Monday, May 12, 2014

Language Profile: Guaraní

Today we're taking a look at Guaraní, an indigenous language of South America that belongs to the Tupian language family. It is an official language in Paraguay and Bolivia, and is also spoken in communities in Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil. 

Guaraní is primarily spoken in Paraguay, where it is spoken by the majority of the population. Approximately 95% of the population of Paraguay understands Guaraní, while closer to 90% understand Spanish, the country's other official language. 

Catedral de San Lorenzo, Paraguay
It is a particularly fascinating and unique language because of its strength and historic survival. It is the only indigenous language in the Americas with a large number of non-indigenous speakers. Most other indigenous languages in the Americas gradually fell out of use and lost considerable numbers of speakers after the introduction of European colonial languages, but Guaraní has remained the dominant language in Paraguay.

There are many factors that have likely attributed to the survival of Guaraní. One important factor is that the Jesuit missionaries who tried to convert the natives to Roman Catholicism chose to use Guaraní instead of Spanish to preach to them. Paraguay's isolation from outside influences and languages throughout history due to dictatorships has also probably helped Guaraní to remain strong.

The language is written using a Latin script with 33 letters. It was first written by the Jesuit missionaries in their conversion attempts.

Due to the importance of Spanish in the area, it should come as no surprise that Guaraní contains many Spanish loanwords, especially for concepts that the natives were not familiar with prior to Spanish colonization. English also contains some loanwords from Guaraní and Tupí, a related but now extinct language, which include "jaguar" and "piranha". You can read all about them in our Tupí loanwords post.