In South America the dominance of the colonial European languages of Spanish and Portuguese is a trait that runs right through the continent, from Mexico in the north, to the Spanish Argentine speakers of Patagonia in the south. There are however, some exceptions to the rule, and perhaps none as startling as Paraguay’s claim to legal bilingual status, where unheard of percentages of the population still speak the indigenous tongue of Guaraní, alongside the Paraguayan Spanish that gained popularity after the Spanish colonisation of the Americas.
In fact, linguists list Paraguay as one of the great ‘language anomalies’ of the world, where not only do droves of the population still make use of the pre-colonial Guaraní tongue, but many are bilingual with Spanish as well. In Paraguay there are actually more speakers of native Guaraní than there are of Paraguayan Spanish; around 87% speak the latter, while more than 90% of the population are fluent in the former. Compare that to the isolated tribal languages that still exist in probably what is South America’s most diverse of lingual nations, Peru. Here hundreds of indigenous languages still exist, and are even recognised legally, but are spoken only in small pockets where tribal tradition and culture still survives. This is simply not the case in Paraguay, where the indigenous language post-colonisation, still remains the most widely spoken tongue in the land.
So, where does Guaraní come from and how has it survived so well where other indigenous languages have perished in the face of colonialism? Well, for starters, when the Spanish Jesuit missionaries made their way into central South America and the jungles of Paraguay, they saw great advantages in designating Guaraní as the language of choice to preach the Catholic gospels to the indigenous people. Without the often lengthy interim period required to switch the native population’s language to Spanish, the missionary’s proselytising was much more efficient and encompassing. What’s more, the political arrangement of Paraguay’s government that saw it isolated from many of its neighbours, international migration and globalisation in the early and middle of the 20th century, meant that any outside influences were stemmed and so cultural assimilation with post-colonial forces was slowed considerably.
Originally the Guaraní language was a symbol of ethnicity and characterised the identity of those living in the area we know today as Paraguay. The proliferation of the language, tribal customs and religious belief that are associated with such identity is testified to by the prominence of Guaraní speakers in Argentina and also in Brazil to the north. However these sporadic Guaraní tribal groups are not as significant portions of the populations in these countries as they are in Paraguay, and it is here that Guaraní claims its place as one of the last surviving and thriving of South American indigenous national languages.
In fact, with the prevalence of Guaraní speakers already established in Paraguay, the main difficulties to the continuation of the native culture and language has been not in the expected diminishing influence of colonial Spain, but rather in the hard road to independence that Paraguay has had to transverse in the centuries after independence. In 1864 Paraguay went to war with the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, in a bloody contest that was came to be known as the Ñorairõ Guazú (the Great War) in Guaraní, for good reason. The conflict left Paraguay devastated, and killed up to 70% of the indigenous population. This was not only a great blow to Paraguayan society as a whole, but left the number of Guaraní speaking peoples reduced greatly and now more prone to foreign influences that brought with them Spanish language dominance.
However, Guaraní survived, and in grand style. In fact, today a whole social identity has been extrapolated from the linguistic distinction that is offered by the prevalence of a native tongue. Guaraní cuisine, Guaraní traditions, Guaraní folklore, Guaraní dance and poetry all thrive as separate from the post-colonial remnants of Spanish rule.
While the future of the Guaraní language in Paraguay remains unclear, as more and more people become either bilingual with Spanish, or speakers of the amalgamated language hybrid of Guaraní and Spanish that has become more popular in the 20th and 21st centuries, the proliferation of the tongue is nonetheless a really interesting anomaly in a continent so swayed as this by foreign lingual influence.
Aside from native Guaraní, as many as 50,000 Paraguayans still speak another native tongue fluently, and while many of these are bilingual in either this or Paraguayan Spanish, the existence of such a diverse range of languages, is testimony to Paraguay’s place in the heart of the continent of South America.