Advances in Anthropology
2013. Vol.3, No.4A, 7-12
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access 7
Literacy, Ethnicity and Style
Maria Sílvia Cintra
Department of Modern La nguages, Universidade Federal de São Carlos, São Carlos, Brazil
Received June 26th, 2013; revised July 23rd, 2013; accepted Au gust 24th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Maria Sílvia Cintra. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
I present the result of a two-year research project developed at the “Instituto de Estudos de Linguagem”
(IEL/Unicamp, Brazil) and also of action research I have been organizing since 2006 when I started to
work as a professor at the “Universidade Federal de São Carlos”, in Brazil. Relying on recent develop-
ments in New Literacy Studies, I explore the concept of the continuum illiterate-literate and argue that it
implies elements of transformation, as well as conservation. I also argue that three intersecting continua
must be considered together: the continua oral-written, rural-urban and restricted-full literacy, always
taking into consideration ethnicity as a variable (Cohen, 1974). Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in
Brazil, I show how elements of restricted literacy (Goody, 1968) are presented on the threshold of the
twenty first century; how they entertain relation with the rural to urban migration and with a marked con-
trast between different ethnicities; and in what sense this fact may be visible in the everyday use of lan-
guage and in the style inherent in it.
Keywords: Urban Ethnicity; Arena of Conflict; Indigenous
My initial project was entitled “From Speech Acts to Literate
Practices” and I intended to understand the interface between
the written and the oral on the basis of the conceptions devel-
oped by Voloshinov (1973) and by Bakhtin (1981, 1986) con-
cerning speech acts and discourse genres. The fact is that I was
not yet aware of the reality that oral and written languages con-
sist of overlapping realities, which are impossible to understand
as separate unities. In this sense, I still defended the idea of a
continuum of discourse genres which would range from oral to
written language or from informal to formal registers in a some-
what separate fashion. That is the way I imagined a transition
from speech acts to literate practices when I first started to visit
a community in the outskirts of São Carlos, a city of about
220,000 inhabitants in the southeast of Brazil, 95% of whom
reside in the city and only 5% in the rural area.
As I began to collect field data, I continued to study, together
with the group of students I supervised, Bakhtin’s and Voloshi-
nov’s theory, and to improve my understanding of the socio-
historical approach from Fairclough’s tridimensional proposal
(1992, 1995, 2003). Some important insights were given later
on by Certeau (1980), Goffman (1959) and Cohen (1974) as I
gradually enlarged my understanding of language in general
and started to envisage it more and more as a part of culture and
The methodology used for action research was adopted once
I not only intended to collect data regarding literacy, but I was
also interested in education and in transformation (Freire, 1972;
Cameron, 1992; Thiollent, 1986).
In his “Pedagogy of the oppressed”, Freire (1972) proposes a
method of research which is intimately related with education,
inasmuch as the limit between the research itself and education
is very subtle and most often we have an overlap between both
processes. In principle, it is argued that the educator should first
visit the community where they intend to develop an educa-
tional practice in order to raise awareness of the “generating
themes” they will work with. However, as the process of re-
search is supposed to be carried out in a dialogical fashion, and
as the researcher is expected to be attentive to the community’s
problems and tensions, there is not only the movement of
grasping the questions present in such a reality; problem-solv-
ing is also very intensively present with reference to the neces-
sity the researcher feels to discuss the questions that emerge in
order to find the best solutions together with the subjects of the
research. As a result, there is a rich blend of research and edu-
Cameron (1992), on the other hand, defends empowering re-
search as a form of academic research that endeavors to respect
the subjects’ agenda, i.e., the emphasis is not centered on the
researcher’s priorities, but rather on the problems and tensions
present in a certain community and on the ethic compromise the
researcher feels concerning questions of marginality, hegemony,
contra-hegemonic forces and empowerment.
Thiollent (1986) defines action research as a kind of social
research of empirical basis which is conceived and carried out
in close relation with an action and with the solution of a col-
lective problem. In this case, the researchers and the subjects of
research are involved in a cooperative and participative fashion.
In the case I will discuss, there was a constant movement from
theory to practice, which is also a characteristic of action re-
search. As a consequence, the results I will present will reveal
this constant relation. I will show theoretical data together with
certain vivid examples that illuminate these data and make it
possible to think about theory in a more in-depth and detailed
fashion. Taking this into account, I strongly believe in the im-
portance of doing ethnographic research as a way of constantly
checking the theory we deal with and building new conceptu-
The initial research project I mentioned was based on the as-
sumption that we still lack better knowledge of the heterogene-
ous reality of language as it is practiced by individuals who are
in the initial phase of accessing written language in the stan-
dards of urban environments. I had chosen a group of adults
considered illiterate or semi-literate; I expected, however, that
the results of my research could contribute to the reflection
about literacy in general, and to the understanding of the con-
tinuum illiterate-literate in particular. I also believed that some
aspects of the use of adult language could bring a better under-
standing about children and teenagers’ use of language and
about their difficulties with school literate practices. Only later
on, when developing another research project related to in-
digenous people in Brazil, I could understand better that proba-
bly part of the inhabitants of suburbs similar to the one I refer
to are indigenous , though t he y do not identify as such.
It is worth mentioning here that according to a recent gov-
ernment survey from the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geogra-
phy and Statistics), 7.4 million young Brazilians aged between
eighteen and twenty nine (from a number of 34 million urban
youngsters making a total of 21.7%) have had only one to seven
years of school study—which means abandoning school before
completing the basic level of nine years. Moreover, 813.2 thou-
sand—almost one million young people—are considered illit-
erate. Alagoas, a state in the northeast of Brazil, leads the rank-
ing with 46% of youngsters in either case. On the other hand,
São Paulo state, which is located in the southeast region and is
the richest and most developed Brazilian state, has 15% of
youngsters who are subject to what one may consider “re-
stricted literacy” (Goody, 1968) as far as one takes into consid-
eration literacy not as a multiple phenomenon, but rather as a
certain standard socially chosen that must be attained for one to
be considered literate (Street, 1993).
It is also worth taking into account the fact that as a result of
ethnicity, i.e., of the form of interaction among cultural groups
operating inside common social contexts (Cohen, 2004: p. xi),
self-identification concerning ethnic issues is problematic in
Brazil. That is why the last IBGE survey in 2010 revealed only
0.4% of indigenous people in our country.
I coordinated biweekly meetings at a cooperative of manual
workers in the outskirts of São Carlos, an average-sized city in
the southeast of Brazil, with the double objective of teaching
language and collecting research data. At the same time, I gave
a course at the university and some of my students used to par-
ticipate in the Saturday meetings with me. There were ten stu-
dents who alternated in going along with me, so that two or
three academic researchers always went. In the community,
there used to be about three or six people. We insisted on trying
to convince more adults to participate in the meetings, but with
time we began to understand that though limited in number, the
group could in a certain way serve as literacy agents in their
everyday contact with the rest of the community. The coopera-
tive consisted of about 260 manual workers, and most of them
came from a recent process of urbanization.
We used different strategies for collecting data, including
semi-structured interviews, filming, tape-recording and note-
taking. Preference was given to semi-structured interviews
which were considered more appropriate to action research in
the sense that they imply more freedom and flexibility. Every
meeting was filmed and the group of researchers alternated in
taking notes and engaging in dialogues with the subjects. An-
other group of researchers transcribed the recordings.
The partial results I will present here involve, on one hand,
discussion of the theory I explored while developing action
research; on the other hand, they involve data collected in
From Speech Acts to Literate Practices
In “The Problem of Speech Genres”, Bakhtin (1986) pro-
poses the difference existing between primary and secondary or
complex genres. It is worth paying attention to the assumption
detached by the Russian philosopher that secondary genres ab-
sorb and transform the primary genres previously constituted.
Spontaneous verbal communication and informal letters are
given as examples of texts pertaining to primary genres, where-
as romance, theater and scientific discourse would represent
secondary genres. The former are defined on the basis of their
spontaneous constitution and of a direct relation with immedi-
ate reality, and it is said that the latter are mainly written and
entertain rapport with a world represented by language, rather
than with the surrounding world. It is also worth remembering
that, as a philosopher, Bakhtin was mostly interested in a phy-
logenetic approach and not so much in an ontogenetic one.
It is certainly possible to think of language as ranging
smoothly from informal to formal registers. However, when we
assume Bakhtin’s theory as pertaining to a socio-historical ap-
proach (together with Vygotsky’s, 1985) it is necessary to con-
sider that the transition from one to another phase implies rup-
ture as well as conservation. Furthermore, it also implies en-
visaging language as an inherent part of social relations and
culture. Taking this into account, I gradually began to under-
stand that it would be misleading to think of Bakhtin’s dis-
course genres without taking into consideration, simultaneously,
Voloshinov’s theorization on social psychology and on ideol-
ogy. I also understood that, in a certain sense, primary genres
pertain to everyday life ideology, whereas secondary genres are
part of the ideology of super-structures, but this assumption
may also be misleading when lacking a dialectic view.
Inspired by Freire’s previous work with adult learners, we
called our biweekly meetings “Cultural Sessions”. At each ses-
sion, I took a different text, always pertaining to a secondary
genre: a short film, a poem, a map, an interview. Some students
suggested that we should take three films together with a short
explanation about each one in order to encourage the commu-
nity participants to choose which they would prefer to see and
therefore involve them more. They suggested the films “Mod-
ern times”, “Thank you for smoking” and a third one, a short
Brazilian film entitled “Island of Flowers” (“Ilha das Flores”)
about nature preservation. The students understood that it was
important to take films which involved some sort of social
criticism; I defended that it was not only the content that was at
stake, but the structure of each genre, in the sense that the in-
habitants of that community were not used to the kind of irony
Open Access
and simulation which certain films explore. Nevertheless, we
took the three films and, after a short talk, the participants
chose the film “Thank you for smoking”. At a certain point of
the session, I noticed that the community participants seemed
somewhat bored and indifferent, so I decided to start making
some intermediary comments in order to provoke their involve-
ment. As a matte r of fact, it was necessa ry to make some meta -
linguistic interference and some purposeful joining between the
oral language of everyday life and the film so that such a text
could be fully understood by those adult learners.
It was plainly visible that a film, as a text pertaining to sec-
ondary genres, involves elements of dialogue typical of primary
genres. From an ontogenetic point of view, however, we did not
feel that this explanation was reasonable to make us understand
why there still remains some difficulty for adults considered
semi-literate to read and understand such texts. At first sight, it
seemed to us that exactly because of the multimodality present
in them, they would be easier to understand for the kind of
students we dealt with. Practice, however, denied our assump-
tions and brought to light the fact that even humor was not as
accessible as we imagined beforehand—at least a certain kind
of intellectual or ironic humor.
In the course of the process involving several “Cultural Ses-
sions”, I gradually developed the understanding of two funda-
mental questions. First, the evidence related to the fact that
primary genres persist in secondary genres only in a simulated
form—and not in a more direct or quite accessible fashion. In
other words: accompanying the dialogues existing in films
similar to the one we had presented apparently requires a kind
of experience different from the most simple one people deal
with in everyday life face to face communication. A certain
kind of dialogue explored in films as well as in advertisements,
in cartoons or in comic strips is not as straightforward as it may
seem to people who have benefited from the availability and the
access to certain urban literacy practices. Second, the evidence
involving the fact that the simulation present in language must
be accompanied by simulating new roles in social inter-relation.
If it was true—as I believed—that the continuum illiterate-
literate should be seen together with the continuum restricted-
full literacy, more and more I was convinced that language cer-
tainly has to be seen as part of social interplay, but not in a
harmonious way, and rather in the sense of conflicting social
struggle for hegemony and for full citizen participation, in the
sense Cohen (1974: p. xiii) deals with ethnicity as compre-
hending “the potency of the normative symbols the individual
manipulates in his struggle for power”.
Taking this into account, restricted literacy as seen inside an
ideological model must mean a restricted form of participation
and of access to different opportunities in society in general.
Language, thus, is not generally accessible unless it accompa-
nies the playing and the simulation implicit in the roles we
engage in as we take part in literacy practices inherent to de-
termined social groups. In this sense, it may seem available
without being plainly accessible (Kalman, 2004)—and accessi-
bility has to do with real pertaining to social groups and sharing
Later on, since 2008, when indigenous youngsters coming
from different parts of Brazil started participating in different
courses of our university, all the issues discussed here acquired
a clearer outline. Certainly the transition from a literacy prac-
tice to another one could not and would not be smooth. Aca-
demic structure was not permeable; prejudice would be present
and conflict as well. One indigenous undergraduate student
would say to me: “The professor explains, but I cannot under-
stand what he says”. He was not referring to a difference be-
tween Portuguese and an indigenous language once most in-
digenous youngsters today in Brazil speak Portuguese as their
first language; he was referring to a difference present within a
same language, i.e., in the sense he considers academic lan-
guage as if it were a technical language not as accessible as one
could imagine at first sight.
Some Considerations on Restricted Literacy
Goody (1968) referred to West Africa and India as cases of
restricted literacy. On the other hand, Gumperz (1986) referred
to minority groups situated in the urban outskirts or in rural
areas in the United States, and pointed out the apparent diffi-
culty for learning in these communities. I argue that in any of
these cases, it is the same reality that may be envisaged by
means of the continuum restricted-full literacy. In Brazil, as I
understand it, we have a case of restricted literacy similar, up to
a certain degree, to the Indian one. There are characteristics
proper to restricted literacy (Cf. Goody, 1986), such as: appeal
to magic-religious conceptions; resource to formulaic style;
tendency to secrecy; persistence of oral modes of instruction;
emphasis on rote learning (even at university); oral residues in a
literate culture; tendency towards preciosity. At first sight, how-
ever, there seems not to be, in this case, a strong association
between writing and religion. It is possible, anyway, to recog-
nize the intersection of three continua: the continuum oral-writ-
ten, the continuum rural-urban and the continuum restricted-full
literacy, which we can say intersect. Restricted-full literacy
deals with questions related to power, to secrecy, to cipher and,
to initiation.
Without defending the autonomous consequences of literacy
but, rather, understanding literacy from a sociological approach
(Gee, 1990; Street, 1993; Barton & Hamilton, 1998), I started
to consider some data related to the socio-economic structure of
Brazilian society that might explain why, in a twenty first cen-
tury global society, in an emergent country, there are still traits
characteristic of restricted literacy. According to a socio-his-
torical and dialectic approach, however, the concept of “re-
stricted literacy” must refer to a broader social reality rather
than to the Subjects themselves whose level of literacy would
be considered restricted: it refers to a social condition in which
multiple literacies are not recognized as legitimate and a sacred
status is attributed only to one of them.
Concerning the appeal to magic-religious conceptions, a fact
that called my attention and that occurs with a certain frequency
in adult classes was when Iraci (a fictitious name) declared “I
pray that Jesus may open my head so that I can read”. At first
sight, it seemed only an emotional expression, but as I met
other people from a rural background who made similar state-
ments, I started to suspect that they represented a broader real-
ity. Many of the women have their first contact with literate
events when going to church. They cannot read, but they are
literate in the sense that they take part in events centered on
literacy (Cf. Heath, 1983). As defended by Kalman (2004), we
can say that they have contact with literacy, but not real access
to it.
Other characteristics of restricted literacy-resource to for-
mulaic style; tendency to secrecy; tendency towards preciosity
—appear strictly related to the same question when we observe
Open Access 9
the behavior of those Subjects considered illiterate for whom
literacy seems to be involved in an inaccessible aureole; on the
other hand, I was shocked when, paradoxically, Jessica (another
fictitious name), a postgraduate student who belonged to our
research group, said: “Here at the university, most teachers
seem to hide their knowledge”. Again, it could be seen just as a
common complaint of students, but as I had been aware of these
questions related to restricted literacy and secrecy, I began to
conceive the idea of a continuum ranging from restricted to full
literacy, which is more visible in the case of illiterate people
who get in contact with literacy, but which would also exist in
other situations and even at a university level. The two other
characteristics which Goody pointed out—persistence of oral
modes of instruction and emphasis on rote learning—are cer-
tainly present at lower levels—primary and high schools—but
we can say they still persist at university when we consider that
an oral mode of instruction does not only imply the behavior of
teachers and students in the classroom, but, rather, the way
written culture is still frequently regarded inside an untouchable
bell jar, particularly in what concerns western European or
American literate culture. As I understand it, this fact is partly a
consequence of our belonging to a third-world country whose
academic culture is mainly imported from first-world nations
and often enough arrives in our country not as a result of
autonomous field research, but rather as ideology in the sense
constructed by Foucault (2002).
The Idea of Assimilation: Ideology and Hegemony
When taking into account the concepts of ideology and he-
gemony (Fairclough, 1992, 1995, 2003), as well as the concept
of semiosphere (Lotman, 2005), I could envisage discourse
genres in a more complex way. I gradually understood that gen-
res assimilate characteristics previously existing (in the sense of
the assimilation of primary genres existing in secondary genres)
and that they reveal these characteristics because they are
crossed by vectors of ideology and hegemony which, in princi-
ple, belong to the social dimension. It is interesting to point out
that for Voloshinov (1973), ideology and power are constantly
crossing social relations, which is different from the orthodox
Marxist standpoint concerning infra-structure and super-struc-
ture relations. Considering this, if it is true that secondary gen-
res assimilate and absorb all primary genres previously consti-
tuted (Bakhtin, 1986), this is only possible because certain ele-
ments proper of power and ideology persist in social relations
in general exerting influence on language and on the style each
Subject chooses in order to play their role inside such an arena.
Amanda (a fictitious name) was a very active member of the
cooperative of cleaners in Jardim Gonzaga—the neighborhood
in the outskirts of São Carlos where I developed my field re-
search. She lived alone with her two children and showed much
interest when coming to our meetings. She used to say that she
did not like to engage in much conversation with her neighbors,
that she had her private life and was not fond of much contact
with others. With time, however, we understood that, paradoxi-
cally, she was a supportive woman: her eyes lit up whenever
she mentioned her plans either concerning her family (brothers
she had left far away in the northeast of Brazil and wanted to
help) or the neighborhood (one of her dreams was about setting
up a kindergarten for the children to stay in while their parents
One Saturday afternoon, Amanda stated: “I don’t like to talk,
because my speech is full of mistakes. People listen and notice
that I say several words wrongly. I am ashamed, so I prefer to
be silent”. It is worthwhile observing that Amanda could not
feel strong enough to make use of symbols belonging to her
community, i.e., of the style and of the identity pertaining to her
community, an indigenous community of the state of Parana, in
the South of Brazil. Stigma (Goffman, 1963) was present in
such a way that she would rather be silent.
I listened to her and could hear no mistakes. I commented to
her that her speech was absolutely right, but she said she still
wanted to learn the “right” way, only then she would be satis-
fied. What she understood as the “right” way involves the ac-
cent proper to southeastern speakers and, sure enough, a certain
way she recognizes in the speech of Brazilians who entertain a
more sophisticated literate condition. Or, in other words, the
form of speech proper to citizens who are most involved in
urban complex genres of discourse.
Ethos and Ethics
Brazil is still considerably shaped by traits belonging to rural
communities and culture1. Since the beginning of the twentieth
century, there has been a permanent movement characterized
by rural exodus and by the continuous insertion of illiterate
people into the literate universe of different cities. This fact has
meant complex consequences for communication as different
ethnicities are involved implying different ethé which are often
ignored when education is centered on certain matters consid-
ered of universal reach, and also when developing ethnographic
and action research. There are some different traits pertaining to
each ethnicity—as one takes into account rural illiterate ethnic-
ity and urban literate ethnicity, as well as the phenomenon of
ethnicity as “a matter of degree” (Cohen, 1974: p. xiii)—which
point to a link between ethics, on one hand, and ethnicity, on
the other. I think such an approach can contribute to a better
understanding of literacy and of the continuum illiterate-literate
and that this understanding is fundamental for education as a
whole, and not only for beginning literacy instruction. More-
over, it can provide a better understanding of the communica-
tion between academic researchers and the subjects of their
research, as in the case of an experiment developed by another
group of professors and academic researchers of a Brazilian
university who wanted to contribute to building cheap and
comfortable houses for rural inhabitants, as well as developing
popular co-operativism, but have had difficulties implementing
their proposal2.
I had been reading about the concepts of ethos and ethics
when I started visiting the community I have been mentioning.
Later on, I also could understand better that each semiosphere
comprehends their ethos (Lotman, 2005). In principle, I under-
stood ethos as a part of language itself, inasmuch as language
and identity are intimately linked. As I observed conversation
1In the city of São Carlos where my research was developed, and which is
art of the r ichest region of our country, only 5% of the population resides in
the rural area, contrasting, for instance, with Cabeceiras, a town of about
8300 inhabitants in the northeast of Brazil, where more than 85% of the
populati on still live in a rural area.
2I took part in an interdisciplinary research team which includes professors,
undergraduate and postgraduate students from different areas: engineering,
architecture, health and social sciences. The experience implying the con-
struction of houses was developed in a sector related to mine. It was not part
of the literacy project, but my group of students and I was able to follow the
developm ent of their action and take notes related to ou r interest s .
Open Access
engaged between a professor and the president of a popular
cleaning cooperative, I progressively began to see that ethos is
related to questions of ideology and hegemony as well, in the
sense that once it represents a habitus, it is concerned with the
culture and the ethics present in a certain community. The pro-
fessor addressed the popular worker in what we can call a pro-
fessoral ethos: he asked certain questions for which there was
an expected answer, as if he were in fact in a classroom envi-
ronment. In this case, it is interesting to think of what Fair-
clough (1992) calls hybridism. It is worth mentioning the fact
that not only genres undergo hybridization: there are social
spheres that intersect. It is as if the professor had forgotten that
he was engaged in the genre of an informal conversation (per-
taining to primary genres) and started behaving in tune with a
classroom ethos, i.e., in accord with secondary genres. As I will
discuss below, this fact also has to do with the continuum re-
stricted-full literacy, in the sense that, partially, we can say that
the professor assumed a literate ethos whereas the cooperative
worker played an oral role; on the other hand, it is possible to
see, in such a behavior, a difficulty of communication proper to
a place where a certain standard of literacy is still restricted to a
few, whereas other multiple literacies are considered as non-
language (Lotman, 2005), i.e., people who are involved in such
practices are considered as illiterate.
In fact, there seems to be an abyss between our literate ethics
and logical thinking and the way some people considered illit-
erate think and behave. Furthermore, this transcends logic in
the sense Luria (1979) brought to light: it has something to do
with logic, but it also has to do with ethics and ethnicities. In
this case, I concluded that the difference between oral and
scriptural ethé might be at stake. Oral ethos implies reference to
family and community bonds whereas the acknowledgement of
rules present in broader social coexistence is typical of scrip-
tural ethos. In either case, however, we have strict rules which
are learnt implicitly or explicitly belonging to particular social
groups. It is, therefore, impossible to think about different dis-
course genres belonging to different social practices and be-
haviors as smoothly ranging from one to another pattern. The
transit from restricted to full literacy implies changing one’s
participation in a certain ethic in order to start one’s familiarity
with another one. Social roles, however, are not so smoothly or
harmoniously interchangeable.
Discussion: When Ethnicity Crosses Literacy:
Style as a Result of Confrontation
and Assimilation
My previous discussion concerns the fact that it is not just
genres that incorporate elements present in pre-existing realities;
it is social reality that involves the coexistence of old and new
elements, of archaic and modern social relations and ethé3.
Taking this into account, when rural adults considered illiter-
ate start to have contact with urban literacy, it is not only the
written language they have to dominate: there are different eth-
nicities in confrontation or, making use of the Bakhtinian con-
ce pti on, b ut al so t here is an arena of social struggle and conflict .
There is a fight for hegemony, which does not only imply a
struggle for participation in urban hegemonic literate alterity
and ethos, but it also implies a confrontation and an attempt
towards maintaining old structures with which one is most
concerned with. Again, we are before the intersection of the
ethnicity variable across the illiterate-literate and rural-urban
continua, which, in a certain sense, consist of the same con-
tinuum, as far as we take into consideration social reality as a
whole and all the elements it is formed of4.
Post-modernity emphasizes diversity and, at this point of my
conclusion, it is pertinent to raise the question: in what sense is
it possible to coexist with diversity or to provide that different
ethnicities coexist when we know that confrontation and a
struggle for hegemony is involved? Or in other words: in what
sense should different ethnicities coexist when they involve
questions related to ideology and to power?
Many years ago, when I taught at a secondary school in a
very poor neighborhood located on the seashore of a southeast-
ern Brazilian town, I was explaining to my fourteen-year-old
students socio-linguistic concepts related to variation and diver-
sity. I said that there was a verbal form in Brazilian Portuguese
which had more prestige (“eu pus”) and another one which was
also correct, but suffered stigmatization (“eu ponhei”). I ex-
plained that their use depended on social context and on the
choice of different language styles, so that each of them could
be adequate for a different situation, but neither could be con-
sidered incorrect. In a peculiar form, I was defending post-
modern relativism and diversity. I said that “eu ponhei” could
be used at home or in the neighborhood, together with friends
or with their family; and that “eu pus” should be preferred in
more formal contexts5.
A tall Afro-Brazilian student raised his hand and said: “I do
not agree with this concept. Before, I used to say ‘eu ponhei’,
but as soon as I knew this was a wrong verbal form, I did not
want to pronounce it any longer.” The prejudice against the
popular variety of Brazilian Portuguese is very deep-rooted,
characterizing restricted literacy. Ideology and the struggle for
hegemony are definitely presented in everyday relations and
conversation, in the arena Bakhtin refers to, of dialectic and
dialogical social confrontation and struggle. In this context, it
becomes very difficult to defend the pacific co-existence of di-
verse registers, because one is not able to convince citizens on
the basis of argumentation, when the very struggle for rec-
ognition in society depends on the domination of the language
of the other and of his proper ethos and alterity.
Only later on, I would understand, together with Cohen
(1974) and Cardoso de Oliveira (2006), ethnicity as a factor of
style, i.e., as emergent socio-cultural phenomena implying con-
frontation among different ethnicities and generating style as a
trait of identity. According to Cardoso de Oliveira, when con-
sidering Brazilian society, one must take into account the fact
that one ethnicity enjoys hegemonic status within asymmetric
relations including a variety of different ethnicities, i.e., there is
a panorama in which different ethnic groups coexist in the same
social and political space (or “arena”, using Bakhtin’s terms)
dominated more intensively by one of them (Cardoso de Oli-
veira, 2006b: p. 178). Regarding the Afro-Brazilian student, I
interpreted that he would prefer to play his role in the arena of
conflict making use of hegemonic symbols, rather than the
symbols present in his community as a kind of camouflage for
his persona (Goffman, 1968).
4A discussion on the concept of ethnicity in its relation with literacy can be
found in Martins (2011).
5The contrast between “he isn’t” and “he ain’t” may be given as an equiva-
lent for this variation in Brazilian Portuguese. It should be mentioned that
this is not a d ir ect tra nsl ation of “eu pus”/“eu ponhei”.
3On the basis of Lotman’s concept of semiosphere (Lotman, 2005) we can
better und erstand the relation between ethos and et hnicities.
Open Access 11
Open Access
The continuum restricted-full literacy as far as it also in-
volves rural to urban migration points to the fact that history is
at stake and that linguistic studies are part of a broader reality
that calls for a socio-historical as well as for an anthropological
approach. The defense of a pacific coexistence of the diverse
may be possible in countries where a certain social equality is
presented. In the case of Brazilian reality, however, we are in
the middle of a historical transition from rural to urban life
which involves the difficult conquest of a place of citizenship
and of more thorough social participation. This reality implies,
on one hand, the recognition and acknowledgement of diversity
and alterity; on the other hand, however, it requires the very
struggle for hegemony, which means the struggle to ensure a
prominent place reserved for protagonist roles and not just for
supporting or subservient ones.
I acknowledge Fapesp (04/15539-3) for supporting the initial
two years of fieldwork, as well as Fapesp (09/13871-4 and
12/15852-0) for supporting further research involving indige-
nous people.
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