The 2016 Olympic Games Highlight Brazil’s 180 Indigenous Languages

What is especially interesting about the 2016 Olympic Games taking place in Brazil is that both the games and the country itself represent so many unique cultures and languages. Brazil spans 3.288 million square miles and has a population exceeding 200 million. Although Portuguese is the official language, there are about 180 indigenous languages used in the country today.

Overlooking Rio de Janeiro

Why Brazil Has So Many Languages

Brazil’s vast territory is a major contributor to its large number of languages. When Brazil was first discovered, historians estimate that there were about 1,300 different languages. Diseases, enslavement, forced acculturation and poor survival conditions led to a decline in the existence of these unique tongues.

According to the Blanche Knopf Library, there are over 500,000 indigenous people living in rural communities and large urban areas of Brazil today. Historians estimate that there are 20 extinct languages, and some of the current indigenous languages were made by combining extinct ones with other dialects. There may be even more undiscovered languages since many of the indigenous settlements and their inhabitants have not yet been studied.

How Brazil’s Indigenous Languages Are Organized

As tribes expanded or disappeared, languages evolved. It is common to notice some similarities in languages that came from the same region. Languages are grouped into families, and those families belong to different trunks.

Families

Newer languages are grouped into families. Since the divisions that created these languages happened in recent centuries, the similarities are distinctly noticeable.

Tupi linguistic family tree
The Tupi linguistic family tree [Source: Instituto Socioambiental, 2009]

Trunks

Older languages with origins dating back thousands of years are grouped into trunks. Their regional similarities are very subtle.

Interesting Facts About Brazil’s Indigenous Languages

Not all of Brazil’s indigenous language families are part of trunks. Some are so unique that they cannot be logically classified. Pano, Karib, Mura, Yanoama and Txapakura are a few examples.

Tupi is one of the largest and most common language trunks. At one time, Tupi was so widely used that it was proposed as the country’s official language instead of Portuguese. Tupi-Guarani family tongues are also spoken in other countries such as Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and several others.

Nheengatu is an official language of São Gabriel da Cachoeira. This city adopted Nheengatu following its popularity resurrection in recent years, which happened after a sharp decline around 1900. The language was spoken by the majority of groups living along Brazil’s coastline about 200 years ago.

Only about 450 people speak Apalaí. This language is agglutinative, which means that a word is made up of several elements representing a different grammatical category. Its word order is a rare object-verb-subject sequence.

dessana tribesmen
Manaus, Brazil – March 8, 2015: Brazilian indigenous from the Dessana tribe show their ritual during an expedition at the Rio Negro River in the Amazon rainforest.

Guarani is the only indigenous language spoken by a large number of non-indigenous people. This Tupian language is so widely used that it is also one of Paraguay’s official languages. In 1639, a Jesuit priest who was impressed with the language’s elegance published the first Guarani grammar book.

Xavante is spoken in about 170 villages. The Xavante are a subgroup of the Ge indigenous people. They inhabit the Mato Grasso region. Xavante is especially interesting because of its object-agent-verb word order.

Brazil’s many languages have always been an important element of unification. Over the years, indigenous groups worked hard to familiarize themselves with the languages of surrounding areas and the languages of European settlers. Today, that spirit lives on. In 2015, Brazil hosted the annual Indigenous Games, which focus less on medal hierarchy and more on the celebration of culture and participation. The country’s core values of diversity appreciation, unity and the will for change inspired its “A New World” 2016 Olympic Games slogan.

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