Here’s a foreign word most Americans would likely not ever
come across: saudade (sou-DAH-dthay).
It’s a word in the Portuguese language, and is often used not
only in its home country, but also in a land where Portuguese
is spoken the most --- Brazil.
In fact, it might surprise most Americans who speak English
as their native tongue to learn that about 270 million persons,
210 million in Brazil alone. speak this ancient romance language
derived, as most European languages were, from Latin. (The
Roman province where Portugal is located was called Lusitania.)
Portugal, with a population of about 11 million, isn’t even the
second largest nation speaking Portuguese. Two former
colonies, Angola and Mozambique, each with about 26 million
persons, have it as their official language. Portuguese is the
sixth most spoken language in the world.
So much for mere numbers.
Every language has at least a few words which are mostly
untranslatable. Saudade is one of those words in Portuguese.
Of course, there are a number of English words which hint at
its meaning, particularly “melancholy,” “nostalgia,” and
“longing for the past.” But those words don’t quite capture a
certain mood in the Portuguese/Brazilian character for the same
reason why popular American music, and the popular music of
any other ancient national peoples, have so many differences.
It is perhaps especially hard to translate saudade into English
which is so rich in vocabulary and diction, but not in emotion.
Nevertheless, in recent decades there has arisen considerable
popular American interest in the bossa nova and the samba,
those distinctive forms in Lusitanian-Brazilian music and
It should come as no surprise, that there is often much saudade
in the music of the bossa nova and the samba.
In fact, the rise of modern jazz and blues in American music
might be thought to bring new elements of emotion to our
But why am I making so much about this one word?
Occasionally, a word usually limited to one country or one
culture, and not found anywhere else, captures a more universal
meaning and use because global circumstances have a use for it.
As an American whose family emigrated from northern Europe,
and a writer immersed in his own language, the emotional
nuances of more southern or even Mediterranean cultures are an
acquired taste. I do speak Spanish as a second language, but not
Portuguese --- and although derived from the same source, and
simultaneously, on the same ancient Iberian peninsula, Spanish
and Portuguese carry many different senses of feeling and
As I’ve grown older, and particularly as I have passed through
probably the most dynamic period of global technological change,
I have found myself often thinking back not only about experiences,
and “things” and “places” which existed in the past, but no longer.
I find then there occurs feelings which are not merely “nostalgia,”
but something more. These are not just memories, as are often
called back to mind, but they produce also an intense emotion, a
powerful sadness ---as one might feel when something is
If the reader is about fifty years old or younger, this might well
not be a something they share or recognize. Even younger folks
who are used to ever-changing devices, dynamic images, and
new and faster forms of transportation, the non-rhetorical and
emotive sense of saudade might seem like gibberish, or (OMG)
too poetic, or worse, an alien notion.
I think, however, that my older readers --- even those from
Nordic, Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic origins --- perhaps might have
on occasion a sense of saudade, and the extra-rational feelings it
In another age, saudade might have easily been limited, as it
indeed was, to those who spoke a particular language and shared
some particular national experiences. Even in recent times,
memories of childhood and its objects, old films, old songs,
youthful adventures, persons known long ago and places visited
when young, have provoked conventional nostalgic feelings,
including their accompanying emotions, but I suggest that the
incredible velocities of change in almost every aspect of our lives
is now also producing a special emotion of loss as we recede from
the past so abruptly and so quickly.
In English there is no good word for this. Perhaps our
Portuguese-speaking neighbors have the right word for it.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.