Graham Keeley

The seemingly innocent letters y, k and w have provoked a bitter linguistic row among Portuguese speakers, with plans for them to oust three existing letters from the language.

The letters c, p and h could be consigned to orthographic history if the Portuguese government revives a proposal mooted in 1990 to standardise the language spoken by about 200 million people around the world.

At an international conference in Lisbon next month, supporters of the move will attempt to revive the Orthographic Accord, which was supported in 1990 by the governments of Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome, Cape Verde and Western Timor.

The idea was to standardise the Portuguese spoken in Oporto, Rio de Janeiro or Luanda — at least officially.

This would mean eliminating letters such as c, p and h, which exist in written words such as humido (humid) but are never pronounced. While some letters would be removed from the alphabet, the letters y, k and w, which until now have been excluded, would be introduced.

Though the 1990 accord had the support of more than three countries — enough for it to be officially adopted — it was never put into practice.

Now the government of Prime Minister Jose Socrates wants to revive the idea with the proviso that it is introduced gradually over six years. Portugal’s Culture Minister, Jose Antonio Pinto Ribeiro, has defended the “necessity to unify the Portuguese language in order to consolidate it internationally.”

But writer and Euro MP Vasco Navarro da Graca Moura condemned the move as a “grave error” that would reduce Portuguese to “ridicule in the world.”— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008