Interview with the Greatest Linguist Since Mezzofanti

Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire is quite possibly the greatest linguist in known history. When Ziad Fazah lived in Southern Brazil, he borrowed books from Dr. Freire’s vast personal library. His studies and achievements rival those of the legendary Giuseppe Mezzofanti. His travels, insights and abilities are extraordinary, so much so that I had to find him and talk to him myself. A few weeks ago the two of us had a very pleasant chat on the telephone and I have been wanting to write more about him on this blog ever since. Given that he has already been interviewed many times, I thought that it might be better to translate one of those interviews so all of you could read it and draw your own conclusions.

This interview was conducted by Janer Cristaldo for Jornaleco on April 15th, 2008 in São Paulo, Brazil. I’ve only finished translating half of it and will include the other half in the next few days. Those of you who know Portuguese can read the article here. I hope you enjoy this first half of the interview as much as I did.

The University of Cambridge considers him one of the greatest scholars of the 21st century. To date, he has systematically studied more than one hundred languages and mastered sixty. For the past forty years he has been developing a project to systematically and scientifically study two new languages a year. He has translated sixty languages into Portuguese, from Sanskrit to Chinese, which have been gathered together in a poetry anthology called Babel de Poemas. A publishing contract is being negotiated with L&PM. One of his monographs, Los fonemas oclusivos y africados del aymara y del georgiano (Plosive and Fricative Phonemes of Aymara and Georgian), was published in Spanish by the University of Sucre and translated into Russian and Serbo-Croatian. He was born seventy years ago in Dom Pedrito, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and has studied in the United States, Spain, Italy, China and the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and USSR. His name is Carlos do Amaral Freire, he is 70 years old and he currently lives in Florianopolis, Brazil.

Janer Where and how did your interest in languages come about?
Carlos – My interest in studying foreign languages came about early on – when I was still a gymnastics student – when I realized that reading translations of foreign classics was an enormous disadvantage. That is, I realized that only by reading the original could I enjoy the esthetic pleasure that only the original can fully offer. Later on I became captivated by the fascination of studying and discovering, through languages, so many other worlds, cultures and different ways of thinking. This was mainly due to the many travels I would have later on. My knowledge of foreign languages gave me the opportunity to make friends with a lot of people in many different parts of the world. Perhaps mastering foreign languages offers us a more effective tool for obtaining knowledge and accepting what is different.

Janer You’ve dedicated the past few years to an incredible undertaking in Portuguese, as well as in your other languages: the translation of sixty poems into sixty different languages. Have you had any trouble with the publication of this project?
Carlos – I have been translating many, many foreign languages into Portuguese for more than twenty years, both prose and poetry. First I started translating short stories, mainly as a hobby or rather as a linguistic challenge, to test my own knowledge and abilities acquired during more than forty years of systematic study. Let me explain…when I study a certain language, I set a goal to get to the point where I can translate a bit of that language into Portuguese and, if possible, communicate in it orally. I started translating short poems in Latin, Germanic and Slavic languages. Later on…I tried the rest of them. After that, acting on advice from friends, I resolved to put together all of my translations in a multilingual anthology which included the originals with their corresponding translations into Portuguese. And, as an addendum, I included short biographical and linguistic notes where I provide a little bit of information about some of the exotic languages, ones that are less well known to Brazilian readers, like Georgian, Maltese, Papiamento, Romansh, Indonesian, Swahili, Albanese, etc. I did have trouble finding a publisher. Some publishers (university ones mainly) told me that there were technical problems – twelve different alphabets, the need to make numerous diacritic signs and symbols – however, the main reason was the fact that publishing it would be tricky and not very lucrative.

Janer – Where did you learn your non-Latin languages like Chinese, Russian and Arabic?
Carlos – I studied Latin and Germanic languages in Porto Alegre in the PUC (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul). I studied the Slavic ones in the United States, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia and in the former USSR. I had already started Russian here in Brazil during my college days with a few immigrants. With Russian I created a method that I find extremely efficient. I went to live with a Russian family so I would be able to practice it in day to day life. I took care of the theoretical part on my own.

I practiced Chinese, which I had also started here in Brazil, with natives of that language (Mandarin) and later on I had the opportunity to take a normal course at the University of Madrid and then, after that, at the University of Texas. After that, around 1985, I took an intensive course at the University of Beijing. I studied Arabic mainly with Palestinian friends that I had here in Brazil. Later I had the opportunity to take a theoretical/practical class in that language, which was also at the University of Madrid.

In the end, I could say that I studied around thirty languages in regular, official university courses. The rest are self-taught. Someone once said that the first ten are the most difficult. After that, depending on your objective or momentary need, people invent their own method.

Janer – Do you consider Chinese to be a simple language?
Carlos – Yes. Chinese is very simple in linguistic terms. That is, it is a simple language in comparison to Indo-European languages, which are complex. I think that this is precisely the reason why learning it ends up being so difficult for Westerners like us. We are used to complex linguistic structures, like that of Portuguese. Chinese is extremely concise. It has no gender or numeral grammar and its verbs are not conjugated. Simple is not a synonym for easy. When it comes to Chinese, the word is an antonym. Its simple structures become difficult and confusing because we don’t know how know how to compare them to our own.

Janer – In Bolivia you found a “non-Aristotelian” future in Aymara. Tell us more about this discovery.
Carlos – During my long stay (ten years) in Bolivia, where I was assigned by the Ministry of External Relations as the director of the Center for Brazilian Studies in La Paz, I quickly began studying the languages of the Altiplano with native speakers. That was a very valuable experience for me because, later on, I was invited to teach comparative linguistics at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, in La Paz. The course compared the linguistic structures of those languages with many others, some Indo-European and others not Indo-European. I came to some interesting conclusions about the notable phonetic similarities between these languages and Caucasian languages as well as structural similarities with Altaic languages. Regarding Aymara, the Bolivian mathematician and Aymarist, Guzman de Rojas said, “A different non-Aristotelian linguistic logic is clearly incorporated in the syntax of that language.”

The deficient communication or rather the age old misunderstanding between the Indians and the Conquistadors is greatly explained due to their different concepts of reality. In the Aymara’s case this is distinctly reflected in their syntax of special morphemes that are very well defined. Those of us who speak Indo-European languages are instilled with the Aristotelian concept: dichotomy, with the truly false X and truly correct X, X yes and X no. We have some trouble with accepting or comprehending the trivalent concept of Aymara: correct-incorrect-verisimilar, with ambiguity or the third value of truth. To make the trivalent logic of Aymara a little clearer, I will use two examples from the remarkable monograph of Guzman de Rojas, Problemática Lógico-lingüística de la Comunicación Social en el Pueblo Aimara (Logical and Linguistic Problems of Social Communication with the Aymara people). When a native speaker of Aymara expresses himself in Spanish and says, “Mañana he de venir nomás.” (Tomorrow I shall come no more/I just have to come tomorrow) the words he uses do not coincide with the meaning of those very same words in Spanish or Portuguese. The expression “nomás”, that is so common in popular Bolivian and Peruvian Spanish – in similar situations – really reveals a thought in Aymara that is poorly translated into Spanish. In his native language he would use the phrase, “Qharürux jutätki.” where the morpheme “ki” translates into or expresses a symmetric doubt, the third value of truth. This is something that simply does not exist in our languages. Therefore, he uses the expression “nomás” to translate the suffix “ki” which indicates verisimilitude.

What he really means to say is this, “Maybe I’ll come tomorrow or maybe I won’t. I’m not making a commitment.” However, when he says, “Mañana he de venir pues” he uses the word “pues” to translate the suffix “pi” in Aymara, which indicates certainty. Therefore, “Qharüru jutätpi” is the way one says in Aymara that would correspond to our way of saying, “I am certain to come tomorrow, I have made a commitment.” So we see that Aymara has a positive future tense, a negative future tense and a future tense of symmetrical doubt. Consequently, if our politicians spoke in Aymara they would have to be very careful about what type of future tense they used.

Janer – I did some research on Guzman de Rojas. I don’t know if you know, but he created the Qopuchawi, an ICQ that translates messages instantly into six languages.
Carlos – During my long stay in La Paz I had the privilege to become Guzman de Rojas’ friend and to follow his project closely. And do you know which language he uses as a base for translation into the other five? Aymara: an agglutinative language that has extraordinarily regular suffixes.

Janer – You did a study about the phonological affinities between Aymara and the Caucasian languages that was Published at the University of Sucre and translated into Russian.
Carlos – My monograph is called Los fonemas oclusivos y africados del aymara y del georgiano (Plosive and Fricative Phonemes of Aymara and Georgian) and it was published by the University of Sucre. Later on it was translated into Russian because the comparison with Georgian was always interesting to Soviet linguistics. After that, between 1968 and 1988 – when I had the position of lecturer of the Portuguese language at the University of Belgrade – that project was translated into Serbo-Croatian because it had not only made the linguists curious but also some anthropologists and other academics that listened to my lectures. I am convinced that Quechua and also Aymara are typologically Altaic languages. However, phonologically they are similar to the Caucasian languages, particularly Georgian, which was Stalin’s native language.

Janer – Can you tell us how you arrived at that conclusion?
Carlos – How did I arrive at that conclusion? Well…I was teaching a phonology class to my Latin Languages students at the University of La Paz. I played them a tape of a language that was unknown to them (as well as to me at that time). After having played the text several times in the language lab I had them transcribe these words that they had repeatedly listened to using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). When the project was done I found that the students whose native language was Quechua or Aymara got at least an 80% on the project while the native speakers of other languages got a 20%, at best. What was my conclusion? If you hear an unknown language for the first time and are able to identify more than 80% of its phonemes it is because these phonemes almost certainly exist in your native language.

After that I continued with my research. I came into contact with friends from the University of Tbilissi, which is the capital of Georgia, and to my surprise I was invited to conduct some field research for the Academy of Sciences of what was then the Socialist Republic of Georgia. My paper, Los fonemas oclusivos y africados del quechua y del aymara is the practical result of that research. In fact, Georgian, which was the unknown language from my phonology class, has a remarkably similar phonology to that of Aymara.


8 Responses

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  3. that was a superb and interesting interview.For those who are highly absorbed in languages must read and try to understand it because it is so useful.

  4. I wonder if the expression “estudante ginasiano” should really be translated into English as “gymnastics student”. Ginasiano derives from “ginásio”, which means “gymnasium”, a type of school that provides secondary education. In Brazil it is now called “ensino médio”. Maybe it would be more properly translated as “high school” or “grammar school”.

  5. I can confirm that, ginasiano refers to what we know in english as some kind of high school, here in Colombia important schools were called gimnasios but today they’re the same normal hs

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  8. Omnes linguas totius orbis terrarum amo. Amo lo studio approfondito delle lingue. I love the complexitie ande rychenesse of Sir Gawayne and the Gryn Knyht. Who can translate its beauty into a different laguage. How can anyone give justice to the complex and subtle interplay of English, Old English, Old Norse, Old French and other elements of the poet’s language? Le plaisir de la lecture est grand. Ich lese ein Buch auf Swedisch: “Den osynliga domstolen”. Mi piace la traduzione possibile di questo titulo in Aenglisc: “The Unseemly Stuhl of Doom”. Quiero hablar en sanscrito. Vivat lingua sanscritana, vivat lingua Graecorum antiquorum! Lingua latina lingua viva est. Tantam linguam, tanta verba quae post multa saecula vivunt mortua dicere non possumus.
    Hellenisti to tropo palaio legein thelo.

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