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The Language of the Favela Part 1: Resistance, Culture and Identity

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This is the first of a three-part series on the language spoken in the peripheries of Rio de Janeiro. Don’t miss Part 2 and Part 3.

“We took the language that wasn’t made for us, that isn’t ours, and created an extremely rich, new language that belongs to us. But it’s not accepted. Over time we’ll create awareness and win acceptance, because our language should be accepted; it’s rich, it’s enviable, and it’s plausible. There’s only one problem: it comes from a different academy, the academy of life.” – Wesley DelírioBlack, rapper

Language represents the culture of a society and the practices and attitudes that give it texture. Different dialects within a language not only represent diverse social groups, but reflect the relationships between them. The dialect of the dominant group in a given region is naturally reflected in its governmental and educational institutions and comes to represent the ‘standard dialect‘; the dialects of communities living on the peripheries of society are marginalized accordingly. As is common elsewhere, this dynamic is pronounced in Rio de Janeiro, where the language spoken in marginal areas is routinely denied legitimacy and dismissed as badly spoken Portuguese. This rejection is less a verdict on the linguistic merits of the dialect, which is in fact a self-contained language in its own right, and more reflective of the sharp stratification and deep inequality that characterizes Brazilian society. Language is exploited as yet another way of creating distance between the elite and the poor, contributing to a long history of exclusion and stigmatization of these communities.

Despite this exclusion there is resilience. The language of the favela resists marginalization and transcends the harsh living conditions that permeate many communities, using creativity and innovation to challenge dominant stereotypes and resist exclusion.

Sarau Divergente []

The rebellion against linguistic convention represents a challenge to social norms and conveys a desire for reform. This phenomenon is noted by linguists, who observe the use of slang to mark anti-establishment attitudes and disrespect for authority. Conventional words are found in unconventional places and expressions are released from the grammatical constraints of the ‘standard dialect’ to be manipulated in new ways. Nouns, as in the phrase ‘Pedro é fechamento’ (lit. Pedro is closure), are revised as adjectives, in this case, to mean trustworthy. Words are readapted to hold new meanings highlighting a new context: for example ‘bonde’ (tram) is used to mean a gang or group of friends. Sound words such as pá, bá, bum or pum are used as verbal ellipses to place emphasis on actions. ‘Vamos sair? Claro, bum partiu vamos’ (Shall we go out? Sure, boom let’s go).

Sound words have a dual function where they can also be used to obscure dialogue. Here, entire phrases are replaced with a single sound word, for example, “Vou fazer, senão ” (I’ll do it or else ). Vagueness is used as an interactional strategy making any comprehension entirely reliant on insider knowledge and context. The marginalization experienced by community members is thus inverted to exclude non-members. Placeholder nouns perform a similar role where words such as ‘parada’ (lit. ‘a stop’), ‘bagulho’ (lit. ‘worthless stuff’), ‘merda’ (lit. ‘shit’) and ‘porra’ (lit. ‘semen’) are used to replace the object of a sentence. For instance, ‘Fui pro bagulho’ (I went to the thing) or ‘Ele tava falando daquela parada aí’ (he was talking about that thing). In both phrases the ‘thing’ is only clear to the participants of the conversation.

The language is often referred to as a secret code. However this is not just reflective of an active attempt to restrict comprehension to insiders, but of codes of behavior that are integral to community life. Residents are fluent in ways of coping with police invasions and drug bosses, recognizing danger and avoiding certain areas. The ‘law of Murici’ is a term meaning to turn a blind eye or to keep to oneself, often necessary for survival. This wisdom is intrinsic to the language, where both ambiguity and creativity are important instruments for navigating such situations. Frequently using different words for ‘police,’ for example, has the same effect as obscuring sentences with the same subject. ‘Pila’ and ‘pompeu’ are just two examples of words used in the community of Acarí meaning ‘police’ that have entered and faded from the community lexicon.

Fluid improvisation is the heart of the language of the periphery. Vocabulary constantly changes and residents are constantly neologising. The close-knit structure of the communities allow the new words that are created amongst friends, mainly youth, to be spread easily, firmly rooting the language in the reality of a community. Funk artists are responsible for both inventing new slang and spreading new words beyond the community. The funk ‘Poxa vida,’ for instance, was responsible for the slang word ‘wool,’ meaning great or cool. In this way, each community creates its own vocabulary that reflects its own unique context, history and demographic. These words are spread to other communities through music or word of mouth, gain popularity beyond the community and become mainstream, or lose popularity and die out, or possibly even evolve in meaning.

Certain community slang ends up adopted by controlling drug factions and become territorial identifiers. For example, communities controlled by the Red Command use slang such as ‘é nós’ and the Third Command will use ‘é a gente’ (both meaning ‘it’s us’), which are similar phrases simultaneously reinforcing community insularity and territorial division.

Police occupy Complexo do Alemão

Through linguistic innovation, dehumanization and stratification are turned into pride and belonging. The language asserts favela identity and subverts the representational struggles suffered by community residents. This is well exemplified by the contradicting interpretations of the word ‘malandro.’ Outside the community it is a pejorative term to mean ‘scoundrel’ or  ‘crook.’ However within favelas ‘malandro’ is synonymous with intelligence. Bezerra da Silva states in the documentary Onde A Coruja Dorme (Where The Owl Sleeps) that “a malandro is an intelligent person. The word malandro means intelligence… When a man is poor he can’t be intelligent so he becomes a malandro. But in the sense that he lives on the margins of the law.” The documentary draws on this conflict by illustrating the difference between a ‘malandro’ and a ‘bicho’ (literally ‘animal’), a word that can be used to refer to a reckless, violent bandit, explaining that “given the concept of a malandro, a bicho is a fool.”

The language in the peripheries is above all fertile and full of life, even under immense pressure. The richness, subtlety and versatility of the language serves to refute attempts to stereotype and delegitimize it. The next two articles in this series will examine the stigma attached to it, and the artistic forms that are promoting its value.

This is the first of a three-part series on the language spoken in the peripheries of Rio de Janeiro.

Gitanjali Patel graduated from Oxford University in Spanish and Portuguese and is currently working as a researcher specializing in Brazilian language, culture and society. She is studying for an MA in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University of London.