Brazilian Babel

Baré indians in the Cuieiras river, in the Amazon/photo by Daniel Zanini

by Sylvia Estrella*

You may be under the impression – like most people – that Portuguese is the only language spoken in Brazil. In fact, 0.5% of the population (around 750,000 people) are native speakers of 200 other languages, including the indigenous ones.
According to Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a non-profit that has the best statistics on the country’s native population, the 225 remaining Brazilian ethnic groups speak 180 different languages. A few Native groups abandoned their original languages and embraced other languages, such as Portuguese and French Creole (spoken in neighboring French Guyana).
Some of the Native languages remain relatively strong and are spoken by over 20,000 people. On the other hand, some are vanishing and are used by less than a couple dozen individuals.
Ana Vilacy, a Native languages specialist that works for the Emílio Goeldi Museum, in Belém, Pará, explains that the diversity of native languages is enormous. There are at least 40 different linguistic families in the country.


Some of them have lots of phonemes, while others have a very limited number of vowels and consonants. Some are tonal – certain syllables have a higher tone than others, like Chinese and Bantu. And some only use different tones to differentiate sentences (differenciating questions from affirmative phrases, for instance), just like most European languages.
The Tupi-Guarani family includes languages spoken all over the Brazilian territory and has most speakers. They can be found in the states of Rondônia, Amapá and Pará, in the Amazon region, and also in the Southern states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.
The three other main linguistic families are the Jê – spoken from Maranhão, in the Northeast, to Rio Grande do Sul, in the border with Argentina –, Aruak – in the West and East portions of the Amazon, in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul – and Karib, found mostly North of the Amazon river.

Around 1,000 languages disappeared since the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers, in 1500 (two per year). Their extinction began in the colonial period but continued during the Empire (19th century) and the Republican period. Recently, the phenomenon was particularly intense due to the agriculture and urban expansions towards the states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso between the decades of 1950 and 1970. These days, one of the main menaces to native languages is the break of traditions – the younger generations move to cities and small towns and loses contact with their original cultures.

The survival of native languages is fundamental because they contain part of the country’s cultural heritage that cannot be translated. Their destruction implies the disappearance of myths, grammatical structures, vocabulary, and of a point of view that cannot be replaced.

*Sylvia Estrella is a Brazilian journalist and translator specialized in the Environment and Aviation.

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