The NY Times has a good article by Simon Romero on the indigenous language of Paraguay, Guaraní:

To this day, Paraguay remains the only country in the Americas where a majority of the population speaks one indigenous language: Guaraní. It is enshrined in the Constitution, officially giving it equal footing with the language of European conquest, Spanish. And in the streets, it is a source of national pride.
“Only 54 of nearly 12,000 schools teach Portuguese,” said Nancy Benítez, director of curriculum at the Ministry of Education, of the language of Brazil, the giant neighbor that dominates trade with Paraguay. “But every one of our schools teaches Guaraní.” …
In Paraguay, indigenous peoples account for less than 5 percent of the population. Yet Guaraní is spoken by an estimated 90 percent of Paraguayans, including many in the middle class, upper-crust presidential candidates, and even newer arrivals.

There’s a useful description of the history (“When Spain expelled the Jesuits in 1767, more than 100,000 Guaraní speakers spread throughout Paraguay”) and great quotes, some in Guaraní. I just wish I’d learned the language when I was living in Argentina and had access to native speakers. At least I have the grammar I bought in Asunción forty years ago. (Thanks, Eric and Mark!)


  1. marie-lucie says

    It helped that Paraguay was a small country and there was a substantial mass of Guaraní speakers. Canada, the US and Russia are very large land masses with very many languages and even language families. Still, it is amazing that Guaraní is not just barely hanging on but thriving, and a cherished symbol of a distinct Paraguayan identity.

  2. In Brazil at some point we had a good mass of speakers of the Tupi lingua franca, but unfortunately Portuguese managed to win. I’m so totally envious of Guarani in Paraguay.

  3. I note that the quoted NY Times article says that “In Paraguay, indigenous peoples account for less than 5 percent of the population. Yet Guaraní is spoken by an estimated 90 percent of Paraguayans”.
    To what extent, though, is Guaraní in use as an official language of (especially written) communication in Paraguay? I can’t recall ever seeing any examples of written Guaraní (indeed, the Wikipedia article on the language says that “Guaraní became a written language [only] relatively recently”).
    There are many situations in which the users of a native-but-now-minority language insist (probably quite rightly) upon the importance of the threatened language’s receiving full (written) recognition in official use.
    Is Guaraní, on the other hand, a case of a native-but-not-generally-officially-used language being so strong that its “visual” absence does not matter all that greatly?

  4. It is quite a pity that urban Yucatan people seem to have lost their Yucatan — not many places in the Americas have the potential to become a little Paraguay, and Yucatan looks like one of the most hopeful cases.
    @Boiko: This makes me sad, especially considering the accolades furriners like Stefan Zweig has laden on the heaven of harmony of races and nations. It would be more praiseworthy if all those races and nations could speak the language of its original habitants. Heard that there was some kind of Tupi revival movement, or am I exaggerating?

  5. It seems strange to say that the 93% of Paraguayans who speak Guaraní are not an indigenous people. They are descended from the pre-Columbian occupants and they speak a New World language. Their culture has changed since 1492, of course, but what culture has not? Nobody says the Navajo are not indigenous because they speak English, ride horses, weave rugs, do silversmithing, drive cars, and talk on cell phones, all cultural features they acquired directly or indirectly from people of European descent.

  6. But the Paraguayans think themselves as Europeanized mestizos, not uncultured tribals. (Whether the tribals are actually more cultured than them is another matter) I think it is this distinction that matters.

  7. I thought this might be an article about Guarini, for a moment.

  8. To this day, Paraguay remains the only country in the Americas where a majority of the population speaks one indigenous language

    Why ‘To this day Paraguay remains…’? Is there some reason we might have expected a resurgence of indigenous languages elsewhere by now? Is it simply that the statement ‘Paraguay is the only country…’ wasn’t weighty enough?

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Just to play the wet blanket for a moment, it would probably be fallacious to argue that the health of Guarani has affirmatively caused Paraguay to be poor, isolated, and badly-governed *even by South American standards*, but it’s hard to avoid the inference that these phenomena may all have some common causes. Language preservation is awesome (and I remember seeing some earlier press about how appreciative the locals were that that one US ambassador had become pretty much the only foreign diplomat in history to invest time in learning the language), but hiding out from modernity and its remorseless tendency to linguistic homogenization is not a cost-free path for a country or culture to pursue.

  10. @minus: I haven’t heard of anything so organized as to be called a “revival movement”, just a few enthusiasts (and a sizeable amount of linguistics researchers). There’s some eight thousand rural speakers in the deep North, but that’s far removed from the daily reality of the majority of Brazilians. O Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma (“The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma”) is a famous, cynical 1911 novel about a naïve nationalist who wanted (among other things) to revive Tupi as the standard language; his proposal was met with scorn and ridicule. I think today it would go the same.
    Then again, the Wilsonian idea of a “natural”, self-determined “nation” really doesn’t work for us. We aren’t one people, one culture, one nothing; and self-evident “natives”, in the way that Europeans typically think of “race”, are very much a minority. Tupi would be as foreign to most Brazilians as Portuguese was. I don’t even think the concept of “foreign” works here, everything’s mixed. We love all you guys. I just like Tupi better because I think it’s a cool language (agglutination, yay 🙂 )

  11. @Boiko: Thanks for the novel! Sounds definitely a good read.

  12. @Breffni: I would think ‘to this day’ has more the sense of ‘even at this late date in the homogenization of Latin America’.
    @J.W. Brewer: Seems to me that being poor and isolated is more likely the cause of Guarani’s health than a result. Being badly governed might also be a cause, if the government had no interest in (or capability of?) forcing the official use of Spanish. I wonder if the genocide-level deaths of the War of the Triple Alliance had an effect?

  13. Treesong: ah, that makes more sense. He means ‘to this day they’ve managed to hold out against the tide’, not ‘to this day no-one else has joined in’. Thanks.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    According to wikipedia, about a dozen other indigenous languages, many of which (at least on an anti-Greenbergian splitter approach) are not closely related to Guarani, are still spoken in Paraguay, albeit by a tiny percentage of the population. I wonder what percentage of the population spoke Guarani or its direct ancestor at the time the Spanish arrived. I also wonder if Guarani has played a role somewhat like Swahili in East Africa where first the colonial authorities and then the independent government used it to promote a common lingua franca that was separable from divisive ethnic/tribal identities without being the European conqueror’s language (although Swahili came with some baggage from Arab slave traders, of course). I believe that prior to the 19th century, the Spanish encouraged some locally dominant languages (e.g. Nahuatl in Mexico, Quechua in Peru) to be used as lingua francas in preference both to the preexisting variety of indigenous languages and in preference to complete displacement by Spanish. This (according to Nicholas Ostler, at least) did not long survive independence, where the new regimes were much more invested in promoting Spanish dominance than their supposedly less-enlightened colonial predecessors had been. Perhaps the Portuguese did something similar with Tupi in Brazil? Due to its peculiar history, Paraguay may be the place where this colonial approach to language survived. OTOH, if Kenya ever got to a point where nearly everyone was bilingual in Swahili and English but the old indigneous/tribal languages were all marginal/extinct, I’m not sure it would be entirely accurate to valorize Swahili as “indigenous” in a way that English wasn’t.
    This doesn’t mean Guarani in its current form isn’t way cool, just that it’s not necessarily some pristine archaic survival that has escaped being sullied by history.

  15. Kevin: you’re quite right, Guarani is unusual in being sufficiently well-established as Paraguay’s major spoken language that the dominance of Spanish as a written medium is not seen as a (short-term) threat to its vitality.
    In this Paraguay is quite unlike most countries in the Americas and is much more reminescent of many countries of subsaharan Africa, where the European colonizers’ language dominates as a written medium and an indigenous language dominates the country (or at least the capital) as a spoken medium: I suspect the socio-linguistic relationship of Spanish and Guarani in Paraguay is quite similar to that between (for example) English and Swahili in Kenya.
    John Cowan, I think Minus273 is quite correct. Indeed, in Western Canada there is an ethnic group of mixed European and Indian racial origin, the Métis, whose members adamantly do not consider themselves Indians/Aboriginal, despite a large number of them, perhaps a majority (of the older generation) speaking Plains Cree as their first language. I suspect most Paraguayan ‘mestizos’ (yes, mestizos and métis are cognates) have a very similar self-image.
    A late nineteenth-century armed insurrection by the Métis against the Canadian government failed: had it succeeded, I could imagine a Paraguay-like country in the Canadian prairies today as its outcome: a predominantly Plains Cree-speaking country, with French or English as the dominant written language(s), and whose inhabitants do not think of themselves as Indians.
    Breffni, Treesong: should (for example) Greenland ever break away from Denmark and become a separate country it would become another country in the Americas with a dominant aboriginal language. I think both readings –Paraguay has not been europeanized linguistically, and no other part of the Americas where an aboriginal language is dominant constitutes a separate country– are meant.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    “To this day, Paraguay remains the only country in the Americas where a majority of the population speaks one indigenous language”
    Not so, unless Greenland is excluded from “the Americas.”

  17. To what extent, though, is Guaraní in use as an official language of (especially written) communication in Paraguay?
    According to this site, Paraguay has only Spanish and English media.

  18. mollymooly says

    A. “To this day, Paraguay remains the only country in the Americas where a majority of the population speaks one indigenous language” — the copyedit problem is that the sentence is trying to say two things:
    (1) To this day, Paraguay remains a country where a majority of the population speaks one indigenous language
    (2) Paraguay is the only country in the Americas where a majority of the population speaks one indigenous language
    Could this be recast more elegantly? (5 marks)
    B. Is diglossia sustainable? (95 marks)

  19. mollymooly: better yet –
    Section 1: Language form and meaning
    A. … could this be recast more elegantly? (5 marks)
    B. How? (10 marks)
    C. Identify the nature (e.g., lexical, syntactic, pragmatic…) and source of the ambiguity. (35 marks)
    Section 2: Language and society
    D. Is diglossia sustainable? (50 marks)

  20. marie-lucie says

    Is diglossia sustainable?
    I believe so, if the right factors are present.
    The main factor in maintaining a language is that children learn it as their first language, meaning that the parents and other caregivers use it as a matter of course in talking to their children. A language learned later in school is additional, even if it becomes the main language outside the home, as long as new generations are raised in it. What has happened in most instances of language endangerment and loss is that parents had such bad experiences in schools where only the dominant language was accepted – being punished for speaking their own language and made to feel ashamed of it – that they don’t want their children to have to endure the same treatment and they decide to raise them in the dominant language. But if, as in the case of Guaranì, there is not only no shame, but even prestige in speaking the language, and it has its place in the schools, then there is no reason for children to be traumatized by also learning Spanish (it might be hard work for some, but not emotionally wrenching), and for bilingual parents to speak only Spanish to their children.

  21. Here’s Nick Nicholas’s blog post “Greek Diglossia and how it isn’t”, tracing the collapse of diglossia in Greek from the late 19th to the late 20th century.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Here’s Nick Nicholas’s blog post “Greek Diglossia and how it isn’t”,
    I found this interesting (thanks for the link), and I was struck in particular by the following remark:
    If you speak standard Greek to many a Cypriot, you may be excused as a Greece Greek, a “penpusher” (καλαμαράς, because none but a penpusher would speak standard Greek).
    This reminded me of the case of speaking Spanish in Latin America (my experience is in Chile, but probably it’s similar elsewhere) like a Madrileño, using the ceceo. You may be forgiven if you really are a Madrlleño, but non-native speakers are regarded as pretentious if they do it.

  23. > where first the colonial authorities and then the independent government used it to promote a common lingua franca
    I shouldn’t comment without checking out the history books but I heard that yes, the Jesuits were instrumental in developing and spreading our linguæ francæ, so that it would be easier to deal with the many native groups (the priests also documented the languages, and pretty well—missionarism aside, they were quite the linguists!). But subsequently the government kicked the Jesuits and actively promoted Portuguese to replace tupinambá.

  24. Minor nit: Ceceo is properly the name for the merger of /s/ and /θ/ in favor of /θ/. It is found mostly in extreme southern Spain and is looked down on as rural and uncultivated. The proper name of distinguishing /s/ and /θ/, as in the standard Spanish of Spain, is simply distinción.

  25. On looking into the matter, I find that the definition of indigenous people excludes the dominant culture of a nation-state. Nothing else can account for the claim that in Europe (outside the old Soviet Union) there are only two indigenous peoples, the Basques and the Saami. The well-known population, resident in much of its current territory long before historic times (several millennia at least), never significantly colonized or annexed by any power, and “still maintaining, at least in part, its distinct linguistic, social, and cultural organization” (per various U.N. definitions), sprawling across much of central Europe is totally ignored. Some indigenous groups are apparently just too large to be noticed, or if noticed, to count in the scheme of things.

  26. Marie-Lucie: I think that a crucial distinction in diglossic situations involves whether the H variety is an L1 or not. If it is not, then diglossia can indeed last a very long time (Latin in Medieval Europe, for example) without the L language(s) being endangered. Indeed, as the fate of Latin in Europe shows us, it is the H language that is the vulnerable one under such circumstances. I suspect Modern Standard Arabic is a similar such case today (anyone care to elaborate or confirm or refute this?)
    If the H language is an L1, however, then the dynamics are quite different. If the L language lacks prestige to such a degree that native speakers of the H variety will not acquire it, then said L language is quite vulnerable: any social change (immigration of H speakers, more fluidity in social mobility, for example) could lead to massive shift on the part of speakers of L to H.
    Athel Cornish-Bowen: what you describe sounds very similar to French in Québec: for a visiting foreigner to speak Standard (Parisian) French is of course acceptable, but for a native speaker it would seem outlandish (leaving aside singers, actors and the like) : immigrants, especially children, from the French-speaking world undergo not-so-subtle pressure to conform to local linguistic norms. Indeed I vividly remember, in high school, a boy from France who worked very hard over the course of several years to acquire a Québec accent (and succeeded quite well, as I recall).

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    John C., here’s a *slightly* less restrictive definition of indigenous from a no-doubt well-intended (if historically/geographically shaky) religious website: “Today we remember the Indigenous Peoples of Europe in our prayers. Among others, these include the Basque, Romany, Saami, Livonian, and Chukchi peoples. They were the first inhabitants of Europe, wherever they may reside, and often they were driven from their homes to make way for another civilization. Lives have been shattered and cultures lost.”

  28. Marie-Lucie: “The main factor in maintaining a language…” An excellent summing-up! I want to use that (with attribution, of course) in some coursework I have to produce soon concerning the language situation in Wales.
    Etienne: I like your points too, but could you explain, to a relatively new student in this area (although relatively old too, if you see what I mean) what H, L, and L1 stand for in this context? Diolch yn fawr!

  29. marie-lucie says

    Kevin: thanks, but there are now a number of sources you can consult on the subject. Look for “endangered languages” as well as “language maintenance” and “language revitalization”.
    A book which spurred the current interest in these topics and would still be worth reading in the British context is Nancy Dorian’s Language Death, which deals with the loss of Gaelic in a particular region of Scotland. But I am sure there are also current works on the Welsh situation.
    H = (language with) high prestige
    L = (language with) low prestige
    L1 = first language (acquired at home in early childhood)
    (similarly L2 = second language – often acquired at school)

  30. Kevin: Marie-Lucie beat me to the punch in explaining what H, L and L1 stand for, so I’ll simply say “croeso” and offer a book recommendation of my own: LANGUAGES AND THEIR TERRITORIES, by Jean Laponce. It’s a book that strongly argues that bi- or multilingualism is unstable (leading to language loss) unless different languages are dominant in different geographical areas: the relevance for Wales and the Welsh language ought to be obvious (and Laponce had French in Canada in mind when he wrote it).

  31. marie-lucie says

    I agree that there are so many different things to take into account that it is good to consult works that address different viewpoints. I have not read the Laponce book but I know that it has been very well received.

  32. Etienne: I think clearer examples are Swiss and Standard German, or Cypriot and Standard Greek, or L and H Tamil, all of which are completely stable. In the first two cases, the H language is native to a much larger group, so in no real danger of extinction: people simply see it as the written form of their own L language. H Tamil is not anyone’s native language, but it isn’t in danger of being eliminated either, at least in Tamil Nadu (Sri Lanka may be another story, I don’t know what goes on there), because even people who can’t use the H variety are very proud of it and consider it “theirs”.
    JWB: There are a bunch of officially indigenous people in the former Soviet Union, which is why I explicitly excluded it in my mini-rant above. Obviously the Romany aren’t indigenous, though they have some things in common with indigenous peoples, particularly in Romania.

  33. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The proper name of distinguishing /s/ and /θ/, as in the standard Spanish of Spain, is simply “distinción”.
    I believe you, but I’ve never heard it called that before now.

  34. John, I assume you are referring to the Germans. Given that the last time that particular group tried to assert its rights over its ancient homelands a lot of unpleasantness ensued, I’m not that surprised they get ignored. It is an interesting example of how “indigenousness” apparently is only valid if you are downtrodden.

  35. I believe you, but I’ve never heard it called that before now.
    I have the same response, and I’m going to go on calling it “ceceo,” because that (even if officially incorrect) is perfectly clear and understandable, whereas “distinción,” even if the official term, is not at all clear unless you’re in the habit of using it for that purpose. “He speaks with distinction”: come on now, that sounds like it was deliberately chosen to be as misleading as possible.

  36. Well, okay, but then what do you call actual ceceo?
    I have proposed to several Spaniards that the distinción should be called ceseo (or possibly seceo), but they usually just stare at me blankly.

  37. John Cowan: Swiss German and Cypriot Greek are indeed good examples of stable diglossia. But we must note that, *within the borders of Switzerland and Cyprus*, the H variety is not the first language of any significant number of people. And this highlights Laponce’s point about the need for a language to have a stable territory: by comparison, most dialects in Greece and in Germany are endangered, because in both countries the H variety has many native speakers.
    Kevin: re-reading you, I realize that “the language situation in Wales” is ambiguous: are you talking about present-day Wales, or the language situation throughout Welsh history?
    If the latter, then I’ve two other books to recommend: T.H. Parry-Williams’ 1923 THE ENGLISH ELEMENT IN WELSH, and Henry Lewis’ 1943 YR ELFEN LADIN YN YR IAITH GYMRAEG. The reason I recommend them both is that, comparing the Latin and the English element in Welsh (as I did, quickly), one gets the impression that the influence of English upon Welsh in the Modern Era is in many respects a “re-play” of the influence of Latin upon the British Celtic ancestor of Welsh in the days of Roman Britain.
    To my mind there is no doubt that Latin in Roman Britain was not an elite language, but one which a majority of British Celtic speakers must have spoken fluently (making the similarity with English that much greater). I think this would be worth exploring in more detail: as far as Welsh and the effects upon it of an imperial language are, I suspect NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE (to use Wales’ first imperial language) would be the conclusion…

  38. The English Element in Welsh at the Internet Archive. You can download a PDF, but it’s rather large (18 MiB).

  39. Ystefan:
    Seint dyth, in Ysl Prydain pab di llo Chomro parolaf ill llinghedig di’ll Rhufein. Eidd mullt di llo pharolant anc lla Saesonig, mai sa es certhfent rhen llinghedig imperial in ill Rheon Kemr. Yno parolant ill Brithenig anc in llo prewync’ di Ter Mair e New Castreleon (Nieuw Amsterdam) in ill Mun New.

  40. Many thanks, Marie-Lucie and Étienne.
    My immediate concern is diglossia in the Wales of today (and tomorrow), but I’m very interested too in the historic Latin/Brythonic and Welsh/English situation.
    John: I think I may have come across “The English Element in Welsh” before, but I’ll check it out again. Thanks for the tip. One of the things that particularly interests me, though, is what one might call “The Welsh Element in English”.
    I find it very hard to get the point across to fellow native-English-speaking learners of Welsh that English — or so, at least, it seems to me — resembles Welsh far more than it does, say, French (which so many learned, or at least had contact with, at school).
    A superficial resemblance of lexical items between much of French and English, contrasted with the absence in French of such features as “initial-consonant mutation” (which so terrorize so many learners of Welsh!) seems to blind them to what English and Welsh have in common, especially at the level of spoken discourse.
    Listen carefully to the soundtrack of any French film and you will soon be forced to the conclusion that spoken French differs RADICALLY from spoken English (even from written French!) in its whole linguistic “take” on reality. The dialogue in a Welsh-language film, however — once you have mastered a relatively small number of “transformational” rules reflecting the differences between the grammatical structures of the two languages — aligns itself (in my view) far, far more closely to how English-speakers would express the same ideas.
    I could go on, but I’ll give you a rest… 😉

  41. John / A Sheáin!
    Why “New Castreleon” (= Caerllion Newydd) for Nieuw Amsterdam — rather than (?) “New Castrebor” (= Caerefrog Newydd)?

  42. Castreleon is the capital of Kemr. Anyway, Yorwich is in England (the border runs along the Avon and up the Pennines to the River Ribble). Normally “ill Gran Puf” is called Nieuw (pronounced New) Amsterdam and the province is New Castreleon, but the names vary.
    Iewan Llewan / Eoghan Mac Eoghain
    (Life’s little ironies: I am “born from the yew”; my grandfather, likewise born from the yew, came from the Plain of the Yews; and I live in the New Place of the Yews. But I have never seen a specimen of Taxus baccata in my life.)

  43. Kevin: the trouble with comparing and contrasting language pairs (English-Welsh versus English-French) is that it is difficult to ‘weigh’ different factors: if English and Welsh are closer to one another than either is to French in one way (A) and English and French closer to one another than either is to Welsh in another way (B), which of the wo features, A or B, is the more important one? For that matter, what of features shared by French and Welsh which are not found in English (masculine/feminine grammatical gender, for example)?
    Also, the fact that practically all Welsh speakers are bilingual in English may blind them to many differences between the two languages: it is only after studying linguistics that I realized, for instance, how utterly unlike one another English and French are phonologically.
    Leonardo Boiko: actually, Tupinamba (Nheengatu or Lingua Geral) in the Brazilian Amazon was, until the second half of the nineteenth century, in a situation very much like that of modern-day Guarani in Paraguay: it was the dominant spoken language, with Portuguese the dominant written language. The subsequent rubber boom in Amazonia, which drew large numbers of migrants from other parts of Brazil, is what turned Portuguese there into the dominant vernacular as well. A fine example of Laponce’s point that a language needs to dominate a geographical area if it is to survive in the long run.

  44. Trond Engen says

    Is Yakut in Eastern Siberia an example of … something? A local lingua franca hijacking a colonial consolidation of a region to spread conragiously? Others? Swahili is mentioned. Twa?

  45. Alon Lischinsky says

    (Yay! Old threads open!)

    @John Cowan:

    Well, okay, but then what do you call actual ceceo?

    It might be worth mentioning that Latin American speakers do, as a majority, use ceceo to describe the Castilian distinción:

    Era también un purista de la lengua que declamaba de memoria a Cervantes con ceceos y seseos castellanos (García Márquez, Vivir para contarla)

    Pero que era realmente como algo atípico, y a veces uno se sentía más identificado con esta gente, porque efectivamente había como más vinculación no solamente desde el punto de vista de la edad, sino sobre todo el ser venezolano. Yo no sé a otras personas, pero a mí me pegaba muy fuerte la el incluso el ceceo español, en ese entonces. (CSHC-87, Interview 49, in CORDE)

    If a distinctive term of art is needed, ceceo andaluz would do (vs ceceo castellano). After all, plain ceceo is already ambiguous between the speech impediment and the dialectal feature.

  46. If the L language lacks prestige to such a degree that native speakers of the H variety will not acquire it, then said L language is quite vulnerable: any social change (immigration of H speakers, more fluidity in social mobility, for example) could lead to massive shift on the part of speakers of L to H.

    It seems Guarani is slowly gaining enough prestige to make it a desirable skill for a non-speaker to acquire, at least on the political stage. But urbanization and prejudice continue to work against it. Looks like the next few decades are crucial.

  47. Lars (the original one) says

    distinción: WP does say that the non-merger of /z/ and /s/ is ‘sometimes called’ distinción, as opposed to neutralización which is either seseo or ceceo. And the Diccionario de Dudas doesn’t mention any doubt about what ceceo means, in Spanish it only means the merger in rural Andalucian.

    But what ceceo means in English, that’s another question.

    @JC, esdrújula for your self-signifying list. And proparoxítona.

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