When the Portuguese colonization of Brazil started, the language of the Tupinambá Indians (of the Tupi branch) was spoken in a large area along the Atlantic coast. Thus already in the beginning of the 16th Century Tupinambá was learned by the Portuguese, whom at the time were a minority among the Indigenous population. With time, the use of that language, called Língua Brasílica – Brasilica Language -, was intensified and eventually became so widespread that it was used by almost the entire population that was part of the Brazilian colonial system.
A large number of colonists came from Europe without women and ended up having children with Indian women, so the Língua Brasílica became the mother tongue of these offspring. In addition, the Jesuit missions incorporated that language as a tool for the catechism of the Indigenous populations. Father José de Anchieta – a major personality in the early History of Brazil – published in 1595 a grammar called Arte de Gramática da Língua mais usada na Costa do Brasil – The Art of Grammar of the Most Widely Spoken Language on the Coast of Brazil. The first catechism in Língua Brasílica was published in 1618. A 1621 manuscript contains the Jesuit dictionary Vocabulário na Língua Brasílica – Vocabulary in Língua Brasílica.
Around the second half of the 17th Century, Língua Brasílica, already considerably altered by its current usage by mission Indians and non-Indians, became known as Língua Geral – General Language. But there existed, in reality, two Línguas Gerais in colonial Brazil: the Paulista (from São Paulo) and the Amazônica (Amazonian). It was the former that has left strong marks in the Brazilian popular vocabulary still in use today (names of objects, places, animals, foods etc.), so much so that many people imagine that ‘the language of the Indians was (only) Tupi’.
Paulista General Language
The Paulista General Language had its roots on the language of the Tupi Indians of São Vicente and of the Upper Tietê River, which differed somewhat from the language spoken by the Tupinambá. In the 17th Century, it was the language spoken by the explorers of the interior of the continent, known as bandeirantes. Through them the Paulista General Langauge penetrated areas in which the Tupi-Guarani Indians had never been to, thus influencing the daily language of a great many Brazilians.
Amazonian General Language
Rooted on the language spoken by the Tupinambá Indians, this second General Language developed at first in Maranhão and Pará in the 17th and 18th centuries. Until the 19th Century, it was the language used for catechism and for Portuguese and Luso-Brazilian social and political actions. Since the end of the 19th Century the Amazonian Língua Geral is also known as Nheengatu (ie’engatú = ‘ good language’).
In spite of the many changes it has suffered, Nheengatu continues to be spoken today, especially on the Negro River basin (Uaupés and Içana rivers). Besides being the mother tongue of the local population, it still maintains the character of language of communication between Indians and non-Indians, and between Indians of different languages. It is also a tool for the ethnic assertion of peoples whose languages have been lost, such as the Baré, the Arapaço and others.