The work of linguists

There is still much to be done when it comes to having a better knowledge of the Indigenous languages spoken in Brazil. Of the approximately 180 of them, a 1995 survey verified that:

  • 30 have a satisfactory description or documentation;
  • 114 have some kind of phonological and/or syntactic description;
  • The rest remains mostly unknown.

In the face of the threat of extinction of those languages, the role of the linguists who are specialized in them – mostly as consultants for projects of school education – is very important. Bruna Franchetto (anthropologist and linguist/ Museu Nacional/ UFRJ) writes about it:


Figures and percentages can be very eloquent when one speaks of Indigenous languages in Brazil, a country that is still multi-lingual.

In South America, Brazil is the country with the largest linguistic density – that is, genetic diversity –, and also with one of the lowest concentrations of population per language. There are some 180 languages, the majority of them spoken in the Amazon Region, for a population estimated in 350,000 individuals of 215 ethnic groups. These languages belong to 41 families, two branches and ten isolated languages, according to Aryon Rodrigues (1). The number of speakers range from a maximum of 20,000/10,000 (Guarani, Tikuna, Terena, Macuxi, Kaingang) to the fingers of one hand, when it is not the case of one last remaining speaker; but the average is of less than 200 speakers per language. The total number of languages is expected to increase with the descriptions of new languages and of languages that still have been only partially documented.

In the 1980’s, researchers from the Museu Goeldi (Goeldi Museum) of Belém discovered the last two speakers of Puruborá and re-discovered Kujubim; in 1987, Zo'e was incorporated into the Tupi-Guarani family; in 1995 an isolated group that spoke the previously unknown Canoê was found. Pierre and Françoise Grenand list 52 Amazon groups still not contacted and whose languages may reveal new genetic groupings and new additions to families and branches already established (2). Linguistic classifications are constantly altered according to the increase in the number of descriptions, of re-examinations of descriptions and of data that had already been available, and of comparisons between languages, which enables scientists to review hypothesis about the pre-History and History of Indian peoples. Numbers and classifications may also be altered as differences between dialects and languages are clarified; in this field play, in addition to our linguistic ignorance proper, ideological and political factors that are both internal and external to Indigenous peoples.

Michael Krauss made a warning to the world when he affirmed, based on a rigorous survey, that in the 21st Century 3,000 of the 6,000 languages that still exist in the planet will disappear, and, of the remaining, 2,400 will be near extinct (3). Thus only 600, or 10% of the languages spoken today, are safe; in the next century, says Ken Hale, the category ‘language’ will include only those spoken by at least 100,000 people (4). That means that 90% of the world’s languages are in danger; and at least 20% - maybe 50% - of are already dying. An agonizing language, or ‘in danger’, is typically a local, minority, language in a situation of a generation breakdown in which the parents still speak it with their parents but no longer with their children, who abandon definitely the use of the native language, which will die within a century unless something is done to revive it. Among the main factors of this kind of ‘death penalty’ is the pressure of the national, dominant languages, in situations of social-economic pressures, of assimilation through means such as education, the media (radio, TV etc.), and the sedimentation of positive attitudes for the language of the colonizer and negative for the language of the colonized. Krauss estimates that 27% of the South American languages are no longer learned by children.

Country Number of native languages Number of speakers
Argentina 14-23 169.432 a 190.732
Bolívia 35 2.786.512 a 4.848.607
Brasil 170-180 155.000 a 270.000
Chile 6 220.053 a 420.055
Colômbia 60-78 194.589 a 235.960
Equador 12-23 642.109 a 2.275.552
Guiana Francesa 6 1.650 a 2.600
Guiana 10 17.000 a 27.840
Paraguai 14-19 33.170 a 49.796
Peru 50-84 4.724.307 a 4.831.220
Suriname 5 4.600 - 4.950
Venezuela 38 52.050 a 145.230

Source: Adelaar, Willem - “The endangered problem: South America”. In: Endangered
Languages (edited by Robert Robons and Eugene Uhlenbeck), New York: St. Marin 's Press,
1991. (5)

Colette Grinevald estimates the languages in South America in more than 400, more than the rest of the Americas. They present surprising genetic variety and a large number of isolated languages, although not as vast as in other regions of the world, such as the 760 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea or the 850 currently in use in India. The genetic variety of South America (118 families), however, is comparable only to that of Papua New Guinea (6).

In Brazil

In what concerns Indigenous languages in Brazil, Aryon Rodrigues, in his work mentioned above, estimates that, at the time of the Portuguese Conquest, 1, 273 languages were spoken; thus, in 500 years, there was a loss of some 85%. That can be observed in the ethno-historical map in which Curt Nimuendajú, in the 1940’s, tried to show a panorama of the peopling of Indigenous Brazil using only the available historical documentation sources produced by the colonizers: a territory covered in all its extent with color stripes and dots indicating linguistic branches, families, groups and isolated languages spoken by countless peoples; white spaces show areas, especially along the low courses of the main rivers, that were depopulated already at the onset of colonization (7).

Luciana Storto describes the grave and significant situation of the Indigenous lands spoken in the State of Rondônia: 65% of them are under serious danger because they are spoken by few people and are no longer being used by children; 52% are not spoken by children; thus only 35% are momentarily safe (8). Many linguists who dedicate themselves to the study of these languages witness evident processes of loss. On the Upper Xingu, for example, an inter-tribal system in which genetically distinct languages are spoken side by side, there are languages still fully alive and languages nearly extinct. There are only fifty speakers of Trumai (an isolated language), and Yawalapiti (Aruak) survives with less than ten speakers in a multi-lingual village where Kuikuro (Karib) and Kamayurá (Tupi-Guarani) predominate (9). Although still healthy, the other languages of the Upper Xingu show worrisome signals: school is considered the time/space in which the language ‘of the whites’ is to be learned; the young, fascinated with anything that comes from the city, try to speak more and more Portuguese while at the same time do not maintain oral traditions. It is as if the invasion of – and the desire for – new knowledge annihilates everything that is associated with the old, with village life.

It is the great diversity that makes the losses irreversible. For linguists, these losses mean the impossibility of retracing linguistic pre-History and thus of determining the nature, the range and the boundaries of human linguistic possibilities, both in terms of structure and in terms of communication behavior or poetic expression and creativity. More serious and more complex are the consequences of linguistic losses to the Indigenous populations, who are minorities under siege. If the relationships between linguistic identity and ethnic, cultural and political identity are complex – and they are not equivalent, as the Indigenous peoples of the Brazilian Northeast demonstrate -, there are no doubts in relation to the consequences of the agony and disappearance of a language for the intellectual health, the oral traditions, the artistic forms (poetic, chants, speech), the knowledge and the ontological and cosmological perspectives of the people deprived of its mother tongue. It is certain that linguistic and cultural diversity can be equated; so, in that sense, linguistic loss is not only a local catastrophe but also a disaster for Humanity as a whole.

What do we know and how have we learned about those languages?

First data

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.

Evangelization and research

Evangelizing zeal has been, in any case, the basis of the missionary linguistic interest; today it continues to be so for the linguistic work of many missions of faith, headed by the US’s Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). These missions and their linguists, who bring with them the tragic binomial ‘to annihilate cultures, to save languages’, after doing a long study, empty out words and enunciation in Indigenous languages in order to make room for news contents, bibles and the gospel, new semantics for conquered peoples made passive under the road roller of civilizatory conversion. SIL, which doubles as a militantly evangelizing mission and a research institution, played an important role in the implementation of the research on ‘Indigenous’ Linguistics in Brazil between the end of the 1950’s and the late 1970’s. It also held, until not so long ago, a position of leadership in the Linguistics international scene (it has money for publishing and publishes in English).

Although with difficulty, lay Linguistics managed to untangle itself from the missionary perspective by documenting what is left of the diversity, and by dividing itself between the development of its descriptive and explanatory models and the application of its knowledge in favor of political projects that will make possible a worthy survival of the Indigenous languages in the face of the fascination and the power of the ‘white’s’ language in the media, in the papers, in the machines, in the schools.

A 1991 survey by Storto and Moore showed that in Brazil between eighty and one hundred Indigenous languages had had some kind of description; yet almost half of them had no documentation at all. The authors considered that 10% of the languages had a satisfactory grammatical description. At the time, there were no more than twelve PhDs in Brazil who dedicated themselves to the study of these languages, and only eight universities offered Indigenous languages in Graduate programs. SIL was then working with forty languages, and had not contributed to the formation of a single Brazilian researcher. Non-missionary linguists were studying fifty-nine languages, an increase of 36% since 1985 (10). Between 1987 and 1991, the Programa de Pesquisas Científica das Línguas Indígenas Brasileiras – Program of Scientific Research of the Brazilian Indigenous Languages – (PPCLIB) of the Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa – National Research Council – (CNPq) gave support to scholarships, field researches and intensive courses.

My own survey, made in 1995, showed the existence of some 120 researchers (80% actives; tem missionary researchers linked to Brazilian academic institutions) acting in Brazil. There had been an increase in the number of undergraduate and graduate students; SIL activities, on the other hand, seemed to be stationary. Foreign researchers were about 10% of the total: North Americans, French, Dutch, and Germans (besides evangelical missions, where North Americans are the majority). Between 1991 and 1995, there was an apparent increase of some 40% in the number of languages studied.

At that time I remarked that, of the approximately 180 Indigenous languages spoken in Brazil, it would be possible to say that just over thirty had a satisfactory documentation or description (something such as having a grammar of reference with texts and possibly a lexicon), and 114 had some kind of description of aspects of phonology and/or syntax, while the remaining continued to exist in the realm of the unknown. These numbers, approximate and provisory, included the visible results, in Brazilian institutions or published, of SIL’s work. In this sense, a tripartite classification among languages between those with no documentation, those with little (or some) and those well documented is obviously oversimplified. In the surveys made on the production of knowledge in the area called ‘Indigenous Linguistics’, in general what is being considered is not the quality of the works and analyses, but its mere existence. The quality of the linguistic documentation or description is a question that only recently has been discussed seriously, thanks to the accumulation of new knowledge and new data, to an increasing attention to the theories that are at the basis of descriptive models, to the increase in the number of researchers, to more circulation and dissemination of research and to the development of methodologies and technologies for data storage and processing.

‘Indigenous Linguistics’ in the 1990’s

Following the hegemony of the North American distributional structuralism imported by SIL, the 1990’s showed a gradual and progressive development in the area, with an interesting diversification of theoretical approaches; different patters live side by side and compete with each other, in a healthy scientific pluralism; the discussion between descriptive and theoretical research, whose goal is to insert data from Indigenous languages in the debates and confrontations of current linguistic theory, has become more mature. Historical and comparative investigation started again. Thus, for example, important results are expected from the Tupi Comparativo – Comparative Tupi – project, being undertaken by the Museu Goeldi, of the documentation of the Zo'e and the Araweté and of the meetings of linguists who specialize on Tupi-Guarani languages, of the research on the languages of the Pano family made in the Department of Linguistics of the Museu Nacional/UFRJ, of the documentation of the Yawalapiti and the Enawenê-Nawê for the Aruak family, also being carried out by the Museu Nacional, and of the studies of the Southern Karib languages (Universidade de Campinas – Unicamp - and Museu Nacional) of Northeastern Amazonia (Museu Goeldi). A fruitful exchange between Ethnology, Archaeology and Linguistics seem possible. Traditional centers of research become stronger, new ones come into the scene, experiences succeed or fail.

According to the most recent report available (11), in 1998 the number of Indigenous languages that were object of some kind of study by non-missionaries increased to around 80. There has been a slight reduction in the activities of the SIL (30 languages under study and eight projects considered concluded). It is interesting to observe the increase in the number of languages that had already been studied by missionaries and are object of renewed studies by Brazilian linguists. Thanks to the survey carried out by Lucy Seki of theses, dissertations, publications and unpublished works, it is possible to assess, at least in terms of quantity, the increase in the production of Brazilian researchers. A series of extensive and careful grammars of reference have been published, such as the Kamayurá (12) and the Tiriyó, Trumai, Karo, Apurinã, Tikuna, Kadiweu and Karitiana, among others.

In contrast, the institutional panorama, unfortunately, has had little improvement. Still according to Seki, in the end of the 1990’s, of the 66 Graduate programs in Literature and Linguistics, only twelve developed research on Indigenous languages. There is no doubt, however, that there has been an increase in the number of works focusing Indigenous languages in scientific events in Brazil; in the international events, SIL’s missionary/linguists have not dominated the scene for a while. In the specialized electronic media, new sites appear and Brazilians participate increasingly more in areas such as discussion groups, some of them created recently, such as Ling-amerindia, an initiative of researchers from Unicamp. For the first time a wealth of reasonably dependable information can be found at official and non-official sites, as well as in government and scientific publications. In short, there is a lot being done in Brazil outside the missionary universe, especially if we think about the indigence of twenty years ago. Still, a lot more remains to be done. There is an excess of partial descriptive works and a scarcity of grammars of reference. In the realms of the types of speech, of oral art, of the collection of oral traditions and of the elaboration of dictionaries there are enormous gaps, such as in the socio-linguistics studies, indispensable for understanding the many complex situations created by bi-linguism, multi-linguism and linguistic loss.

School and linguistic preservation

In the field of Indigenous languages, the linguist is a character with double identities: he or she is simultaneously a researcher and a consultant of education programs, a phonologist and a writer-of-languages-of-oral-tradition, a professor and a writer of educational material in Indigenous language. He gets the demands of NGOs, of the government and of the Indians. Involvement in (school) education programs does not mean only an exercise of application of scientific knowledge. Today, it must be based on the capacity of making a critical revision of the dominant model of the so-called ‘bilingual education’, in many cases still tied, despite its different versions, to a missionary model ideologically civilizatory and integrationist (here, again, is the legacy of SIL, which monopolized, until some twenty years ago, the so-called bilingual education in Brazil too).

On the other hand, there are Indigenous groups who have realized the ‘threat’ their languages are under and thus are interested in their revival. In such cases, it is the Indians who try to interact with linguists who can get involved in the documentation of their language. For that kind of work – documenting a language in a joint project with Indians and propose measures for its preservation or rescue –, we lack conceptual and strategic instruments. As Grinevald says in the work already mentioned here, such field linguist is like a one-person orchestra: he/she has to master all the fields of descriptive Linguistics, be familiar with the main theories that can guide his/her interpretations and explanations, know enough of a specific applied Linguistics to get involved with alphabetization processes or of linguistic revival without falling into the trap of thinking that all problems are solved in school, be able to research the language with the Indians, be sensitive and smart, and know that doing Linguistics at an Indian village is not like taking a leisure trip for a few weeks.

The Indians certainly would appreciate the efforts and initiatives that would make possible the appearance of such new researcher; ‘Indigenous’ linguistics would leave behind, once and for all, the lack of professionalism and the feeling of subordination; and society in general would learn more about a subject directly related to the preservation of a wealth that exists within it but which it ignores, or buries, in the common sense of stereotypes. (Bruna Franchetto – October, 2000).


(1) Rodrigues, Aryon D. - “Línguas Indígenas – 500 anos de descobertas e perdas”. In: Ciência Hoje, 16 (95), 1993.

(2) Grenand, Pierre e Grenand, Françoise - “Amérique Equatoriale: Grande Amazonie”. In: Situation des populations indigènes des forêts denses et humides (edited by Serge Bahuchet), Luxembourg: Office des publications officielles des communautés européennes, 1993.

(3) Krauss, Michael - “The world 's languages in crisis”. In: Language, 68, 1992.

(4) Hale, Ken - “On endangered languages and the importance of linguistic diversity”. In: Endangered Languages - Language loss and community response (edited by Lenore A. Grenoble and J. Whaley Lindsay), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

(5) Adelaar’s data may also be found in As línguas amazônicas hoje (organized by Francisco Queixalós and Odile Renault-Lescure), São Paulo: IRD/ ISA/ MPEG, 2000.

(6) Grinevald, Colette – “Language endangerment in South America: a programmatic approach”. Em: Endangered Languages - Language loss and community response (edited by Lenore A. Grenoble and J. Whaley Lindsay), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

(7) Ethno-historical map of Curt Nimuendaju (Rio de Janeiro: IBGE, 1981).

(8) Storto, Luciana - “A Report on language endangerment in Brazil”. In: Papers on Language Endangerment and the Maintenance of Linguistic Diveristy (edited by Jonathan D. Bobaljik, Rob Pensalfini and Luciana Storto), The MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, Vol. 28, 1996.

(9) Franchetto, Bruna – “Línguas e História no Alto Xingu”. In: Os povos do Alto Xingu - História e Cultura (organized by Bruna Franchetto e Michael Heckenberger), Rio de Janeiro: Editora da UFRJ, 2001.

(10) Rodrigues, Aryon D. - Línguas Brasileiras, São Paulo: Edições Loyola, 1986.

(11) Seki, Lucy - A Lingüística Indígena no Brasil, Master’s thesis, Unicamp, 1999.

(12) Seki, Lucy - Gramática Kamayurá, Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 2000.