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Indigenous Languages in Latin America 

Although Latin America is often associated with the colonial Spanish and Portuguese languages, it is a place of remarkable linguistic diversity. Hundreds of language families and more than two thousand languages have been spoken in the region. They are the product of complex historical forces, reflecting millennia of migrations and conflicts, and provide important windows into how people view the world around them. Indigenous loan words influence both the vocabulary and the pronunciation of the colonial languages. These languages are not static or only an artifact of the past, but continue to be a dynamic aspect of the present. The survival of linguistic diversity into the twenty-first century is a testimony to the continuing strength of indigenous cultures and their languages.

Quechua is the largest surviving indigenous language in the Americas, stretching across the Andean highlands from Colombia to Chile and including between 8 and 12 million speakers. The next largest is Guaraní, with between 2 and 3 million speakers in Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia. Although parts of Mesoamerica have a larger percentage of indigenous inhabitants than the Andes do, these inhabitants are divided among many more languages and hence the number of speakers of any particular language is smaller than that of Quechua or Guaraní. About thirty different Maya languages are spread throughout Guatemala, Chiapas, and the Yucatán. Since the colonial period, documents have been commonly written in Nahuatl in Mexico, which helped reinforce its importance and viability. Mapudungu, spoken by the Mapuche in southern Chile and Argentina, is also numerically important.

The rise of the Mexica (Aztec) in Mexico and Tawantinsuyu (Inca) in Peru in the fifteenth century, followed by the European conquest in the sixteenth century, began to simplify Latin America's linguistic diversity. Scores of languages disappeared as people were incorporated into centralized political systems, with local indigenous words remaining only as geographic place-names of lakes, rivers, and mountains. Spanish priests spread the dominant languages of Nahuatl, Quechua, Guaraní, and Mapudungu as lingua francas for purposes of evangelization, solidifying the usage of dominant languages but further encouraging the extinction of smaller languages. Colonial policy alternated between protecting and suppressing the use of indigenous languages. Descendants of Inca nobility led an eighteenth-century Quechua renaissance in an attempt to regain control and traditional privileges. After Túpac Amaru's 1780 uprising, the Bourbon administration intensified repression of indigenous languages. This policy accelerated after independence in the early nineteenth century, along with broader attacks on indigenous cultures and political rights.

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, indigenous languages survived largely in areas away from the gaze of centralized state structures. In the Yucatán and the Amazon, where the Mexica, Tawantinsuyu, and European empires had made little incursion, indigenous languages continued to thrive in their own communities. The Amazon is also the region of greatest linguistic diversity in Latin America, though many of the languages were spoken by a relatively small number of people. Multilingualism has long been the norm there, further contributing to its ethnolinguistic richness.

Economic domination often led to the elimination of native languages, with the colonial Spanish and Portuguese languages arriving with oppressive hacienda systems or extractive industries such as that of rubber in the rain forest. Even so, many languages continued to be spoken privately in the home. This led to a gender division, with men who worked in the wage economy gaining familiarity with Spanish or Portuguese, and women who remained at home more likely to remain monolingual in their native language.

State policies of language preservation began in the early twentieth century through the actions of sympathetic indigenista intellectuals who valorized indigenous cultures and traditions. Artists and writers began to rely on indigenous words and symbols, helping to raise their importance in the broader public consciousness. Evangelical missionary work also brought increased awareness to small and marginalized language groups. In particular, the Wycliffe Bible Translators / Summer Institute of Linguistics aggressively began to translate their Bible into multiple languages, helping to document and preserve them. Despite an overt religious agenda, their encyclopedic Ethnologue: Languages of the World came to be widely regarded for its comprehensive language listings.

Bilingual Education.
Bilingual education programs also became common in the twentieth century, often with mixed results. Early programs were commonly the projects of liberal elites and were designed to use colonial languages to assimilate indigenous peoples into the dominant culture. Since they were not consulted in the design of these programs, indigenous students felt alienated and paid little attention to the schools. Outside educators who did not understand indigenous cultures created further divisions and dissensions. Local elites opposed bilingual schools out of fear that such schools would undermine their control over a labor force. Some felt that it would be a waste of resources to educate those destined for a life of hard manual labor and would only make it more likely for them to revolt. In a continuation of conflictive thinking on language policies dating to the beginning of European colonization, elites believed that rather than teaching them Spanish or Portuguese, they should isolate indigenous peoples in their language groups, thus making it harder for them to immigrate or organize for more political rights. More successful were indigenous-initiated bilingual education programs, often grounded in a political project of solidifying indigenous languages and cultures. Out of these autonomous projects indigenous organizations, most notably in Ecuador, gained control over national bilingual education programs.

Throughout the twentieth century, politicians occasionally debated the proper role of indigenous languages in their countries. The Peruvian government's recognition in 1975 of Quechua as a national language on par with Spanish represented a significant breakthrough. This accompanied a broader project of Juan Velasco Alvarado's progressive Revolutionary government of using the armed forces to preserve indigenous cultures and values. Despite employing a team of linguists that published grammars and dictionaries of six different Quechua variations, this policy remained largely symbolic without effecting any changes to the system. Nevertheless, it helped elevate Quechua from its previous low social status. The official recognition of Quechua showed that despite what eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political leaders assumed or even desired, native languages had far from disappeared.

Though language has long been seen as a marker of ethnic identity, it has been less so in Bolivia and Paraguay. In Bolivia, even though they are not recognized as official languages, Quechua and Aymara have long been used as market languages and have been spoken by people who would not otherwise consider themselves indigenous. Similarly, in Paraguay, which is home to a small percentage of self-identified indigenous peoples, Guaraní functioned together with Spanish as a national language, although its use has been declining since the late twentieth century. Although the Chilean constitution does not recognize indigenous languages, a significant number of people continue to speak Mapudungu in the southern part of the country.

Language Revitalization.
Whereas white intellectuals previously had worked to preserve native languages, toward the end of the twentieth century indigenous writers, educators, and activists increasingly engaged in language policy discussions. Some scholars and activists began to publish writings in indigenous languages. Particularly in Maya areas in Guatemala and Chiapas, organizations such as the Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín (Francisco Marroquín Linguistic Project), the Academia de las Lenguas Mayas (ALM; Maya Languages Academy), and the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Writers' Workshop have worked since the 1970s to train indigenous peoples in linguistics and to encourage writing in those languages. Other projects advocated replacing colonial loanwords with indigenous terms, sometimes creating new words to serve this purpose. Linguists engaged in heated debates over the proper orthography to render indigenous languages in Latin script. In 1987 the ALM gained official recognition for a set of Maya orthographic standards. Another common project, especially among Quechua scholars in the Andes, was to attempt to standardize dialectical differences into one unified language that would be easier to preserve. Others contended that eliminating variations would make it more difficult for local indigenous speakers to identify with the language and would possibly undermine its preservation; there may be as much strength in diversity as in unity.

Critics had feared that globalization would further hasten the erosion of indigenous languages and cultures. In reality, globalization was both a constructive and destructive phenomenon; though it seemed to threaten to bury indigenous traditions under the dominant culture, globalization has also created a climate of increased awareness of minority languages and has provided tools to preserve them. A growing number of Latin American countries made explicit mention of indigenous languages in their constitutions, often recognizing Spanish as the official language but elevating indigenous languages to official status in the areas in which they are spoken and embracing respect for them as a part of the country's cultural heritage. These constitutional codifications reflect a growing strength and politicization of indigenous movements in Latin America.

As the population shifted in the second half of the twentieth century from rural to urban areas, indigenous speakers often quickly switched from being monolingual speakers of their native language to being monolingual speakers of Spanish or Portuguese. Activists worry that as most speakers grow older, languages will soon disappear, particularly as parents who perceive native languages to hold little economic or cultural value fail to pass them on to the next generation. Some scholars predict that during the twenty-first century 90 percent of these languages will vanish. To counter this decline, linguists concerned with language revitalization have pressed for their greater usage in various areas such as writing, music, plays, radio, television, political organizing, and education. For some, speaking an indigenous language has become an overt political act of reclaiming indigenous ethnic identities. As a younger generation of political activists draws strength from its culture and history, many indigenous languages may continue to survive and even thrive.

[See also Indigenous Movements in Latin America and Language.]
Adelaar, Willem F. H., and Pieter Muysken. The Languages of the Andes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Dixon, Robert M. W., and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, eds. The Amazonian Languages. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr., ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 15th ed. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International, 2005. First published 1951.

Klein, Harriet E. Manelis, and Louisa R. Stark, eds. South American Indian Languages: Retrospect and Prospect. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Mason, J. Alden. "The Languages of South American Indians." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward. Volume 6, Physical Anthropology, Linguistics, and Cultural Geography of South American Indians, pp.pp. 157-317. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1950.

Moseley, Christopher, and R. E. Asher, eds. Atlas of the World's Languages. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Marc Becker

Marc Becker "Indigenous Languages in Latin America" Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World. Ed. Peter N. Stearns. © Oxford University Press 2008. Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press.

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