I know a very well-educated woman in Rio, a carioca who spent a year as a high school exchange student with a farm family in a small town in Minnesota. Shortly after her arrival there, several neighbors came by to welcome her. Many of them had never met a foreigner, much less someone from faraway, exotic Brazil.
That evening everyone sat around the farm house as she patiently answered questions about Rio and life in Brazil–all predictable questions until one well-meaning farm boy asked “Do you use the same numbers that we do?”
He thought that, aside from a different language, Brazilians might also use a different numerical system. Holding back a laugh, she told him that most of the world had adopted what we call “Arabic numbers” several centuries ago. That boy grew up to be a prominent attorney, and she still enjoys telling the story today.
Fortunately, as students of Portuguese, we don’t have to learn a new number system or a new alphabet—just a few accents marks and other spelling and pronunciation aids. Also, the number “1” is often written with a “tail” descending to the left, and the “7” may have a line across the long stroke, to differentiate it from the “1”. That’s about it, so far as differences are concerned.
There are, however, some interesting variations you’ll want to know:
6 is pronounced “meia”: What?? (“O que??”) In English we say “six of one, half a dozen of the other” to mean “it’s about the same”. Brazilians say “trocar seis por meia dúzia” (to exchange six for half a dozen). Simple enough, but did you know that the word “meia” (half) is used in Brazil to also express the number 6 (“seis”)? Maybe it’s because the words “três” and “seis” sound so similar that Brazilians normally say “meia” for the number six, especially in a sequence. The street address 163 becomes “um-meia-três”. A sixty-five year old may tell you that his age is “meia cinco”. Most people count items this way: “um, dois, três, quarto, cinco, meia, sete, oito…”
Masculine and Feminine Numbers: If you’ve studied Spanish you know that the number ONE is “uno/un” or “una” depending whether you’re talking about masculine or feminine nouns: un hombre (“one man” or “a man”), una mujer (“one woman” or “a woman”).
In Latin this differentiation of numerals continues on to TWO and THREE (not to mention NEUTER!). Portuguese is right in between Spanish and Latin, splitting the number 2 into masculine and feminine: dois homens (“two men”), duas mulheres (“two women”).
Use duas also for any feminine noun: duas laranjas (two oranges), duas canetas (two pens), duas camisas (two shirts); but dois carros (two cars), dois pratos (two plates). Also use duzentos (masculine) or duzentas (feminine) for 200, trezentos/trezentas, for 300, etc.
This masculine/feminine difference for numbers extends infinitely: vinte e dois carros (22 cars), trinta e duas mesas (32 tables), duzentas e sessenta e duas pessoas (262 persons), quinientas e vinte e duas alunas (522 female students), oitocentas mil libras (800,000 pounds), o filme começa às vinte e duas horas (the film starts at 22:00—10 P.M.)
“171”: If someone is “171” (um-sete-um), they are tricky, dishonest, a liar, someone likely to take advantage of you. It’s based on Article 171 of the Brazilian Penal Code, quoted here: “Art. 171 – Obter, para si ou para outrem, vantagem ilícita, em prejuízo alheio, induzindo ou mantendo alguém em erro, mediante artifício, ardil, ou qualquer outro meio fraudulento. Pena – reclusão, de um a cinco anos, e multa.” Punishment from one to five years no cárcere (in jail). This expression is often used informally to mean a bothersome person, somewhat like we use “86” in the United States.
“13” (treze): Bad luck in English is “azar” in Portuguese.
“24” (vinte e quatro): In the lottery game “jogo do bicho” (see article on “Português na Rua”), the number 24 corresponds to the deer, which is “veado” in Portuguese. “Veado” (pronounced vee-AH-doo) also is a derogatory word for “gay,” so most men in Brazil don’t like to be associated with the number 24. You will never see any Brazilian soccer player with 24 on his uniform.
“Even and Odd” (“par” e “ímpar”): In English “odd” is a somewhat negative word. But in Portuguese “uma pessoa ímpar” is “a unique person”, generally a positive quality.
X-9 (pronounced sheesh-KNOW-vee): a “X-9” is a snitch, a tattle-tale, a person who denounces someone to the police, the boss, his wife, or another authority.
X-burger: You figure it out–the letter X is pronounced “sheesh”; so what is a X-burger?
V6: “Vocês” (“you all”–text talk)
Um zero à esquerda: a “zero”, a loser (literally, a zero in the left column = adds no value)
Ela é um número: She’s a real character!
And when it’s time to leave (sair) the botequim and go home for the night, ask for:
A saideira: “One for the road”