Eu houve? Doesn’t exist!

27, 29 & 30 May, 17 June 2010

Online Portuguese lesson

During the online Portuguese lesson I had on 27 June 2010, my teacher Cristina Vasconcelos mentioned that she had found the first person conjugation “houve” of the Portuguese verb “haver”, on my page, but that it doesn’t exist. So I put it in parentheses with a note that it doesn’t exist in the living language of today.

“Haver” as an auxiliary verb?

The reasons that the usage of the verb “haver” is quite restricted in Portuguese, are the following:

Mistranslation from Italian

Because the third person singular of the Portuguese simple perfect is also “houve”, and personal pronouns in the nominative case are often omitted – in other words, Portuguese is a pro-drop language, or more accurately a null subject language – googling the first person conjugation is difficult.

When instead googling it with the personal pronoun, I found this page where some Italian guy was translating an Italian poem, much too literally, into would-be Portuguese. So “Io ho avuto solo te” became “Eu houve so você”. He was quickly corrected by others, who eventually turned the translated line into: “Eu, eu que tive somente a ti”.


I own an old book on Portuguese grammar (more details here) by R.C. Willis. The original owner bought it, or got it as a present, on “27 januari 1965” – so he or she must have been Dutch, like me). I myself bought it in a second hand shop in Utrecht on 9 September 2003.

The books explains the usage of the verb “haver” in the sections 118, 124, 126 and 129.

In §118 on page 198, Willis wrote:

The Portuguese auxiliary usually employed is ter, although in highly literary style this may occasionally be replaced by the verb haver (§126).

Then in section 126, on page 202 we read:

The irregular verb haver.
(b) Uses:
(i) It may be employed in literary Portuguese as the auxiliary for the formation of the compound tenses. From the student’s point of view, this is its least important function.

Portuguese is compared to other Romance languages in §124, on pages 201 and 202, as follows:

Quando o {fez/fizera}, foi-se embora.
When he had done it, he went away.
Contrast the following:
French: Quand it l’eut fait, il s’en alla.
Spanish: Cuando lo hubo hecho, se fue.
Italian: Quando lo ebbe fatto, se ne andò.

Note that this edition of Willis’ book is 45 years old, so when the book calls something obsolete or archaic already in 1965, it certainly is now, in 2010.

I quote from §124 on page 200:

The Past Anterior. Students of other Romance languages should note that this tense has not been used in Portuguese since the fifteenth century.3

And that footnote reads:

In other words, such forms as teve feito, houve feito, etc., are quite obsolete.


As we shall soon see, what Willis wrote about the 15th century is true, in the sense that the verb “haver” was still used as an auxiliary verb back then. How it developed after that, i.e. how quickly it fell into disuse, I don’t know.

(Later addition: see this Comedia de Camões, in the 16th century:

Pois, senhor, se eu houve de pesar de alguém, não pesarei eu antes dos meus parentes, que dos alheios?” )

Be that as it may, on 27 June 2010 I got the idea that if the first person singular, “(eu) houve”, is non-existent in today’s Portuguese, so should the first person of the plural be. And that form, houvemos, is much easier to find, because it has a unique conjugation. So I used it in Google and soon found this old text, where we read:

E, depois que amanheceu, não houvemos vista dele nem dos outros navios;
Ao domingo seguinte, em amanhecendo, houvemos vista da Ilha do Sal, e logo daí a uma hora houvemos vista de três navios, os quais fomos demandar; [...]

Here, the verb “haver” was clearly still used as an auxiliary.

(On second thought (17 June): no, it is not; as “vista” is not a past participle, but the noun meaning “sight, vision”. This is corroborated by the later passage “porém, não houvemos conhecimento da terra.”, where “conhecimento” is also a noun. Anyway, this usage of “haver”, meaning “have, have at our disposal, have obtained”, is obsolete too.)

Associative thinking

The old text looked conspicuously familiar to me, and I soon realised why: A week earlier, on 20 June 2010, I happened to have found that same text, but in a different edition, from 1838, which reproduces the original spelling.

The chain of associations by which I found it was:

In the lesson, we discussed the use of the Portuguese article with Christian names, e.g. “o Pedro”. I mentioned a song I remembered which had in the lyrics: “Foi Pedro”. Later I remembered and found that the song is by Djavan, has the title “Pedro do Brasil”, and that the lyrics contain the line: “Atenção: quem descobriu o Brasil foi Pedro.”

The song is probably about Pedro Álvares Cabral, the man who discovered Brazil. While reading about him (in Portuguese, of course), I also wanted to know more about Vasco da Gama and from there arrived at Note 7 of the Wikipedia article.

Portugall no seculo xv

That note refers to this book, probably written by Álvaro Velho. It was printed in 1838 after a manuscript which is thought to date from 1497, as the title indicates:

Roteiro da viagem que em descobrimento da India pelo Cabo da Boa Esperança fez dom Vasco da Gama em 1497: Segundo um manuscripto coetaneo existente na Bibliotheca publica portuense”.

The nice thing about it (in my humble opinion, though others might disagree) is that the printed version closely follows the original 513 years old spelling of what was then the Portuguese language.

I find it surprisingly easy to read, in part because this is not literary language, but largely a factual account of what happened to the crew during their long sea journey. It also helps that earlier on I already tried to read some pages of other old Portuguese books from various centuries, so many of the apparently strange spelling conventions didn’t seem too unfamiliar to me – although they too changed in the course of the centuries, and sometimes even within one sentence: there was no fixed orthography, every writer wrote according to what he thought best.

See also the Lusíadas in the original spelling of 1572.

Muting of the phoneme /h/

The word “houvemos” in the lines from 1497 I quoted earlier, was originally spelled “ouvemos”, and I must admit that it is one of the words I didn’t recognize until a week later I saw the same text in modern spelling.

It is interesting to compare some more old and new spellings. I take two examples from page 3:

15th century Portuguese spelling Modern Portuguese spelling

E hũa quynta feira que eram tres dias Dagosto partimos em Leste, e hindo huũ dia com Sull quebrou a verga ao capitam moor e foy em xviij dias Dagosto e seria isto ij’ legoas da Jlha de Samtiaguo , [...]

E uma quinta feira que eram três dias de Agosto partimos em leste, e indo um dia com sul quebrou a verga ao capitão-mor e foi em 18 dias de Agosto e seria isto 200 léguas da Ilha de Santiago, [...]

A vinte e sete dias do mes Doutubro vespora de Sam-Simam e Judas que hera sesta feira achamos mujtas baleas, e hũas que se chamam quoquas , e lobos marinhos.

A vinte e sete dias do mês de Outubro véspera de São Simão e Judas que era sexta feira achamos muitas baleias, e umas que se chamam focas, e lobos marinhos.

Earlier on we noticed that the “h” of “houvemos” was not written (or not always written) in 1497. It is however etymologically justified (Latin: habúimus) and written in modern Portuguese, although it isn’t pronounced.

The reverse situation also occurs a lot:

Latinpt 1497pt 2010
una hũa uma
unas hũas umas
unu huũ um
erant eram eram
erat hera era
iéntis hindo indo
est he é

We see that in many cases an “h” was written in 15th century Portuguese that wasn’t there in Latin. A typical example of a hypercorrection. In one case, that of “era/eram”, the spelling is inconsistent even on the same page: it is written with an “h” in one case and without it in another.

We see the same phenomenon in the writing of Camões in 1572, but slightly different when looking at the details.

To me, this is proof that either:

The English Wikipedia article on Vulgar Latin is rather elaborate, but unless I overlooked it, it doesn’t say what happened to Latin “h” and when and where that happened.

See also, about another grammatical feature still current in Galician, but no longer in Portuguese: Falar com Jeito 68 - Houvemos de morrer, written by Fernando Vázquez Corredoira.

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