Betacism

Have you ever heard of betacism? It is a fascinating concept that explains the question of a particular accent, typical in some regions speaking Romance Languages. 

Betacism is a sound change in which [b], the voiced bilabial plosive, as in bane, and [v] (the voiced labiodental fricative, as in vane, are confused (Wikipedia). 

This phenomenon happens in northern Portugal and Spain, southern Italy, and some northeastern and central-western Brazil regions.

Explained in a very generic way, it has to do with the fact that the [v] was the spelling for the letter [u] in Latin. The [v] sound, as voiced labiodental fricative, did not exist.

In the Latin sentence (in the photo), we can see some examples of the use of the [v] as an [u], as the words “forvm,” meorvm, devm, qvorum – all these [v] ‘s had evolved to [u].

So the Latin alphabet did not have the letters [j] and [v] – these were introduced in the Portuguese in the 16th century to replace the [i] and [u] with consonant functions.

In this century, some political changes resulted from the Christian reconquest – which promoted contact with the Arab language and culture – and the transfer of power to the kingdom’s center. The rise of the second dynasty (Avis dynasty) – which took the role of the nobility of northern Portugal – turned the variant spoken in that center area into the cult standard of the language. In their variant, the [v] had already the sound of voiced labiodental fricative. The north lost its influence, but people from the north remained with their accents, and until today, the betacism remains.

Linguists like Maria Alice Fernandes and Esperança Cardeira admit that this leveling “may have been conscious and aimed at distancing from the northern variants, Portuguese and Galician.” These authors emphasize the “construction of an identity symbol typical of the reigning dynasty – the House of Avis.”

Until today, northern Portugal’s historical and geographical proximity to Galicia has preserved characteristics of ancient speech. Nowadays, people from the north of Portugal (like me) remain using this old rule. To a foreigner, this goes unnoticed, but when a northerner goes to the south, his different accent is noticeable, and sometimes Lisbon people can’t understand some old words used in the north of Portugal.

People from my region – Minho – is very close to Galicia, and we understand them perfectly – we use the same old words, very close to Latin.

When I was a kid in my hometown, it was easier to get a TV signal from Spain than from Portugal, and I used to watch the cartoons, all dubbed in Spanish. This informal bilingualism turned out to be positive in my professional career and further reinforced my betacism.