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  • Foto del escritorCelia Vázquez García


ODETE BURGEILE, Um estudo sociolingüístico dos Afro-amazônidasno Brasil. A imigração e a mudança de língua. The Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, New York, 2009.

Once upon a time, in the Amazon River basin, there was a train that was built through an infernal territory. Between 1907 and 1912, thousands of workers were hired by a North American company to drive a railway line 366 kilometers in length through the midst of one of the most dangerous jungles in the world. Its purpose was to open up a path to the sea for a very valuable product: rubber. Rubber was obtained from the Bolivian forests, and the only means to transport it to the sea were the rivers in the Amazon basin. Some of them, however, presented enormous obstacles. In particular, in the region of the Madeira and Mamoré Rivers, before Porto Velho, twenty waterfalls and rapids hindered the passage of ships. For this reason, a decision was made to build a railway line that would cross the virgin forests and the hundreds of rivers and swamps. Workers came from many countries: The West Indies, Italy, America, Poland, Ireland, Germany, Spain, but malaria, dysentery, wild beasts, and the attacks of the Karipuma Indians caused thousands of them to die.

In 1872, the first Anglo-American company started to study the project and laid out the route, but it soon gave up the idea, leaving it in the hands of a new company. The first stretch of the railway was completed in 1878, but the following year the company went bankrupt. More than five hundred workers had already lost their lives. For this reason, it came to be known as the Devil’s Railway.

In 1907, another company was established with American capital, and in 1912 it managed to complete 366 kilometers of railway between the Brazilian station of Porto Velho and the Bolivian station of Guajará-Mirim. In those five years, according to the company’s records, thousands of workers died. By 1914, the great rubber business had moved to Malaysia, where a less costly product was offered. In 1972, the railway line was deactivated. Gradually, the jungle swallowed up the Devil’s Railway, and that’s the end of the story: another useless epic in the history of mankind came to a close.

This little story has an important sequel of a linguistic nature, whose protagonists are the immigrants from all over the world who contributed to the creation of social and linguistic identities in this part of Brazil.

These contact situations gave rise to several phenomena that have aroused the interest of sociolinguists and researchers from other fields, not only because some of these minority languages are disappearing like the old railway line, but also because new ones are emerging.

The behavior of the languages spoken by those first workers who arrived in Porto Velho in relation to Portuguese, and the search into the social factors that determine the dominance of one language or another are also essential questions to avoid the loss of key data for the global understanding of that transformation in progress.

With this concern in mind, Dr. Burgeile feels the need to record the linguistic consequences that originated in the social and historical scene and the Portuguese-English bilingual situation of a group of Afro-descendants of Barbadian and Granadian immigrants in the municipality of Porto Velho, state of Rondonia, Brazil.

It is important to point out that this research opens the door to new studies regarding the Afro-Amazonian peoples, which have received little attention to this date in Brazil and the rest of the world. In addition, the research contributes to the knowledge of the history of the railroad, in particular of the Madeira-Mamoré railway line; to the history of Brazilian Portuguese and its people; to the unearthing of alternative histories (little known and studied) of the English language in Brazil and in the world; to another field whose value has only recently been recognized , that of Creole languages; and to the history of emigration in Brazil, besides being supplemented by other studies of a similar nature.

The observations made during the field research revealed a decline in the functional uses of the English language spoken by Barbadians and Grenadians, in favor of the Portuguese language, mainly among the youngest members of an ethnic group residing in the urban area.

The general purpose of this book is to describe how and explain the reasons why this linguistic change is taking place, as well as to analyze the linguistic characteristics that result from the process.

The work is well structured, presenting in the first place the objectives, the methodological procedures of the research, with a selection and entry into the community, the author’s relationships with the speakers, the nature of the sample, and the methods of analysis.

The, it deals with a linguistic, historical and social context of the Portuguese language in the Iberian Peninsula and in Brazil, as well as of the English language in Barbados and Grenada. It also offers a concise description of the geographical, economic, educational and cultural aspects of Porto Velho and Rondònia. The municipality is described in some detail, bearing in mind that an understanding of its history, structure and social forces is fundamental in order to research the forms and functions of the speech of the ethnic group in question. In addition, it discusses the history of Barbadian and Grenadian immigration to Brazil, considering its different phases and causes, and it provides an overview of the situation of those immigrants’ descendants in Brazilian society. The next foundation stone for such a study is the identification of the theoretical framework, based on studies of languages in contact, as well as similar cases found in other areas. A comprehensive linguistic analysis is carried out, accompanied by detailed studies of the linguistic variables: morphological, syntactical, lexical and semantic.

On such a solid basis the author deals with the linguistic behavior of the descendants of Barbadian and Grenadian immigrants, providing a detailed analysis of the use of English, Portuguese, and the combination of both, considering the relevance of factors such as sex, age, generation and religion.

Through studies of patterns of linguistic use and the analysis of the social networks of the members of the ethnic group, it tries to explain how they contribute either to the maintenance of the English language and the consequent preservation of bilingualism, or to the dominance of the Portuguese language. It also analyzes how these patterns are linked to group conceptions, to ethnic identity and to social and economic status.

Since the objective of this study is linguistic question derived from historical and cultural events, Dr. Burgeile rightly bases the theoretical grounds of her research on the linguistics of language contact. This is an interdisciplinary branch of the research on multilinguism, and it is based on the social function of the language in its historical and cultural contexts. The complex situation of the group under study requires a holistic and inclusive methodology, because it is understood that such a group demands more than a description centered on the specific variables. Such a holistic methodology provides this comprehensive vision of the real meaning of some of the social factors of language in their historical and social contexts. The data collection procedures were ethnographic, so that the reader may be able to appreciate the detailed a realistic picture of the everyday linguistic patterns of these speakers and discover the basic patterns of informal social interaction and organization prior to a network of analysis. Odete Burgeile also introduces a diachroic study, bearing in mind ethnographers’ claim that an ethnographical and historical perspective is a key factor, because it examines the written reference sources in private and institutional archives, in official documents and in magazines and newspapers. Recording, which constitute an exceptional document of the oral history of the old inhabitants of the region, are also used.

It is also worth mentioning the use of the participating observation method, which allows the researcher to enter the life of the community and observe the processes of linguistic interaction directly, adding these observations to the data analysis. This technique was used by the researcher on the occasion of the interviews recorded, the completion of written questionnaires, the walks with some of her interlocutors, a religious celebration, the work of some of them in the railroad, and the transcriptions of the recordings, during which she was helped both by members of the group and outsiders. She then focuses on aspects related to family life, religion and social and cultural issues, as well as economic ones.

The descendants of the Barbadian and Grenadian immigrants in Porto Velho, exposed to the influences of Brazilian society, had no choice and, in order to avoid feeling socially excluded, adopted both cultures. They guaranteed the preservation of their cultural identity by hanging on to certain ethnic aspects and, at the same time, they introduced new ways to respond to the demands of daily life. Many of them adopted the Portuguese language, while simultaneously maintaining their cultural and ethnic identity through folklore, the celebration of national British festivities, religion, traditional dishes and family habits.

Those readers who are interested in this type of linguistic and ethnic aspects will welcome this detailed study, which describes the linguistic, social, economic, political and religious “status” and interethnic marriages. It also establishes that the maintenance of rather closed and dense communication networks initially may have contributed to the preservation of the English language in this region through generations, after such a long period of colonization. However, through this study the author confirms that the situation gradually changed because cultural pressures and the fact that the minority language ceased to be the language of education. These factors contributed to the supremacy of the Portuguese language.

The networks of family and intra-community relationships for bilingual speakers were, basically, the determining factor in the transmission and preservation of the minority language in Porto Velho. Also worth pointing out is the analysis of the lexis of the English spoken by the descendants of Barbadian and Granadian immigrants in Porto Velho, which the author records in several interviews held with these speakers. The enjoyable reading of the data obtained by the author reveals that the lexis is composed of loanwords from Portuguese and other word formation processes. These loanwords, adapted in terms of form, and meaning, contributed to the creation of the vocabulary of the new variety, in a spontaneous and unconscious way, filling in real or imaginary gaps and adapting it to the new circumstance.

The morphosyntactical data showed that many characteristics of creole English were present in the recordings of the interviews, although the speakers were also infliuenced by standard English. Therefore, it can be concluded that both varieties, Creole English and literary forms, are indistinctly used by the ethnic group object of study.

Through her research, Dr. Burgeiñe was able to observe that many morphosyntactical aspects presented similarities to the Creole English spoken in Barbados and Grenada, to other Atlantic Cteole languages, to some African languages, to varieties of non-standard English, and to Brazilian Portuguese.

The data obtained reveal that the dialects brought over by immigrants from several regions led to a blend of languages in Porto Velho, giving rise to a new language resulting from a mix of English dialectal elements, features of Creole English, which is still in the sedimentation phase.

What then is the overall achievement of this study? It shows the author’s concern on discovering that we are faced with a language variety that is not being preserved in Porto Velho, and she suggests certain key strategies to reverse the process. In contrast to the languages of other immigrant communities in Brazil, linguistic revitalization in this case is difficult, considering that even in Barbados this situation presents countless conflicts. The sociolinguistic situation in Porto Velho differs from those analyzed in other studies, because what we learn from those studies refers to a non standard variety in relation to a standard variety of the same language, whereas here we are faced with two different languages. We would therefore have a double language change: from English to Portuguese and from Creole English to Standard English.

Thus, among other immigrant communities, if the members of the group under study shared a common desire to preserve the language, certain strategies could be used to change the situation and prevent the disappearance of the minority language or, at least, pospone this possibility.

Eventually, Odete Burgeile puts forth some suggestions, such as an effort to raise awareness of the importance of the use and transmission of the minority language, the role of parents in using the language at home and instilling its value into their children, and a thorough debate regarding the issue of learning myths.

Another way of revitalizing the minority language, in her opinion, would be the creation of folklore associations , the recovery of this ethnic group’s typical and traditional festivals, as well as the design of Caribbean music programs and the dissemination of newspapers, magazines and books in Creole English, among other activities.

Thjis wide offer serves to disseminate Caribbean culture, together with its language. However, it does very little to spread the Bajan language, since the standard language is usually used in the above-mentioned situations, because it is considered the correct language, the most beautiful, the one worthy of study. Dr. Burgeile considers that learning English as a second language is important, but respecting the language spoken by the descendants of the immigrants, granting it its proper place as a linguistic variety of a social nature, and maintaining its ethnic value and prestige. She believes that the language learning methodology applied to these speakers must be different from that applied to beginners without any knowledge of English. In this case, it will be important to start from the basis of the students’ own ethnic language in order to overcome the difficulties of the standard language. In order to do this, it is necessary to make a joint decision regarding first the name and then the writing of the language, so that all those who produce written texts in that language may do so in a similar manner, and in this way create a literature that fixes its uses. In addition, she suggests, among other subjects for future studies, analyzing code switching at the sentence and discourse level and exploring lexical items in greater depth, in order to prepare specialized dictionaries using computacional analysis.

In short, this is a serious piece of work, offering a well-structured presentation of the different topics analyzed, interesting and entertaining to read. This is a welcome contribution that opens up the path to new research regarding the Afro-Amazonian peoples, so little studied until now in Brazil and the rest of the world. I strongly recommend it.

Dr. Celia Vázquez

Full time Senior Lecurer

Department of English, German and French Philology

University of Vigo (Spain)

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