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More than Words

About 700 languages are spoken in Latin America – their continued existence is threatened. Linguistics professor Uli Reich studies the diversity and richness of the languages of indigenous peoples in this area.

May 15, 2019

Jaguar, piranha, açaí – all of these are words that originally entered English from South America. They are borrowed from Guaraní, one of several hundred indigenous languages that are still spoken today by millions in Latin America.

A tribal chieftain in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu communicates using signs drawn in the sand. Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, more than one-third are viewed as endangered.

A tribal chieftain in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu communicates using signs drawn in the sand. Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, more than one-third are viewed as endangered.
Image Credit: Laszlo Mates / Shutterstock.com

The diversity and threatened status of these languages was one of the areas of focus at the 22nd Conference of German Hispanists, held in late March, which drew more than 600 scholars and researchers and prominent Spanish-language writers to Freie Universität Berlin.

“Due to political decisions, many indigenous cultures in Latin America – in Brazil and Colombia, for example – are currently under threat, which means their languages are threatened as well,” says Uli Reich, a professor of linguistics at the Institute of Romance Languages and Literatures at Freie Universität. “Our goal is to make those languages visible and point out how varied and valuable linguistic diversity is to a community’s identity.”

Many Indigenous Languages Disappeared

When the Spanish and Portuguese came to South America as conquerors in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were an estimated 2,000 different indigenous languages. Records show that many have disappeared since then. Today, there are about 700 left, around 170 of them in Brazil alone. Reich says the world community must not allow them to continue to die out. He says, “Languages are much more than just words. They carry a community’s identity, culture, and world view. They offer us a window onto other worlds.” The United Nations is aware of that, too; the organization has declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages.

Some indigenous languages have coexisted with Spanish in Latin America for centuries now. They include Quechua, which is spoken by about ten million people throughout the central Andes. On the other hand, there are also the languages of smaller groups living in areas so remote that they have little to no contact with the outside world – the Amazon, for example.

Not long ago, the Brazilian government agency for indigenous affairs, FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio) put in place new rules on signage and protection for these groups’ territory. The policies pursued by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been in office since January 2019, have worsened the situation: Bolsonaro assigned responsibility for these areas to the agriculture ministry, which maintains close ties with the interests of industrial agribusiness. There are plans to open up certain protected areas to mining and agriculture; the Raposa Serra do Sol region is currently chief among them.

Home Territories Fall Victim to Agriculture

Brazil is Latin America’s largest exporter of meat. Rain forests are being cleared on a vast scale to raise livestock and grow soybeans. “We are very worried that not long from now, there will be practically no protected areas left for indigenous peoples,” Reich says. When these groups are driven from their home territories, there is a threat that they will be dispersed. Some adopt a nomadic lifestyle, while some end up living in poverty in the big cities. “First people lose their place to live, then their culture and language.”

In Colombia, too, indigenous groups face threats from many sides. Alongside businesses with a financial interest in land, wood, and raw materials, drug cartels and the military are also pushing into their refuges.

There are some positive developments. In Bolivia, the situation of indigenous peoples has fundamentally improved since the election of Evo Morales, who is a member of the Aymara people himself. The Bolivian constitution now stipulates that the country is an intercultural state with 37 official languages and guarantees its indigenous groups protection and the right to self-determination. In Paraguay, too, Guaraní is the second official language and enjoys equal status with Spanish.

Project participant Gabriel Barreto (right) records a monolingual Quechua speaker in Huantar, Peru.

Project participant Gabriel Barreto (right) records a monolingual Quechua speaker in Huantar, Peru.
Image Credit: Uli Reich

Scholars of linguistics encounter previously unknown phenomena time and again when working with indigenous languages. “Languages spoken by smaller groups are often very complex,” Reich says. In Central America and the Amazon, for example, there are many tonal languages, in which – unlike in English – people use tone to communicate with each other. Depending on whether a sound is pronounced in a “high” or “low” tone, the meaning of the word can change.

Languages Broaden Our Perspective on the World

Many indigenous languages are also extremely complex in terms of morphology. For example, many concepts that would require a whole sentence to express in English can be stated in a single word by adding a chain of grammatical endings after the root word.

As one example, if two men are talking and one of them thinks the other had gone to the movies with his wife the night before, the person who has been to the movies can correct the impression by saying, “I went to the movies with my grandma.” Emphasizing the word “grandma” puts an accent on the sentence. In Quechua, by contrast, this sense of correction of an alternative assumption is expressed through the endings added on to a word. “There are always things in other languages that we express differently from in our own, or not at all,” Reich says. “Part of studying a language is broadening your own perspectives on the world.”

Communication Games in Linguistics

Reich traveled to the Peruvian Andes for his study of Quechua. Together with Raúl Bendezú and Timo Buchholz, he developed methods in order to study the structure of the language in concrete contexts. Take communication games, for example: To spark a conflict of information in study participants, the researchers developed card games with built-in errors. The participants are tasked with explaining the cards to each other.

These communication games are currently being adopted by Latin American linguists and used to gather comparable data from countries such as Paraguay, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile. The plan is to collect the results at Freie Universität Berlin and analyze and interpret them in cooperation with local researchers, with the goal of making them available online to experts all over the world.

Reich’s Objective: A Theory of the World’s Languages

“Linguistics has traditionally been based on European languages,” Reich says. In his work, however, he has seen over and over again that the grammatical categories offered by this basis are not adequate to describe indigenous languages. “My goal is to develop a theory that explains not just Spanish or English, but all the world’s languages.”

In South America, there are many places where there has been a wealth of mixing between Spanish and indigenous languages, such as Guaraní. In Paraguay, for example, young people use a combination to communicate via social media like Facebook and WhatsApp. The two languages are combining to form a whole new language in its own right – one whose words might even be borrowed into English one day.

Link to the German version