Indigenous Language in Brazil

Lúcia Gaspar
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
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Currently, there are approximately 350,000 Indians living in communities in Brazil and over 192,000 in urban centres, according to estimates of Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), since there is not a census with demographic data on the indigenous population in the country.

Although the official language of Brazil is Portuguese, there are about 180 indigenous languages spoken in the country – not counting the isolated Indians, who due to lack of contact with society have not yet been able to be met and studied. It is estimated that at the time of the discovery of Brazil, there were 1,300 different indigenous languages. About a thousand of them were lost for various reasons, including the death of the Indians, due to epidemics, extermination, enslavement, poor conditions for survival and forced acculturation.

As the primary means of organising human experience and knowledge, language also represents an important factor in the culture and history of a people.

There are different ways to classify them. Today, linguists believe that the most appropriate is the genetic criterion, in which languages ​​that have a common origin in an older, now extinct one are combined into the same class.

The languages are grouped into language families, which in turn are combined into language trunks, taking into account the similarities and differences. The languages ​​whose common origin comes from thousands of years ago are grouped into trunks, and the similarities between them are quite subtle. In the language families, however, the similarities are closer since separations occurred more recently.

The first contact for studying these languages in the Brazilian territory was made by the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries at the time of colonisation, with the coastal Tupi tribes, whose languages ​​were very similar to each other and were considered as the prototype of the country’s indigenous languages. All other native languages were neglected by the Portuguese, as well as by the Tupi people, being included in a group called Tapuya, which means ‘enemy’ or ‘barbarian’ in the Tupi language. Missionaries called them ‘locked’ languages, considered anomalous and very difficult to pronounce.

Tupi was the only language studied in the first three hundred years of colonisation. The basic goal of the missionaries was to learn and study it in order to communicate with the Indians and promote religious catechesis. Father José de Anchieta published a Tupi grammar in 1595. There are also studies on the language produced by foreign travellers, especially Frenchman Jean de Léry.

There are two main trunks of indigenous languages ​​in Brazil, the Tupi and Macro-Jê, and language families that, for not having enough degrees of similarities, cannot be grouped into trunks, namely: Karib, Pano, Maku, Yanoama, Mura, Tukano, Katukina, Txapakura, Nambikwara and Guaikuru.

The Tupi trunk consists of the following gene families: Tupi-Guarani, Monde, Tuparí Juruna, Mundurukú and Ramarána, and also includes three isolated languages ​​(Aweti, Sateré-Mawé and Puruborá). The languages ​​of the Tupi-Guarani family are spoken in several Brazilian regions, and other countries of South America (Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, French Guiana, Colombia, Paraguay and Argentina). All other families of the Tupi trunk are located in Brazil, specifically south of the Amazon River.

The Macro-Jê trunk has five genetic families: Jê, Bororo, Botocudo, Karajá, and Maxakalí, plus four languages: Guató, Ofayé, Rikbaktsá and Yathê or Fulniô.

There are also languages that could not be included by linguists in any of these families and therefore remain unclassified and isolated, as those spoken by the Tikúna, Trumái and Irântxe/Munku, Trumái, Máku, Aikaná, Arikapú, Jabutí, Kanoê and Koaiá or Kwazá.

Some indigenous languages ​​are subdivided into various dialects, such as those spoken by the Krikatí, Ramkokamekrá, Pükobyê, Apaniekrá (Maranhão), Apinayé, Krahó and Gavião (hawk) (Pará), all belonging to the Timbira language.

Among the nine groups of Indians of Pernambuco, only the Fulni-ô still cultivate their native language, Yathê, as a means of communication, which helps them to preserve their cultural identity. The other communities – Atikum, Kambiwá, Kapinawá, Pankararu, Tuxá, Truká, Xucuru and Pipipã – speak Portuguese.

The permanent coexistence of Indians with society makes them end up losing their original language and speaking only Portuguese. Some sparse words and information still remain from some languages. From others, however, not even remnants exist, which constitutes a great loss. Each one of them expressed a whole culture and a unique way of viewing the world.

From the 1980s, there was a major development in the study of indigenous language, with a greater engagement of students in the subject and the training of specialists, the latter also involved in programs to train indigenous teachers.

The Brazilian indigenous languages that still exist have enormous linguistic diversity, both with regard to the organisation of sound systems and grammatical structure. It’s important to highlight, however, that few of them have been studied in depth, with their knowledge in constant revision.

Recife, 19 April 2011.

Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2012.


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Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Indigenous Language in Brazil. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at:  <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009


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