Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Brazil

In our first two Country Profiles, we looked at some of the many languages spoken in China and Indonesia. Today we're turning our focus to the languages of Brazil, the largest country in South America in terms of both population and geographical area.

Portuguese

The sole official language of Brazil is Portuguese, which belongs to the same branch of Romance languages as Galician, which is spoken in the Spanish autonomous community of Galicia just north of Portugal. Portuguese is spoken by the vast majority of Brazil's over 200 million people, perhaps even by as much as 99% of the population.

Brazil is unique in the Americas due to its status as the only Portuguese-speaking country. The language is strongly linked with the nation's identity and culture, helping to distinguish it from its many neighboring Spanish-speaking countries.

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
Given the fact that the vast Atlantic Ocean separates Portugal, the birthplace of Portuguese, from Brazil, its former colony, it should come as no surprise that the language spoken in these countries is not identical. Brazilians speak Brazilian Portuguese, which primarily differs from European Portuguese in terms of phonology. The differences between the two varieties of Portuguese are comparable to the differences between American English and British English. There are also several lexical differences between the two varieties since Brazilian Portuguese has developed separately from European Portuguese since the colonial era, including some influences from indigenous and African languages.

Despite the dominance of the Portuguese language, approximately 210 languages are spoken in Brazil, including 180 indigenous languages. However, most of these languages have very small numbers of speakers.

Co-official Languages

In recent years, a few Brazilian states have given various minority languages co-official status. Both German and Pomeranian, a German dialect, are co-official languages in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo, while Riograndenser Hunsrückisch German has this status in Rio Grande do Sul, the country's southernmost state. Likewise, Talian, a dialect of Venetian (which belongs to a different branch of the Romance language family from Italian, despite claims that it is an Italian dialect), is a co-official language in both Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina states.

A few Brazilian municipalities have also granted co-official status to indigenous languages. Guaraní, a member of the Tupian language family primarily spoken in Paraguay, is recognized in the nearby municipality of Tacuru. The city of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in northwestern Amazonas state has also officially recognized a few indigenous languages, including Nheengatu, another Tupian language.

Indigenous Languages

Most of Brazil's minority languages are indigenous languages such as Guaraní and Nheengatu. Some of the country's other prominent indigenous languages include Apalaí, a Cariban language, and Bororo, which is spoken by the Bororo people in the state of Mato Grosso. The Kaingang language is spoken by members of the southern Brazilian Kaingang ethnic group, while the Xavante language is used in approximately 170 villages in Mato Grosso. There are dozens more indigenous languages spoken by very small groups in Brazil, but unfortunately we just don't have the time to mention them all.