In comparison with American English’s brash casualness, Portuguese can feel incredibly formal. The formal “you” and the third person singular are the same, “O Senhor” or “A Senhora” being the default formal terms (for example, “What do you want?” becomes “O que quer a senhora?”) In Estaquinha, I am “Senhora Professora,” as in, “How is Senhora Professora doing today?” which seems much too grand a title for someone like me. Normally outside of school, colleagues of my own age slip into the informal, but in meetings, even in heated discussion, everyone is “Professora Rosa,” or “Professor Paulo,” etc.

Among the children in the teacher’s compound, I am Tia Rebecca, which means Aunt Rebecca. Luisa calls me Titia, which is like “Auntie,” even though I’m only a few years older than she is. We have a new roommate, Rita, seventeen and in seventh grade, who works and cooks for Tia Nelta. It feels more balanced in the house, and the lack of space and privacy just come in stride. The girls sleep on mats in the front room, next to my bike and our buckets of water. Sometimes I call them Mana, which means sister. (Mano is brother; Tio, uncle.)

Other titles are Dono or Dona, like Mister or Missus. Sometimes people call me Dona Rebecca, which makes me feel really old. People tend to think I’m older than I am anyway—I can’t tell if it’s my position at school, if I exude some confidence or worldliness, or if I just look a lot older to them. I’m trying not to let it give me a complex.


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One response to “SenhoraProfessoraTeacherTitiaDonaMana

  1. Douglas Southgate

    Hi, Rebecca.

    Enjoyed your reflections on honorifics, which can sound strange to Americans since our culture is so informal.

    Having worked a little in Brazil and taken some Portuguese, I sense that the Lusophone world is a little more formal than the Hispanic world. In Brazil, conversations between one close friend and another seem to be the only time when the second-person-singular is used; in contrast, Spanish speakers say “tu” in a wider array of social settings. Another sign of Lusophone formality is that there is no equivalent in Spanish conversation of “o senhor.”

    By the way, don’t worry about being “Dona Rebecca.” It’s a mark of respect – respect that’s coming to you!

    One last thing. A colleague of mine at Ohio State is a professor of linguistics. And according to him, few languages have more sounds than Portuguese, which is his specialty. I think this helps explain the popularity of music from Brazil, Cabo Verde, etc. The rich variety of sounds allows for an unusual degree of vocal expression.

    How’s Mozambican music, by the way? Any recommendations?

    Doug Southgate

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