Bruna Franchetto (anthropologist and linguist/ Museu Nacional/ UFRJ) writes about it
The 16th Century witnessed Europe expand beyond its borders. The expansion led European scholars, many of them missionaries but some travelers as well, to immerse themselves into diversity. They enlarged linguistic horizons and began to accumulate knowledge that was registered in lists of words, grammar outlines and texts of speeches. Research began in the new worlds that fed theories and typologies, inspired either on the evolutionist schemes that were prevalent until the end of the 19th Century or on the universalism of the rationalism of the grammar philosophers that flourished in particular in the 17th Century.
While the Spanish registered almost obsessively the languages found in the territories they conquered as they moved inland in their colonies, the Portuguese concentrated on the languages spoken along the coast, where the Tupi-Guarani predominated. The documents of the first three centuries of the colonization of Brazil that have reached us are grammars and catechisms of three languages that disappeared, along with their speakers, in the same period: Tupinambá, Kariri and Manau. Old Tupi disguised itself on the Línguas Gerais – Paulista and Amazônica –, of which considerable written and missionary memory has survived.
Tupi Jesuit grammars today still generate admiration and repulsion. On one hand, the clarity and the details of the observations that allow us to appreciate the phonological and morpho-syntactic systems and process of Tupinambá and Old Tupi is fascinating. On the other hand, and at the same time, the manner in which they translate and classify the facts into categories of the Greek-Latin grammatical tradition is criticized. Indigenous languages, in any case, were consumed and transfigured – in other words, conquered – by the missionary enterprise, in writing, in the catechisms, and in the pedagogical plays in which the Christian bi-lingual (Tupi/Portuguese) combat of Good and Evil should involve Indians and whites alike, sinners from Indian villages and settlements, in the fight against the demon of paganism and in the elevation to the kingdom preached by the Conquerors. Later on, Tupi romanticism in the construction of the Brazilian nationality would show the profane face of this missionary tradition, rising up with its lyricism about death, massacre and sacrifice of entire peoples. And it is a Tupi language transfigured (and disfigured) by literature that translated into the Brazilian national imaginary a generic Indian that continues to exist in common sense, in the History taught in schools, on films and on TV programs.
Discoveries in the new worlds opened a path for Linguistics, which appeared as a science in the second half of the 19th Century comparing and classifying the known languages of the known lands and retracing their history. Brazil’s territory began to be peopled, little by little, with dozens of peoples and languages on the maps drawn by the colonization fronts moving inland. The missionary was replaced – better yet, was joined – by the studious traveler, who followed, directly or indirectly, the expeditions of conquest: Koch-Grümberg, Steinen, Capistrano de Abreu, Nimuendajú, to mention just the most important. Grammar observations, more or less systematic, were published with, or illustrated by, collections of texts and alphabetical transcriptions of pieces from the oral traditions of several Indigenous peoples. A corpus began to be formed, in general made up of descriptions, which would be transfigured once more and incorporate in the national folklore its most emblematic characters, such as Macunaíma, the trickster hero of the Karib peoples of Northern Amazonia.