In spite of having only Portuguese as its official language, over 150 indigenous languages are spoken in Brazil—five of which by more than 10 thousand speakers, according to data from the 2010 census, conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). The survey takes into consideration people aged five and older who use their language at home. The study revealed that the languages with the highest number of speakers in the country are Tikuna (35 thousand), Guarani Kaiowá (26.5 thousand), Kaingang (22 thousand), Xavante (13.3 thousand) and Yanomami (12.7 thousand).
Of these, three—Tikuna, Guarani Kaiowá, and Yanomami—are spoken by more people than the census could survey, as many of their speakers live in neighboring countries, like Paraguay, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Seven other languages are spoken by more than 5 thousand people in Brazil: Guajajara (9.5 thousand), Sateré-Mawé (8.9 thousand), Terena (8.2 thousand), Nheengatu or Amazonian General Language (7.2 thousand), Tukano (7.1 thousand), Kayapó (6.2 thousand), and Makuxi (5.8 thousand). If Guarani Nhandeva (5.4 thousand speakers) and Guarani Mbya (5.4 thousand) are not seen as dialects of Kariowá, but rather as two independent languages, this figure adds up to nine.
Ascertaining just how many languages there are in Brazil is by no means an easy task, as it depends on the criteria adopted to establish the difference between languages and dialects of the same language. Linguist Wilmar da Rocha D'Angelis, from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) estimates between 150 and 160 living native languages in Brazil today.
According to Ethnologue.com, a database with languages spoken around the globe, 170 indigenous languages are spoken in Brazil. The Laboratory of Indigenous Languages and Literatures at the University of Brasília (UnB), in turn, names 199 languages.
Brazil is home to at least two large language families: Tupi and Macro-Jê. Language families are the broadest unit in which related languages can be classified.
Languages from the same family may show significant differences between themselves. Portuguese, for instance, belongs to the Indo-European language family—as do Hindi, spoken in India; and Kurdish, spoken in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
In addition to a number of related tongues that do not belong to those larger families—like Aruak, Karib, Pano, and Tukano—there are also language isolates—like Tikuna, one of the most well-known indigenous languages of Brazil—to which no other language in the world is thought to be related.
“The shape of [South America] favored the entry of several migration waves from the north, but, more importantly, it also blocked their exit. This turned America into some sort of language laboratory, about which there's still a lot to be learned,” D'Angelis argues.
The scientist further mentioned some oddities detected amid the linguistic variety of Brazil, like the sign language of the Urubu Kaapor, the whistled language of speakers of Pirahã, and tonal languages (in which different tones are used to distinguish between meanings), like Tikuna and Suruí.
D'Angelis also pointed out that some linguistic facts were first observed in South American languages, like the existence, in several Tupi-Guarani languages, of two first person plural forms: one which includes the interlocutor and another which does not.
“It's worth noting that many studies about the indigenous languages of Brazil and a number of Brazilian researchers are often referred to in theoretical discussions about linguistics, although few of them work on the development of linguistic theories from new facts and challenges presented through the knowledge of indigenous languages,” he said.
Brazil is running the risk of losing a third of its indigenous languages in 15 years' time, says José Carlos Levinho, director of the Indian's Museum. Up to 2030, he claims, 45 to 60 languages are likely to die out.
“A considerable number of peoples, also in the Amazon, have no more than five or six speakers. Thirty percent [of the languages] of the nearly 200 peoples are running the risk of disappearing in the next ten or 15 years, because there are few individuals in condition to speak that language,” Levinho says.
He goes on to say that, ever since the museum started documenting the languages of the original nations—as part of a project called Prodoclin, launched in 2008—researchers witnessed the death of two languages: Apiaká and Umutina.
“There's also the situation of [languages spoken] by groups of people with a large number of speakers over 40 years old, in which the youth, on the other hand, do not speak the language and are not interested in keeping it alive. So there's no way of reproducing and preserving the language. It's a rather dramatic scenario. It's part of a heritage that belongs to the whole world, not just to the Brazilian community,” Levinho remarked.
Researcher D'Ángelis notes that nearly a thousand indigenous languages became extinct in the past 500 years in the country. “In the vast majority of cases, the extinction took place alongside the extinction of the community of speakers itself,” he says.
He believes that the greatest risk faced by native languages no longer lies in the extermination of their communities. “Despite the institutionalized violence, with genocide still present, in areas like Mato Grosso do Sul, Rondônia, and parts of the Amazon, the death of minor languages in present-day Brazil does not depend on the extermination of the speakers. Such factors as education, labor, social programs, and the coming of television in every village have made a considerable impact.”
Experts and indigenous people heard by Agência Brasil agree that these endangered languages, which took centuries to reach their present state, are crucial to the preservation of other kinds of cultural expression.
Glauber Romling da Silva, a scholar in the museum's language documentation project, compares the loss of a language to the extinction of an animal species: “By keeping a language alive, you're also preserving the traditions and whatever else comes along with it. The risk of language extinction is often not just a linguistic danger. Sometimes the language is vivid enough, but its formal style, its songs—the cultural elements surrounding it—die out quickly. It can all disappear from one generation to the next,” he claims.
In the view of Isaís Pereira, director at the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Negro River, in the state of Amazonas, when an indigenous person stops speaking their own tongue, an important part of their culture is lost. “We've been losing our own culture ever since Brazil was discovered and started to be colonized. We must fight in order to keep our own culture and our own tongue alive.”
Translated by Fabrício Ferreira