Madureira on Laban, 'Dicionário de particularidades lexicais e morfossintácticas de expressão literária em português: Moçambique'

Michel Laban. Dicionário de particularidades lexicais e morfossintácticas de expressão literária em português: Moçambique. Paris: Chandeigne, 2018. 1536 pp. EUR 48.00, ISBN 978-2-36732-183-7.

Reviewed by Raquel Madureira (Universidade de Lisboa)
Published on H-Luso-Africa (July, 2022)
Commissioned by Philip J. Havik (Instituto de Higiene e Medicina Tropical (IHMT))

Printable Version:

After achieving independence in 1975, Mozambique adopted Portuguese as its official language. Since then, Portuguese has experienced a period of expansion, visible in the increasing number of speakers. Simultaneously, it has undergone a process of nativization, resulting in a new language variety with its own lexical, phonetic, and morphosyntactic features. This linguistic context has had a significant influence on Mozambican literature. Many writers integrate, either consciously or not, characteristics of the Mozambican variety of Portuguese in their works. Released in 2018, the lexicographical work of Michel Laban, entitled Dicionário de particularidades lexicais e morfossintáticas da expressão literária em português: Moçambique, makes a valuable contribution to the study of Mozambican literature, since it exhaustively catalogs and classifies the main particularities of Mozambican Portuguese found in literary works. The contribution of Laban’s work, however, goes even further, entering the domain of linguistics and promoting a better understanding of the Mozambican variety of Portuguese.

Published in two volumes by Chandeigne Editions, Laban’s dictionary has a total of 1,536 pages. Its data was collected from a corpus of 359 literary works, in addition to 118 nonliterary works of a historical or sociological nature, which illustrate and clarify the meaning of certain concepts. The works were produced by a total of 239 authors over a period of four centuries (between 1609 and 2004). Nevertheless, only six were produced before the twentieth century.

The dictionary is the culmination of several decades of investigation. Laban started this project in the 1980s, following his interest in the literature of Portuguese-speaking African countries.[1] This interest guided his career both as a professor at the University of Paris III and as a translator. Among his publications, Angola: Encontros com escritores (1991), Cabo-Verde: Encontros com escritores (1992), Moçambique: Encontros com escritores (1998), and São Tomé e Príncipe: Encontros com escritores (2002) are particularly worth mentioning, as they reflect Laban’s contact with different African authors. This resulted in one of the dictionary’s most relevant features: the inclusion of definitions proposed by the writers themselves.

Unfortunately, the project was interrupted by Laban’s death in 2008. Only later would it be recovered by the author's wife, Maria José Laban. She resumed work on the dictionary in collaboration with Maria Helena de Araújo Carreira, a specialist in Portuguese linguistics. Following the methodology and guidelines left by Michael Laban, they completed the research, focusing mainly on gathering definitions and organizing the morphosyntactic aspects of the dictionary. In the words of Maria José Laban: “My role was not to continue the research, but to finish it, and format it, and above all to not introduce anything new” (p. 8).

The end result is a work with thousands of entries, totaling about 9,500.[2] The dictionary has three main sections. The first constitutes the dictionary itself and includes entries on lexical particularities of Mozambican Portuguese. The second groups together lexical items according to an onomasiological classification that focuses not only on the word’s form, but also on the concept behind it. It highlights lexical networks of meaning. The final section explores morphosyntactic particularities found in Mozambican literature. Besides that, the dictionary provides four different bibliographies. The first presents the authors and works in alphabetical order, while the second organizes them in a chronological order. Readers are also provided with a bibliography of the works’ abbreviations as they appear in the entries and a bibliography of nonliterary works.

In the section concerning lexical particularities, each entry provides information on a lexical item, specifying its morphological classification. Entries also include the citation where the lexical item is found and a definition. Whenever possible, the definition is provided by the author who used the lexical item. If the lexical item appears in works produced by different authors, the occurrences are organized chronologically. Lexical items created by the authors themselves are also included, even if they are one‑time occurrences, and are signalized with an asterisk. According to Laban, creations account for about a third of the entries.[3] The following example illustrates the information found in the dictionary:

“cacana’s whitie”: n. phr. P. Chiziane, Niketche 133 (13) ­– A mulata? – Ju asks, more curious. I don’t like mulatto women. They are our men’s perdition. / – «Nhangana eater», third-class mulata – Lu mocks. – She must be the daughter of some «cacana’s whitie», some white shopkeeper in the slum, far in the suburbs. ✎ «A white person that lives in the suburbs and interacts with black people. (Cacana: Eatable grass, with bitter leaves, also used as a medicine, and usually eaten by black people). (p. 208)[4]

In this entry, Paulina Chiziane, Mozambique’s best-known female writer, defines the expression “cacana’s whitie,” which describes white people living in the suburbs. The information provided by the dictionary will surely be useful for readers seeking reliable definitions, but also for those studying Mozambican literature. The data gathered is an excellent basis for the analysis of the Mozambican writers’ work, regarding, for instance, the frequency of literary creations. It is also worth noting that some entries provide explanations of great anthropological and cultural value, giving the readers a broad perspective of Mozambique´s reality.

The dictionary is indeed deeply rooted in Mozambique’s linguistic and cultural context, only including lexical items particular to the country. The lexical items’ selection followed a differential criterion, and words or expressions already registered in European Portuguese dictionaries were not considered. The only exception was whenever a lexical item acquired a different meaning in the Mozambican context. This selection criterion highlights what distinguishes the Mozambican variety from other Portuguese varieties. While this may be practical for readers, it may also result in an inaccurate view of the Mozambican variety of Portuguese. Some of its characteristics may end up being overlooked, particularly those shared with European Portuguese. By focusing only on the differences between both varieties, Laban’s work may neglect what they have in common, not only on a lexical level, but also in a morphosyntactic sense.

The last section of the dictionary focuses exactly on the morphosyntactic particularities of Mozambican Portuguese. Those deviations are classified and organized according to their typology. Usually, the dictionary provides a brief comment by the author explaining the motivation behind specific grammar deviations. Some of them are instances of creations and artistic freedoms. Others are considered typographical errors. From a linguistics’ perspective, deviations that seem to reflect oral discourse are particularly relevant. When available, quotes from nonliterary works help to elucidate the linguistic phenomena in question. References to the Panorama do Português Oral de Maputo, a corpus of oral speech from the 1990s, produced by speakers living in Maputo, are especially noteworthy.[5] This oral source gives a glimpse into local oral traditions, allowing the reader to weigh the prevalence of a specific phenomenon in the community. This may help to overcome some of the limitations of using literary texts in the field of linguistics.

Many linguists hesitate when it comes to using literary texts as sources for studying a community’s grammar. Literary works are products of an individual grammar, the author’s grammar, and do not represent all speakers. As Perpétua Gonçalves, a prominent Mozambican linguist, says: “In general, linguists do not concern themselves with literary language, considered an individualized product, which is not representative of the community of speakers of a particular language, and therefore cannot be regarded as a valid basis for understanding the human faculty of language, one of the key aims of modern linguistics.”[6] The extent to which a literary work reflects a community as a whole is indeed debatable.

In addition, some of the works included in the dictionary were produced by native speakers of European Portuguese, such as Ascêncio de Freitas or Glória de Sant’Ana. Other writers know and use fluently the European Portuguese norm. So, their deviant productions are mostly conscious and intentional, being the result of a mimetic intention. As Gonçalves notes: “The use of ‘deviant’ forms constitutes a real option of their literary style.”[7] In the postindependence era, intellectuals started to consider some deviations as symbols of Mozambicanity. Those deviations were highly appreciated and integrated in literature. They were mainly lexical or phonetic in nature, not syntactical, as the number of lexical particularities in the dictionary shows. According to Gonçalves: “The nativization of the European pattern occurred not in accordance with literary/imaginary models, but, on the basis of the socio-linguistic context in which it is acquired and used.”[8]

Literary works are, in fact, products of creativity. Authors are free to manipulate language, without strictly following the community’s speech. Although some may try to reproduce orality, they are not forced to replicate its characteristics faithfully in literature. Gonçalves even considers that writers such as Mia Couto produce more deviations than the average speaker of the Mozambican variety of Portuguese.[9] Their works are more distant from the European Portuguese norm, since they feature not only national, but also individual deviations typical of creative processes. Indeed, the dictionary registers a large number of creations, and authors often classify certain deviations as inventions or products of individual freedom.

However, it should be noted that, in some cases, authors fail to provide reliable explanations for linguistic phenomena. Maria José Laban clearly states this in the introduction to the dictionary: “We emphasize the difficulty in pondering the appreciation of authors relative to a creation, an effective ‘dictionarization’ of the terms and generalized usage in Mozambique” (p. 16).[10] The authors cited in the dictionary are not, for the most part, linguists. Thus, their explanations often reflect intuitions not based on empirical research. For example, among the deviations related to the verb gostar (to like), Machado da Graça’s comment illustrates the point in question: “I cannot explain. Phrased in a colloquial fashion it sounds better than the grammatically correct sentence. Probably, it is a generalized form which I already absorbed” (p. 1462).[11] The occurrence is classified as a deviation connected to verbal regency. Nonetheless, in this specific case, it is an instance of the chopping strategy in relative clauses, a strategy also common in spoken European Portuguese.[12] So, this strategy does not seem to be a particularity unique to the Mozambican variety.

Despite the reservations raised, the use of literary works can have advantages. Oral speech corpora are still relatively few for the African varieties of Portuguese, including for the Mozambican variety. Thus, the analysis of literary texts may help to fill in this gap. Furthermore, investigation based on corpora with several informants may result in data instability, something that could be avoided by analyzing a single speaker’s speech. Ana Maria Martins highlights the shortcomings of analyzing speech produced by multiple speakers: “We could make the mistake of giving a meaning to a body of data that does not correspond to anybody’s grammar.”[13] In this sense, the authors’ individual varieties, reflected in their literary style, may allow us to observe their internal grammars, contributing to a better understanding of certain linguistic phenomena.

Literary works may also reveal how consolidated a linguistic change is, reflecting its diffusion and acceptance by different social strata, including privileged classes. Community acceptance is especially important in non-native varieties. As Gonçalves states: “The attitudes, negative or positive, of the speakers of non-native varieties to their own innovations should also be taken into consideration in a process of linguistic standardization, given that they could determine their acceptance and preservation as part of a cultural heritage of a particular community, or on the contrary, could prompt their rejection and abandonment.”[14] In a context of variation and instability, typical of a variety undergoing a process of nativization, literary works may help us to understand better which linguistic changes will prevail and potentially integrate a future norm.

Literary texts likewise allow a look into the past of Mozambican Portuguese. Taken as an historical corpus, they may constitute an important basis for analyzing this variety’s evolution. Furthermore, they may help us to identify the moment in which the variety started to differentiate itself from European Portuguese. Despite being in small number, there were already some speakers of Portuguese in Mozambique prior to 1975. Gonçalves considers that the bases for the implantation of Portuguese were laid from 1918 to 1975.[15] This period was marked by a substantial increase in the number of Portuguese settlers and by the institution of indigenous education, created in 1930 by the colonial government. Prior to that, the few schools that existed in Mozambique were mainly administered by Catholic missions. In fact, in 1890, there was only one primary school in all the Mozambican territory.[16] Therefore, the first Mozambican speakers of Portuguese started to appear mostly between 1918 and 1975 and, with them, the first differentiating characteristics of the Mozambican variety. Authors from that period may thus prove to be a valuable source for the study of Mozambican Portuguese. The dictionary may have a say in this investigation, because it includes a considerable number of works prior to 1975. Nevertheless, considering the relatively recent implantation of Portuguese in Mozambique, the inclusion of earlier authors, such as Frei João dos Santos or João de Azevedo Coutinho, seems debatable. In fact, it seems anachronistic to speak of Mozambican Portuguese prior to the twentieth century and even more so given that most of those earlier authors were native speakers of European Portuguese and produced mainly colonial narratives.

In conclusion, the Dicionário de particularidades lexicais e morfossintáticas da expressão literária em português: Moçambique is a valuable source for the study of Mozambican literary works, contributing with definitions provided by writers. These definitions provide rich information about the Mozambican universe at a cultural, anthropological, and linguistic level. Even though literary texts have their limitations, Laban’s work may have an important contribution in the field of linguistics and particularly in investigation related to the Mozambican variety of Portuguese. By focusing on the authors’ individual varieties, the dictionary is a useful tool for the study of internal grammars and idiolects. In addition, it may provide cues about when certain language changes started to manifest themselves and the extent to which extent they are accepted by the community.


[1]. Michel Laban, “Reflexões sobre a elaboração de um inventário das particularidades do português de Moçambique através da literatura,” Veredas: Revista da Associação Internacional de Lusitanistas 3 (2000): 655-64.

[2]. Laban, “Reflexões sobre a elaboração de um inventário das particularidades do português de Moçambique através da literatura,” 656.

[3]. Laban, “Reflexões sobre a elaboração de um inventário das particularidades do português de Moçambique através da literatura,” 659.

[4]. “branco de cacana: loc. nom. P. Chiziane, Niketche 133 (13) ­– Mulata? – diz a Ju, mais curiosa. Não gosto de mulatas. Elas são a perdição dos nossos homens. / – Mulata «prova nhangana», mulata de terceira – diz a Lu num tom de gozo. – Deve ser filha de um «branco de cancana», branco de loja de caniço, lá dos confins dos subúrbios. ✎ «Branco que vive no subúrbio, que convive com os negros. (Cacana: gramínea alimentícia, de folhas amargas, que serve também. de medicamento, que os negros habitualmente comem.)”

[5]. Perpétua Gonçalves and Christopher Stroud, Panorama do Português Oral de Maputo (Maputo: Instituto Nacional do Desenvolvimento da Educação, 1997-2000).

[6]. Perpétua Gonçalves, “Para uma aproximação Língua-Literatura em português de Angola e Moçambique,” Via Atlântica 4 (2000): 212-23, 213. “De um modo geral, os linguistas não se ocupam da linguagem literária, considerada um produto individualizado, não representativo da comunidade de locutores de uma língua, e não podendo, por essa razão, ser considerada uma base válida para o conhecimento da faculdade humana da linguagem, um dos objetivos centrais da linguística moderna.”

[7]. Perpétua Gonçalves, Português de Moçambique: Uma Variedade em Formação (Maputo: Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, 1996), 23. “O uso de formas ‘desviantes’ constitui uma verdadeira opção do seu estilo literário.”

[8]. Perpétua Gonçalves, “A formação de variedades africanas do português: Argumentos para uma abordagem multidimensional,” in A língua portuguesa: Presente e futuro – Textos da Conferência Internacional “A língua portuguesa: presente e futuro” (Lisbon: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. Serviço de Educação e Bolsas, 2004): 223-42, 9. “A nativização do padrão europeu processou-se não de acordo com modelos literários/imaginários, mas de acordo com o contexto sociolinguístico em que é adquirido e usado.”

[9]. Gonçalves, “Para uma aproximação Língua-Literatura em português de Angola e Moçambique,” 223.

[10]. “Sublinhe-se, pois, a dificuldade de ponderar a apreciação dos autores relativamente a uma criação, a dicionarização efetiva dos termos e a utilização generalizada em Moçambique.”

[11]. João Peres and Telmo Móia, Áreas críticas da língua portuguesa (Lisbon: Caminho, 1995).

[12]. “Não sei explicar. Em frases coloquiais soa-me melhor do que a frase gramaticalmente correcta. Provavelmente é uma forma generalizada que eu já absorvi.”

[13]. Ana Maria Martins, “A ‘língua desportuguesa’. Próclise no português angolano e no português moçambicano,” Linguística: Revista de Estudos Linguísticos da Universidade do Porto N.º Especial (2021): 71-97, 94. “[P]oderemos incorrer no equívoco de querer dar sentido a um conjunto de dados que não corresponde à gramática de ninguém.”

[14]. Gonçalves, “A formação de variedades africanas do português,” 16. “[A]s atitudes, negativas ou positivas, dos falantes de variedades não‑nativas face às suas próprias inovações devem também ser tomadas em consideração num processo de padronização linguística, visto que elas podem determinar a sua aceitação e consequente conservação como parte do património de uma dada comunidade, ou, pelo contrário, levar à sua rejeição e consequente abandono.”

[15]. Gonçalves, Português de Moçambique, 29.

[16]. Gonçalves, Português de Moçambique, 29.

Citation: Raquel Madureira. Review of Laban, Michel, Dicionário de particularidades lexicais e morfossintácticas de expressão literária em português: Moçambique. H-Luso-Africa, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022.

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