‘Culture is language’: why an indigenous tongue is thriving in Paraguay

On a hillside monument in Asunción, a statue of the mythologized indigenous chief Lambaré stands alongside other great leaders from Paraguayan history.

The other historical heroes on display are of mixed ancestry, but the idea of a noble indigenous heritage is strong in Paraguay, and – uniquely in the Americas – can be expressed by most of the country’s people in an indigenous language: Paraguayan Guaraní.

“Guaraní is our culture – it’s where our roots are,” said Tomasa Cabral, a market vendor in the city.

Elsewhere in the Americas, European colonial languages are pushing native languages towards extinction, but Paraguayan Guaraní – a language descended from several indigenous tongues – remains one of the main languages of 70% of the country’s population.

And unlike other widely spoken native tongues – such as Quechua, Aymara or the Mayan languages – it is overwhelmingly spoken by non-indigenous people.

Miguel Verón, a linguist and member of the Academy of the Guaraní Language, said the language had survived partly because of the landlocked country’s geographic isolation and partly because of the “linguistic loyalty” of its people.

“The indigenous people refused to learn Spanish,” he said. “The [imperial] governors had to learn to speak Guaraní.”

But while it remains under pressure from Spanish, Paraguayan Guaraní is itself part of the threat looming over the country’s other indigenous languages.

Paraguay’s 19 surviving indigenous groups each have their own tongue, but six of them are listed by Unesco as severely or critically endangered. One language, Guaná, has just a handful of speakers left.

Read more: The Guardian

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