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  • Calunga and the Legacy of an African Language in Brazil by Steven Byrd
  • Laura Álvarez López
Calunga and the Legacy of an African Language in Brazil. Steven Byrd. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012. Pp. x + 278. $45.00 (cloth).

Calunga is an Afro-Brazilian linguistic variety spoken primarily in the rural town of Patrocínio, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, by a group of about one hundred people. The six chapters of Steven Byrd’s book present an overview of its history and its linguistic and sociolinguistic context, as well as a linguistic description of its lexicon and grammar. [End Page 98]

In the first chapter, the author introduces the object of study and proposes to explore the following topics with the aim of shedding light on the African-language contribution to Brazilian Portuguese: the history and historical context of Calunga; its linguistic context; the types of scholarly literature that have been written on African languages spoken in Brazil and on the African contribution to Brazilian Portuguese; the sociolinguistic profile of the Calunga speech community; and Calunga lexicon and grammar. The first three topics are discussed in chapters 1–3, and the last two in chapters 4–6. Byrd employs empirical data collected through interviews recorded in Patrocínio over a period of two years (2003–5) as well as bibliographical resources.

Chapter 2 thoroughly discusses Portugal’s motives for exploration of new territories and expansion. Chapter 3 summarizes earlier studies of varieties of Iberian languages whose speakers have lived side by side with speakers of African languages, giving examples of grammatical peculiarities in these varieties.

The sociolinguistic and sociohistorical aspects of Calunga are presented in chapter 4. According to Byrd, Calunga used to be a secret language among Afro-Brazilians in Patrocínio, but at the present time it represents “friendship and working-class solidarity among men” —even “white men” (p. 106). The variety is described by its speakers as “the language of the slaves” (p. 115), and possibly evolved in maroon communities or on the colonial farms around Patrocínio.

Chapter 5 presents a glossary of 307 Calunga terms in alphabetical order. All of them are glossed in English, and tentative etymologies and analyses are discussed. The terms are classified into five etymological categories: direct Africanisms (derived from Kikongo, Kimbundu, and Umbundu and having basically equivalent meanings in these languages and Calunga), metaphoric Africanisms (Bantu-derived concepts with similar but not equivalent meanings to the etymon), Portuguese (derived from Portuguese, often archaic), hybrid Portuguese-Africanisms (often with a metaphoric meaning), and Tupi-derived (or from Língua Geral—a less important category). The Calunga vocabulary overall is characterized as a “specialty vocabulary,” which means that it is “limited, specific, and exclusive to a given speech community, often with a strong sense of intergroup identity” (p. 141). The terms are grouped into the following semantic categories: verbs; concepts related to cowboy (tropeiro); food and drink; flora and fauna; people and relationships; the human body and clothing; work and money; and festivities and social life. This section would have benefited from a more comprehensive discussion of this classification (in which we find the category of “verbs,” among more specific semantic domains which include sets of words grouped by meaning referring to subjects such as “food and drink”); the reader might also have expected to find the chapter ending with conclusions about, for example, the frequency of words of different word classes or the distribution of lexical items in different semantic fields. The chapter does provide a comparison with lexical items documented in Afro-Brazilian speech communities of Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Bahia, showing that Kikongo, Kimbundu, and Umbundu provided 82 percent of the African-derived vocabulary and that none of the terms correspond to the Gbe vocabulary in Minas Gerais discussed by Castro (2002). The results also show that, at the lexical level, Calunga shares part of its lexicon with other Afro-Brazilian varieties and that the words generally maintain their original African meanings.

Chapter 6 describes Calunga phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax. The author concludes that Calunga and Brazilian Vernacular Portuguese show little difference at the phonetic-phonological level, although...


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