Today’s NY Times has an article by Larry Rohter on a 17th-century language still spoken in a remote corner of Brazil, língua geral or Nheengatú (Ethnologue: Nhengatu).

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.)


  1. I was about to e-mail you about that mytho-phonetic rendering.

  2. So Esperanto has maybe four more centuries to go before it, too, will be fully embraced as a native language by steadily multiplying remote communities in Europe?

  3. I must disagree with the NWT article. NHEENGATU is a tupi guarani language. Portuguese priests developed a writting for this language based on portuguese fonetics and grammar as NHEENGATU was only oral, not written.
    Tupí guaraní was a language spread from Caribe to Argentina. It is still the most frequent language in Paraguay. Tribal guaraní is spoken by Chiriguanos, Tapietes, PaîTavyterâs, Avakatuetes and Guayakis and belongs belongs to the arawak family.
    Jagua oñarõ jepéro, ndoporosu’uvéima
    A barking dog does not bite.

  4. Without any knowledge of the subject, I did immediately associate the story with the myth of Shakespearean English in Appalachia. Simarillion’s comments seem to establish this as another case. Any more information or opinions out there?

  5. Just another mistake in NYT.
    The”Misiones Jesuíticas” were established in the borderline between the bolivian, brazilian, paraguayan and argentinian actual territory. So it is highly improbable that missionaries as shown in Jeremy Irons movie had spoken Nheengatú.
    The ruins of São Miguel das Missões in Brazil, and those of San Ignacio Miní, Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto and Santa María la Mayor in Argentina, lie at the heart of a tropical forest. They are the impressive remains of five Jesuit missions, built in the land of the Guaranis during the 17th and 18th centuries. Each is characterized by a specific layout and a different state of conservation.

  6. Thanks!

  7. Alain Fabre 2005- Diccionario etnolingüístico y guía bibliográfica de los pueblos indígenas
    sudamericanos. TUPI

  8. OT, but Braudel wrote a fascinating essay about his experience of the Brazilian boonies (near the Amazon). Os Sertaos (tr. Rebellion in the Backlands) is a fascinating story about a religiously-based rebellion in the XIXc Brazilian bush. Sort of a backwater of history, but far more interesting than most of the mainline stuff.

  9. silmarillion says

    A guerra dos canudos also is central theme in Mario Vargas Llosa novel “La guerra del fin del mundo”.
    On Antonio Conselheiro an Nova Jerusalem,

  10. For the record, the Braudel essay and Os Sertaoes are two different things.

  11. Parabéns!
    Gustavo Dourado

  12. H.G. Bergmann says

    The 05 September 2005 edition of “The New York Times” devoted an article to the subject entitled “A Colonial Language Resurfaces”.

  13. Roberto Brandão says

    I am very pleased to read this article! Unfortunately, this very interesting subject, i.e., that Brazil had another language, is unknown to most Brazilians.

  14. chiacanosoma says

    For the record the tupi guarani language ñengatu, means “an easier language to be understood”. The Jesuitas misioneros where stablish also in Colombia at the amazonian region, that is to say five states. The Ñengatu language has being replaced by Tukano which is the lengua general used these days.
    By the way, the enormous damage made by any religious institution to the Amazonian region it is somenthing we, no indigenous pople, should lament!

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