An Exploration into the languages of South America

South American Languages

South America is often regarded linguistically as a kind of Brobdingnagian extension of the Iberian peninsula, pock-marked here and there with moribund holdouts of post-Inca vernacular and such occasional presumed idioglossocracies as El Dorado and The Lost City of Z, but, in point of fact, it comprises a rich and officially demarcated language landscape à la European Union (or other quasi-state entity of your choosing). Almost all post-colonial societies accept the teleology according to which the language of the “conqueror” (as he is called in Spanish America) or the “discoverer” (in Brazilian terminology) extirpates that which he finds spoken on his arrival, much as the harrow does the unfortunate toad. Nonetheless, in spite of the persistence of this harsh received wisdom, the languages autochthonous to the region live on and often flourish under sometimes surprising umbrellas of official recognition, tardy and fenestrated though these may be.

South American Languages

As may be known to fans of Graham Greene, Paraguay is the land of Guarani. Guarani – the national language of that glorious country – is none other than the southern variation of Brazil’s historic lingua vulgaris, Tupi (once spoken the length and breadth of the land by all and sundry (that is to say, by blacks and whites as well as índios) before being actively suppressed by the Marquis of Pombal as part of his anti-Jesuit campaign (its battle for prominence with Portuguese inspiring Oswald de Andrade’s famous line “Tupi or not Tupi?”)). If we consider that Tupi and Guarani are two very similar offshoots from the same trunk, and add to them a third branch, known as Nheengatu, and then investigate where this polynymous language enjoys official status, we find that it is legislated for from Formosa province in Northern Argentina, through Paraguay, Bolivia and southern Brazil, all the way to the Colombian border (where it is co-official with four other languages in the Belgium-sized municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira). Add to this the fact that the language forms a substrate all over the region – in the names of foods, plants, animals, topographical features and slang – and that it is known enough to be cross-referenced in translations referring to sites of historic interest (e.g. the Salvador neighbourhood of Rio Vermelho – ‘Red River’ – which is a translation of the Tupi ‘Ipiranga’, the site in São Paulo where Brazil’s independence was declared), and we are left with the impression of a famously ‘dead’ language which is very alive indeed.

South American Languages

The official language of the Inca empire, Quechua, retains its official status in its main successor states of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia – indeed, Bolivia has no fewer than 36 official languages, Peru has three and Ecuador 15. Colombia recognises something like 60 languages within its territory, Chile five and Venezuela 40. The outliers in these, as in other matters, are Suriname, Guyana and French Guyana, where Dutch, English and French are the sole official idioms.

So next time you look at the map of South America, mourn not the absent transplantation of Basque, Catalan and Galician, but rejoice in the rich linguistic tapestry that spreads between the Darién Gap and Tierra del Fuego.


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