When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil five centuries ago, they encountered a fundamental problem: the indigenous peoples they conquered spoke more than 700 languages. Rising to the challenge, the Jesuit priests accompanying them concocted a mixture of Indian, Portuguese and African words they called “língua geral,” or the “general language,” and imposed it on their colonial subjects.
Elsewhere in Brazil, língua geral as a living, spoken tongue died off long ago. But in this remote and neglected corner of the Amazon where Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela meet, the language has not only managed to survive, it has made a remarkable comeback in recent years.
“Linguists talk of moribund languages that are going to die, but this is one that is being revitalized by new blood,” said José Ribamar Bessa Freire, author of “River of Babel: A Linguistic History of the Amazon” and a native of the region. “Though it was originally brought to the Amazon to make the colonial process viable, tribes that have lost their own mother tongue are now taking refuge in língua geral and making it an element of their identity,” he said.
Two years ago, in fact, Nheengatú, as the 30,000 or so speakers of língua geral call their language, reached a milestone. By vote of the local council, São Gabriel da Cachoeira became the only municipality in Brazil to recognize a language other than Portuguese as official, conferring that status on língua geral and two local Indian tongues.
As a result, Nheengatú, which is pronounced neen-gah-TOO and means “good talk,” is now a language that is permitted to be taught in local schools, spoken in courts and used in government documents. People who can speak língua geral have seen their value on the job market rise and are now being hired as interpreters, teachers and public health aides.
The article goes on to give more of the history of the language and report on opposition by elements of the military. (I can find no trace of “River of Babel: A Linguistic History of the Amazon,” but maybe that’s a translation of a Portuguese title. And of course “neen-gah-TOO” is a ridiculous attempt at indicating the pronunciation of the first syllable, but you know what? I give up. They can tell people to pronounce it SPIN-ach for all I care.)