The Guaraní language is little known outside of South America, but is a fascinating language and one of the few indigenous languages to prosper post-colonisation.
You’ve likely never heard of Guaraní – few people outside of Paraguay and the surrounding area in South America have. If I asked ten people on the street what language they spoke in Paraguay, in fact, ten of them would answer ‘Spanish’, and they wouldn’t be wrong, necessarily.
They do in fact speak Spanish in Paraguay, and Spanish is one of the official languages in that country. The other official language is, of course, Guaraní, and it’s an interesting language once you start looking into it. It’s widely spoken in the geographic area but little known elsewhere outside of linguistic and translation circles, and it has a rich and interesting history and structure. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating language and some of the more interesting facts about it.
Guaraní and the Numbers
Guaraní is spoken by about 4-5 million people in the world, about 3 million of whom live in Paraguay, with the rest mainly in the adjacent geographical area in Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. It’s a descendant of the Tupian language, an indigenous language of South America, and one of the first languages encountered by the Spanish explorers and Jesuit missionaries who arrived in the 17th Century. There are about 70 languages under the Tupian banner, most still spoken in small areas today.
Guaraní, the Jesuits, and Dictators
Guaraní is unusual for indigenous languages in South America (and elsewhere) because it is actually gaining speakers from the colonial populations that have come to dominate the area. In other words, more native Spanish speakers are learning to speak Guaraní than the other way around. Guaraní, in fact, remains a lingua franca for the region, with people defaulting to Guaraní when they discover they can’t find another shared language.
Many theories exist for this situation. One has it that the Jesuits, who chose Guaraní to spread the gospel in the region as a convenience, helped shore up the language against Spanish with the same power of the church that sustained Latin over the centuries. Another speculates that the lengthy period of dictatorship in Paraguay, which closed the borders for a time and prevented outside influence, gave Guaraní a hothouse effect, allowing it to prosper and grow.
Whatever the reason, Guaraní remains today a rare example of an indigenous language that is actually prospering post-colonisation.
Grammar and Vocabulary
Guaraní has no gender and lacks a definite article, but, in one of those strangely exciting moments for a translation professional, the native speakers have begun to use the Spanish la and lo in their Guaraní sentences.
Guaraní has an interesting system of future and past expression, with two suffixes used to indicate the past (-kue) and the future (-rã). So to say someone is the former President, you would say tetã ruvichakue, and to say President-elect, you use tetã ruvicharã. Interestingly, they also use these terms to indicate degree – when combined they can imply ‘almost’, as in someone who was almost elected President.
Image courtesy Puerto Igauzú, flickr.com