Tensions of a language and identity 

By Contributing Writer Nicole O’Connell 

On Tuesday, October 8, Márcia Rego presented Portuguese Disturbed: The Contested Sovereignty of the Cape Verdean Language. The students, professors, and other UMass Dartmouth community members crowded into a LARTS conference room to hear Rego speak. 

Rego, a cultural anthropologist professor at Duke University, was born in this region of New England, but moved to Brazil when she was young. Her talk at UMass Dartmouth was partially based on her book The Dialogic Nation of Cape Verde: Slavery, Language and Ideology, which she says is, “A story about a contested relationship between the Portuguese language and the Cape Verdean language from early colonialism to post independence.” 

While going on a trip to Cape Verde in the 1990s, Rego was shocked upon arriving: she could not understand what the people were saying. Everywhere she went, there was writing in Portuguese, but no one was speaking it. “I didn’t know a lot about linguistics,” she said, “But I was intrigued.” 

After speaking with a woman outside the airport, Rego learned this language she was hearing was the Cape Verdean language, sometimes known as Cape Verdean Creole or Crioulo, a language that arose out of Cape Verdean’s colonial, slavery-based history. 

So, Rego studied up on this language she was unfamiliar with. As a cultural anthropologist and not a linguist, she did not set out to look for the grammar and syntax aspects of the language, but instead aimed to view the language as a social action. She observed how the Cape Verdean language was used in courts, parliament, classrooms, playgrounds, markets, and even prison. 

Rego explained that, In Cape Verde, Portuguese is considered the language of official text, but the Cape Verdean language is considered the language of intimate matters. While Portuguese is the language of the nation state, the Cape Verdean language is the language of the nation. The Cape Verdean people saw the Cape Verdean language as crucial to their identity. 

“Crioulo is held to be the sole means of expressing Cape Verdeaness,” said Rego. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, Portugal wanted Cape Verde to be part of their “nation,” but the existence of the Cape Verdean language and its connection to the Cape Verdean identity created a problem. The Cape Verdean language was then suppressed by the Portuguese. However, Cape Verde did gain independence and the language still exists.  

Both Portuguese and the Cape Verdean language are used in Cape Verde today. “The languages thrive on interplay with each other,” Rego says. “Sort of a promiscuous mingling…that creates new meaning.” 

Yet, while both languages are used, the tensions between them are still seen. When Rego visited Cape Verde in 1995, it was the 20th anniversary of Cape Verde’s independence. However, the festivities were conducted in Portuguese. This was an event dedicated to the Cape Verdean language, but, except for one poet, who recited a poem of his in the Cape Verdean language, everyone spoke Portuguese. 

Another surprising example Rego provided took place in Parliament, where a debate of the Cape Verdean language was taking place. Defenders of the Cape Verdean language spoke Portuguese in their arguments, and the opposers of the Cape Verdean language occasionally used the language they were arguing against. Rego said these debates reflect the tension of the post-colonial condition that still affects Cape Verde. 

Rego is currently working on a project tentatively titled, Transatlantic Belongings.” Her research is about belonging to two different countries, and she is considering the use of the Cape Verdean language versus Portuguese in the New England area. 

 

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