In their most recent survey of indigenous Brazilian languages, Unesco counted 190 endangered languages in the country, out of a total of at least 274. That means that up to two thirds of the current surviving indigenous languages, just inside the Brazilian border, could disappear within the next couple of decades.
Some of these languages only have a handful of living speakers. The method the organization uses to qualify a language as endangered takes into consideration the absolute number of speakers, their proportion in relation to the rest of the country’s population, if and how the language is transmitted generationally, the value that its speakers put on the language, how it is documented and how well, if it is used by the media (any media) and if there are existing materials for teaching the language and it’s alphabet.
The Atlas, which currently has a total count of 2,464 languages and can be found on their website, lists Brazil as the country with the second highest number of endangered indigenous languages. The United States of America has the highest.
In an explanation about the seriousness of the death of a language, linguist Angel Corbera Mori, from the Institue of Language Studies in the Unicamp university in São Paulo says this: “If a language is lost, that culture also loses their medicine, their culinary, their stories and their traditional knowledge. Included within the language is the matter of identity and of the knowledge of nature; the plants and the animals.”
It is estimated that before Portuguese colonization there were 1.1 thousand languages spoken in Brazil, most of which disappeared through the centuries. During the colonial period, jesuits began to use the Tupi language as a general language, since it was the mother language to so many different dialects. The Portuguese crown saw this as a threat to their sovereignty and prohibited Tupi (and later all other indigenous languages). Those who disobeyed the prohibition were punished. This law, though, went on beyond the colonial period, and many of the democratic (and military) governments had similar prohibitions put on indigenous languages. Corbera says that only after the redemocratization of the country in 1988 was the situation effectively improved.
The main threats to languages nowadays is no longer prohibition but land invasions. “Preservation policies and language documentation are important, but they are useless if these populations are kicked out of their lands and have nowhere to live and practice their culture”, says Corbera.
(Pictured: the last remaining speakers of Warazú, the language of the Warazúkwe people)