Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bolivian Independence Day: The Languages of Bolivia, Part 1

Today is known as Día de la Patria in Bolivia, the day when the country celebrates declaring its independence from Spain back in 1825. In honor of the holiday, we're going to take a look at all 37 of the official languages of this South American country. Yes, you read that correctly, 37 languages!

The Basilica of San Francisco in Sucre, Bolivia's capital.
The Top Four Languages

It should come as no surprise that Spanish is the most popular language in Bolivia, spoken by about 75% of the population. You can read more about the second most spoken language in the world in our language profile

Bolivia's number two language is Quechua, spoken by about 25% of the population. Quechua is also the most widely spoken indigenous language family in the Americas, and is spoken by between 8 and 10 million people in Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Historically, it was important as the lingua franca used by the Spaniards and the indigenous population after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. You may also be interested to read our post on some Quechua loanwords that have made their way into the English language. 

Number three is Aymara, an indigenous language spoken by over 16% of the Bolivian population, with over 3 million speakers in the South American countries of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. 

Guaraní comes in fourth, spoken by just under 1% of Bolivians. Interestingly, it is the only indigenous language in the Americas with a large number of non-indigenous speakers. It has nearly 5 million speakers in Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil.

Extinct Languages

Of the remaining 33 indigenous official languages listed in the Bolivian Constitution, five are now considered to be extinct. There is little information on Cayubaba, Puquina, and ToromonaCanichana, a possible language isolate, has been extinct since 2000. Guararsu'we, which is related to Guaraní, is also extinct.

Isla de la Luna in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Nearly Extinct Languages

Another six languages are not officially extinct, but at last count most had speakers numbering in the single digits. Itonama is a language isolate that at last count had five speakers, which doesn't bode well for its future. Leco is also a language isolate, with about 20 speakers near the east side of Lake Titicaca. Baure is an Arawakan language with a couple dozen speakers, while Uruchipaya had only two native speakers at last count. Maropa is also nearly extinct, as is Pacahuara, whose tribe is also in danger of extinction.

Language Isolates

Three indigenous languages of Bolivia are considered to be language isolates, languages like Basque that are unrelated to any other existing language. Bésiro, also known as Chiquitano, boasts about 8,000 speakers in the Santa Cruz province of Bolivia. Yuracaré, with about 2,600 speakers, received a grant from the Foundation for Endangered Languages back in 2005 to fund the creation of a Yuracaré-Spanish / Spanish-Yuracaré dictionary. In the Bolivian Amazon, the Movima language has just over 1,000 speakers.

Tomorrow we'll have Part 2 for you with the final 19 official languages of Bolivia.