in various forms, such as liturgical languages (e.g. Candomble) and cryptolects (e.g. Cupopia of the Cafundo community) into the 21st century.

With this in mind, the present article is an attempt to provide a basic overview regarding some of the historical, sociolinguistic, and linguistic considerations of the contemporary AfroBrazilian speech community of Calunga, and how this particular speech community fits into the larger picture of the African legacy in Brazil in terms of language and culture. (1)

What is Calunga?

Calunga is an Afro-Brazilian speech spoken primarily in and around Patrocinio, Minas Gerais a rural town of 81,589 inhabitants located near the Serra da Canastra in the Triangulo Mineiro. (2) Although the speech has been reported elsewhere in the region and in the nearby state of Goias, the speakers--known as calungadores--are generally older Afro-Brazilian men numbering perhaps in the hundreds. In the early 21st century, this Afro-Brazilian speech exists in a moribund state.

The history and origins of Calunga are largely unknown, but some scholarly attempts have been made to document this speech community. In the 1990s, for example, there were two studies that offered some lexical and anthropological observations: Batinga's (1994) book, Aspectos de presenca do negro no triangulo mineiro/alto paranaiba: Kalunga, which provides a sketchy anthropological and lexical overview of Calunga; and Vogt and Fry (1996) dedicate a part of their book, Cafundo: a Africa no Brasil, to comparing Calunga to the Afro-Brazilian Cupopia speech spoken in the state of Sao Paulo. Most recently, Byrd (2006, 2007, 2010a, 2010b, 2012) and Byrd and Bassani Moraes (2007) have published a series of linguistic and sociolinguistic studies on Calunga.

Using the terminology of Castro (2001), Calunga may be best categorized in Portuguese as a falar africano, which is perhaps best translated in English as an Afro-Brazilian speech. This Afro-Brazilian speech is primarily a lexical phenomenon with some peculiar grammatical aspects. Clearly, while some of Calunga's lexicon has terms of African origin--mostly from Kimbundu, Umbundu, and Kikongo (the latter probably to a lesser extent)--, its phonetics/phonology and morphosyntax are on par with the rural, regional Brazilian Portuguese vernacular known as portugues caipira ('Caipira Portuguese'). Indeed, the primary language of all Calunga speakers is the regional Caipira Portuguese; Calunga is instead reserved for contexts in which they wish to communicate "in secrecy" or in solidarity.

The contemporary secrecy of Calunga reflects Brazil's history of slavery and its aftermath. That is, the speech was utilized by Africans and Afro-descendents so that they would not be understood by people with authority over them--a common theme especially articulated by older Calunga speakers who are more familiar with the era of slavery in Brazil. In this respect, Calunga represents an ethnolinguistic speech community that has maintained its Afro-Brazilian speech as a form of intragroup cryptolect. However, today Calunga is no longer a race-specific or ethnic language, as European descendents have also acquired it, though the latter speakers constitute a small minority of documented calungadores. Also, there is an intriguing mystery as to why there are not more female speakers of Calunga, which was not completely uncovered from this author's field research.

The following excerpted dialog with a linear English translation was recorded June 27, 2004 in Patrocinio, Minas Gerais. It offers some insight into the context within which Calunga has been traditionally spoken.


JL: Joaquim Luis: Calunga speaker, born 1928

DB: Daniela Bassani Moraes, researcher

Calunga English JL: Os camanu maioral, JL: The powerful men, the powerful os maioral, punha os men ('owners, imbundu pa curima, ne? bosses') used to make the Black Intao aqueis ibuninhu qui men work, right? os camanu pegava e levava pa So the little Black kids that the omenha pa apruma powerful men used saravo na custela dus imbuninhu. to grab and take to the water to Os camanu beat the backs of the mucafo ficava de ca aprumanu a little kids. The Black men stayed calunga de jambi on one side (oi!) aprumanu aquela calunga de praying (oi!) praying so that the ambi pa aquela water would go omenha estravia... pa... aquei another way... so that water saravu de omenha do would whip only the embunim, pega so a omenha. Ta, water [not the kids]. So the whip ha, o saravo num would not beat the pegava nu imbunim. Ai, eis kids. There, they [the Blacks] calungava de ca, ficava were on one side, caluganu, ai os camanu maioral would pray, there the powerful vinha com os men would come camanu, tirava, pucurava, os with the Black men, would take camanu macafu oiava down [the Black os camanim e sarava pa, pa, pa kids], would look for [the wounds uranu, sa? Ce sa que e uranu? on the Black kids], the Blacks would look at the boys and would thank "urano" ('God'), you know? Do you know what "urano" is? DB: Nao. DB: No. JL: Vai, uranu e pa, pu ceu, pra JL: Well, "urano" is for, for Deus, pra ajuda a heaven, for God, to num acontece nada, sa? E p'que help that nothing happens, you quem ia apanha era know? It is because os camanim, ne? Ia pu injo da the kids were going to be whipped, agua, a agua tocava, right? They pegava na correia e pegava nu were going to the water house imbunim, vap, vap, ('mill'), the water vap, vap. would run, it would impulse the whip and it would beat the Black kids, vap, vap, vap, vap. DB: Batia nu coru. JL: E. Ai, os camanu, os DB: It would beat their skin. imbundu-ca, ficava nu jambi, rezanu, sabe? Rezanu pa JL: Yes. Then, the men, we Black aquilu pega nus, nus men, would stay camanim. with a saint, praying, you know? Praying that that would not beat the Black kids. DB: Nus imbunim. DB: [Beat] the Black kids. JL: E. Ai dava, vencia o horario la assim, os camanu ia tirava o camanim saia mesma JL: Yes. Then the time would come, coisa. the men would take down the kids, the Black kids would come out the same way (would come out alright). The history of this Afro-Brazilian speech begins with the Portuguese trade on the western central African coast, in what is today the region of Congo and Angola. Millions of Bantuspeaking Africans were sent to the Brazilian colony from this region for agricultural and mining work. From the etymologies of Calunga's Bantu words it is evident that these Africans were speakers of Kimbundu, Umbundu, and Kikongo--Bantu languages commonly spoken today in Congo and Angola. During Brazil's colonial period, Africans and Afro-Brazilians were the majority of the Brazilian population, especially in Minas Gerais, as well as in some other regions. Because of the millions of Africans and Afro-Brazilians, varieties of African languages, pidginized/creolized Portuguese, and/or intertwined languages were spoken throughout colonial plantations and mining communities, within urban areas, and in maroon villages known as quilombos. Thus, Calunga is likely the remnant of the linguistic complexity spoken among Brazil's former Afro-descendant population of the Triangulo Mineiro.

However, it must be underscored that the...

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