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Athena Review, Vol. 1, No.3

South American Languages

Humans have been in South America for at least 12,500 years. As settlements spread along rivers and coastlines, both intermixture and isolation of South American populations occurred, with millenia of separation eventually resulting from barriers of water, rainforests, and mountains. Such ancient trends, overlain by more recent displacements of colonialism, have caused South America to contain the most diverse body of native languages on any continent. Many are now extinct, and others are mere remnants of what contact period sources such as Carvajal, reporting for the Orellana Amazon expedition in 1542, saw as very large populations.

A total of 34 language families and over a dozen isolated stocks with about 1000 individual languages have been identified in South America. This represents a high level of diversity on the level of language family compared to other continental areas. All of Africa, Asia, and Europe combined have only 21 language families, some of which have many more languages than any South American language family. In Africa, for example, a single family (Niger-Congo) contains 1436 languages, while another (Bantu) has over 1000 languages. In Europe and western Asia, meanwhile, the Indo-European family includes 425 languages, ranging from Gaelic to Hindi.

[Fig.1: Map of languages in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins (Athena Review 1,3; after Mason 1950 and SIL Ethnologue 1996).].

Based on evidence of both physical and linguistic types among Native Americans, scientists have postulated at least three major migrations into the New World, beginning over 10,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence from Monte Verde and other sites shows independently that humans have been in South America for at least twelve and a half thousand years. The relative complexity of South American languages is thus partly due to gradual isolation of many groups over long periods of time. Such diversity due to isolation is also observed in New Guinea ,which itself contains over 1000 languages in nine families within a much smaller, but similarly dissected terrain.

Yet there have also been serious classification problems in South America stemming from lack of data. Given the absence of both aboriginal writing systems and archaeological findings in many tropical forest regions, reconstructing ancestral language relations from comparisons of present languages provides both a difficult challenge, and a unique opportunity to unravel the prehistory of South America.

Many useful written sources exist from the colonial period, and highly productive work on recording extant native languages continues by ethnographers and linguists, many from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and university linguistic departments. The SIL Ethnologue (Grimes and Grimes 1996) contains up-to-date listings of both families and individual languages. Other detailed compilations will be found in Amazonian Languages (ed. R.M.W. Dixon; 1998). Earlier summaries are in Klein and Stark's 1985 volume, South American Indian Languages, based on a 1977-8 conference; and (as a starting point for later research) J. Alden Mason's detailed discussion in Vol. 6 of the Handbook of South American Indians (BAE 1950), a major ethnographic source.

History of South American Linguistics: After initial contact in Trinidad and Venezuela by Columbus' third voyage in 1498 and by Ojeda in 1499, documentation of South American languages began with simple vocabularies and place names collected from native informants, using (somewhat inconsistently) the phonological notation of the recorder's own language. During the first decades of the 16th century, such basic word lists were recorded by Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, British, and German explorers including Pigafetta (Magellan's chronicler), Sebastian Cabot, Carvajal (Orellana's chronicler) and Staden, as well as by early historians such as Peter Martyr and Oviedo.

Early in the 16th century, Jesuit and Dominican priests began keeping more systematic linguistic records. They learned the indigenous languages in order to convert natives to Catholicism and also, in some cases, wrote analytic grammars and lexicons. In the Andean region of the Inca empire, for example, Jesuit priests were required to learn the three native languages of Quechua, Aymara, and Puquina. Their emphasis on Quechua, the language of the Inca nobility, resulted in the spread of this language, which today has an estimated 7 million speakers, while Puquina became extinct (Klein and Stark 1985). In Amazonia, meanwhile, missionary work in the 17th and 18th centuries by Samuel Fritz and others resulted in relatively detailed knowledge of the Tupi languages of the Omagua and neighboring tribes. Portuguese and Dutch trading stations on the Brazil and Guiana coasts were also centers for learning languages of the Tupi, Arawak, Carib, and other coastal cultures.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, ethnographers and linguists worked in difficult field conditions to record the surviving native languages of South America. Linguists have had to accept both severe problems of missing data and the need to build up modest, small-scale correlations. The large-scale comparisons often used in historical linguistics often may not be compatible with the finer-grained empirical focus needed for studying individual languages.

The comparative method: First clearly formulated in the 19th century in the study of Indo-European languages, comparative linguistics begins by analyzing a language into its basic components of sound or phonetics; vocabulary or lexicon; meaning or semantics; and grammar or syntax. To establish a valid family relationship between two or more languages, a series of close phonological, lexical, and grammatical links must be demonstrated beyond the possibility of mere accident or borrowing (Gudschinsky 1964).

Such historic links are established when the development of one or more languages can be tied to a parent tongue by means of tracing non-borrowed innovations backward from the daughter to the parent. Swadesh (1954) devised a 200-word core vocabulary of numbers, body parts, pronouns, and geographical features, and found that an average of 80.5% of these basic words remained in use for at least 1000 years. Many linguistic studies, however, do not accept lexico-statistics as valid, because the assumption of a constant rate of change often seems contradicted by empirical data.

Following the 1996 SIL Ethnologue, major South American language families are given with related ethnographic data:

Arawakan: The most widely distributed of Amazonian language families, Arawakan includes 74 languages, divided into several subgroups including Aruan, Guahiban, Harakmbet, and Maipuran. These branches are estimated to have split from their proto-Arawakan parent between 4500 and 2500 years ago. Many Arawakan languages are now extinct, but a few survive in the former heartland region of the Amazon-Orinoco. Maipuran, once centered in the western Amazon region, by about 3000 years ago spread throughout the Caribbean Antilles. Arawakan speakers who migrated from Venezuela to the Greater Antilles are now grouped into Taino, Sub-Taino, and Lucayan dialects, first encountered by Columbus.

Tupi-Guaraní: A total of 70 Tupi-Guaraní languages are grouped into nine branches centered in southern Amazonia. In contact times numerous Tupi speakers lived along the Brazilian coast, río Paraná, and south bank of the Amazon, often serving as traders, and aggressively expanding into neighboring territories. Speakers of Tupi languages including Omagua, Cocama, Nhengatu, Potiguara, Tupinambá, and Tupinikin allied themselves as opportunity dictated with either the French, Spanish, or Portuguese. As a result, the Tupi language became the lingua franca of traders, missionaries, and soldiers such as Orellana and Fritz (Omagua), and Staden (Tupinikin and Tupinambá). Guaraní was spoken in coastal regions south of Tupi territory, and inland as far as modern Paraguay and Bolivia.

Macro-Gê: Speakers of the 32 known Macro-Gê languages are mostly in the Brazilian highlands, where their tribes were probably pushed by the northern and eastern migrations of Tupi-Guaraní groups from the Paraguay-Paraná and Amazon river areas shortly before contact. The largest subgroup, Gê-Kaingang, includes Shavante, Sherente, Acroa, Apinaye, Kayapo, Suya, Timbira, and three Kaingang dialects. One Shavante group, the Akwe-Shavante, live along the río Araguaia near the río Xingu, subsisting on maize, roots, palmito shoots, palm nuts, and turtle eggs, deer, peccary, and tapir (Mayberry-Lewis 1958). Further up the río Araguaia in central Mato Grosso are the Bororo, who subsist by hunting, gathering, and fishing, and live in both longhouses and conical huts.

Carib: Divided into two branches, with 21 Northern and 8 Southern Carib languages, most speakers are in the Guianas, Venezuela, and northern Brazil, from where Proto-Carib migrations began ca. 4500 BP. One of the largest Carib groups are the Macushi in Guiana. Initial accounts of the Carib from Columbus' first two voyages of 1492-4 described the Arawakan-speaking Taino of the Greater Antilles as living in fear of Caribs, named Canibales and Caniba. Peter Martyr referred to the Lesser Antilles as "the archipelago of the cannibals, or the Caribs," and they are shown on the la Cosa map as "Islas de Canibales". Both Columbus' third voyage (1498) and Ojeda's voyages (1499-1509) met Carib groups in northern Venezuela and Colombia. Carib villages on lower Amazon islands were also passed during Orellana's 1542 expedition .

Yanomam: Living on the upper Orinoco drainage along the border of Venezuela and Brazil, the Yanomamö number about 15,000 (Chagnon 1968). They are tropical forest hunters and agriculturalists who raise bananas, tubers, and tobacco, and have gained a reputation for fierce revenge killings and raids. Related to Yuwana in central Venezuela, Yanomam languages include Yanomamö, Yanomami, Guaica, Guaharibo, and Guajaribo.

Tucanoan: The 26 Tucanoan languages are centered in western (upper) Amazonia. Two main concentrations of Tucanoan languages (East and West) are separated by pockets of Witotoan and Carib. The Cubeo, a Tucanoan group of about 6000 in the Vaupés region of southern Colombia along the Brazilian border, are riverine fishers and manioc cultivators (Goldman 1963).

Panoan: Among 29 Panoan languages in the río Ucayali basin are Conibo, Shipibo, and Setebo, and the Cashibo, Capanawa, and Juruá-Purús branches. The Conibo and Shipibo are described by Marcoy (1869), and Herndon (1854), and Lathrap (1970).  The Sharanahua, numbering about 1000 along the río Purus in Peru and Brazil subsist on hunting, fishing with poison, and cultivation of manioc, maize, plantains and peanuts (Siskind 1973). Hallucinogens called shori are made from Ayahusca vine for vision quests.

Jívaroan: The Jívaro live in the forested foothills of the Andes in Peru and Ecuador along three tributaries of the río Santiago, and subsist on slash and burn farming of manioc and maize. Other utilized plants include cotton, fish poison, and hallucinogenic drugs for vision quests and headhunting raids. Two branches include the Candosi and the Shuar ("people") with four languages (Achuar-Shiwar, Aguaruna, Huambisa, and Shurar) spoken by up to 30,000 people. Polygyny among the Jívaro stems from a high female-to-male ratio, linked to attrition of males through revenge killings (Harner 1972).

Quechuan: Including 47 languages, Quechuan has been widely spoken in the Andean region for more than 500 years. Quechuan may have originated in northern Peru, diverging into several branches by about AD 800, with one group leading to the Inca civilization. Due to Inca conquest and Spanish colonization, by the late 16th century Quechuan became dominant in the Andean area. By 1560, the Jesuit priest Domingo de Santo Tomas completed a Spanish grammar of Quechuan and a bilingual dictionary. Today, Quechuan is the only native language extant in the Ecuadorian highlands, with at least seven million speakers in numerous dialects.

Aymaran: With about 1.5 million speakers, Aymaran (in the Jaqi family) is spoken in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, in northern Chile, and Argentina. Other Jaqi languages include Jaqaru and the extinct Kawki. Aymaran was also well documented by missionaries, starting in 1584 with a catechism written by an anonymous Aymara convert to Catholicism. By 1603 Ludovico Bertonio, a Jesuit missionary, wrote three grammars, a dictionary, and several religious works in Aymara. Ethnographic and linguistic research continues in the region.

Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego: Tehuelche, once the principal language in Patagonia, belongs to the Chon family, with the earliest word list from Magellan's chronicler Pigafetta. The Ona of Tierra del Fuego also spoke a Chon language, while the neighboring Yahgan and Alacaluf speak ungrouped isolates. Various earlier sources including Captain Fitz Roy and Charles Darwin of the Beagle provided data on now-extinct languages (Cooper 1917).

Many scholars have viewed South America as a region of both extreme linguistic diversity, and relative ignorance concerning the native languages. Without native written sources, piecing together the puzzle of the historic relations of these languages seems virtually impossible. Yet combined efforts of ethnography, historical study, and linguistic reconstruction constitute a type of New World exploration which should continue to produce major discoveries.

[The editors of Athena Review are grateful to Desmond Derbyshire, Spike Gildea, Barbara Grimes, Joseph Grimes, and David Payne for their suggestions for this article].

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